What makes us humans

Hands (Leonardo)The Journal of Anthropological Sciences is now publishing the papers from the meeting “What Made Us Humans“, that took place in Erice on October 2014. The volume is edited by Telmo Pievani, Stefano Parmigiani and Ian Tattersall, and it includes contributions by Thomas Plummer, Dean Falk, Philip Lieberman, Jeffrey Schwartz, William Harcourt Smith, and many others. There is a section on brain and cognition, in which we publish a review on visuospatial functions and fossils. In this paper we discuss topics in extended cognition and embodiment, presenting the available sources of information from fossil anatomy: brain morphology, manipulative behaviors, and hand evolution. Modern humans displayed changes in all these traits, suggesting that differences in visuospatial integration processes may have been associated with changes of the embodying capacity, leading to derived and probably specialized relationships between brain, body, and environment. This article is a further reference on visuospatial integration and cognitive archaeology. All papers from this JASs volume are, as usually, free to download.


Mounier et al 2016Paleoneurology is rarely used to test taxonomic or phylogenetic hypotheses, at least for three reasons. First, the biology and variation of many endocranial traits are not even known for living humans. Second, plesiomorph traits, parallelisms, large intra-specific variability, and subtle inter-specific differences, make this issue very difficult to test through robust quantitative approaches. Third, the paucity and fragmentation of the fossil record often hamper meaningful statistical inferences. Of course these same problems concern many other anatomical districts, and that’s why probably morphology is not always recommended as a good and reliable source of taxonomic and phylogenetic information. Despite these limits, Aurelién Mounier and his coauthors have now tried to apply cladistics to paleoneurology, taking into consideration neurocranial and endocranial traits. According to their results, at least modern humans and Neandertals can be properly characterized in terms of braincase morphology, suggesting the existence of an actual phylogenetic signal behind the patterns of endocranial variation.

Precuneus and chimps

Bruner et al 2016 - Brain Structure and FunctionWe modern humans have larger parietal bones and large parietal lobes when compared with extinct human species and living apes. We also have an ontogenetic parietal bulging stage, a stage which is absent in apes and Neandertals. Interestingly, a main factor of variability in our brain morphology is the size of the precuneus, in terms of proportions and cortical surface area. Now we have compared human and chimp brains, and here it goes again: the main difference is a much larger precuneus in our species. It doesn’t look like an allometric issue, being possibly associated with that bulging stage specific of modern humans, and even absent in large-brained Neandertals. The precuneus is essential in visuospatial integration, coordinating brain, body, and environment, and bridging the somatosensorial experience with simulation and self-awareness. It is a key element to integrate space, time, and  social perception. It is also worth noting that parietal lobes are particularly vascularized in our species, and the precuneus is a high-metabolic and heat-accumulating element. This may be interesting when considering that it suffers early metabolic impairments in Alzheimer’s disease, a pathology particularly associated with our species. The precuneus is also a central hub of the default mode network. Interestingly, at least in adult modern humans the size of the parietal lobes is inversely correlated with the size of the frontal and temporal lobes, introducing some phylogenetic issues on the evolution of the fronto-parietal system.

For a long time we have been looking for subtle differences between human and ape brain. This one looks not that subtle. Any functional or histological change behind this expansion, at inter-specific and intra-specific level, is still to be investigated. But most of all, it remains to be established the nature of such morphological variations. Genetic factors and selective processes cannot be excluded, but these areas are also particularly sensitive to environmental influences, including training and cultural effects.


Gomez-Robles et al 2015Brain evolution involves changes in size and morphology, but also changes in the capacity to be changed. Plasticity refers to the range of phenotypic variation allowed within a given genetic structure. Environment is a major factor influencing the phenotypic expression, and we humans have a special additional environmental component called “culture”. The ecological, cultural, and social niches, shape each others, with dynamics which are far from being understood. Aida Gómez-Robles and colleagues have now published a morphological analysis of human and chimp brain, taking into consideration heritability. In both species cranial capacity is highly heritable, more for humans than for chimps. Also the general dimensions of the main brain areas show in both species an apparent genetic component. The situation is different when dealing with sulcal morphology, which are still heritable for chimps but not that much for humans. This means that brain morphology in chimps has a stricter genetic program, while humans are more sensitive to non-genetic factors and individual responses. Environmental influences are supposed to be the key, mostly when considering the altricial condition and heterochronic changes associated with the human brain growth and development. In a recent review on the evolution of visuospatial integration with Atsushi Iriki we focused on the necessity to understand to what extent brain changes associated with human evolution are due to genetic, epigenetic or environmental factors. We pointed to the sensitivity of the brain to be “trained” through feedbacks between biology and culture as a crucial variable targeted by selection. This new study stresses further the possibility that selection can act on the capacity to change, more than on the change itself.

Diploic veins

Rangel de Lazaro et al 2015Diploic channels run within the vault bones, and are therefore protected from external agents. This condition makes them an interesting topic in paleontology, archaeology, and forensics. At the same time, such secluded position has hampered detailed studies on their morphology, variations, and functions. In 1999 Hershkovitz and colleagues published a first pioneering survey on these “elusive” anatomical elements. This week we publish a segmentation procedure to visualize these channels after computed tomography, applying this method to modern humans and Neandertals. The diploic network displays a marked individual variability. It is frequently connected with the meningeal system at the pteric area, and with the emissary and venous systems at the occipital area. As for the meningeal arteries, also the diploic vasculature is apparently more complex in modern humans than in other hominids, mostly at the parietal area. Taking into account the large size of the parietal lobes and bones of our species, it is likely that such vascular development can be associated with metabolic and thermal functions. Beyond the large diploic channels, this vascular system counts with a widespread network of microvessels, which should be carefully investigated in the future.


Fan et al 2015 (Curr Biol)The skull has represented, since ever, a crystal ball to investigate history and geography of past and present human populations. Considering the reciprocal influences between brain and braincase, we can wonder whether the brain can also provide traces of that long run. It looks like it does, according to a recent study which evidences a correlation between cortical patterns and genetic ancestry. It seems not a matter of size or surface area, but of cortical organization and sulcal geometry. If confirmed, these results are extremely interesting. Taking into account these differences among human groups, the authors of the study cast some doubts on the possibility to obtain robust information from fossil species, questioning the relationships between brain shape changes and specific volumetric variations of the brain districts. I must confess I can’t really see an antagonistic relationship between these results and the paleoneurological data. Intra-specific and inter-specific variations do not necessarily undergo the same rules and patterns. Most importantly, paleoneurological evidence is also aimed at considering specific changes of surface and volume proportions, beyond sulcal appearance. And, as recently described for the precuneus, larger size of a brain element may generally mean larger cortex of that element. Brain and braincase share a lot of morphogenetic mechanisms, but of course they are also influenced by independent factors. Their boundaries may vary according to different rules, but the intimate relationships between their respective surfaces allow at least a gross quantification of spatial organization, volumetric changes, and relative proportions among brain areas. We know that morphological changes as shown on endocasts are only a part of the story, and we know they are not always associated with neural (or even cognitive) changes. But reductionists approaches should be avoided in any fields, including genetics or neuroimaging, not only in paleoneurology. Conversely, a genetic signal on the sulcal pattern may promote further interest in brain shape variation. Last but not least, the study seems to support, rather than contradict, the information available from bones: it turns out that the conclusions of the analysis match the results of the Howells‘ craniometric studies. Good.


Scott et al 2014After shape analysis of the endocranial growth and development in modern humans, chimps, and Neandertals, the team from the Max Planck Institute has published a study on apes endocranial ontogeny. In their former articles they evidenced a shared trajectory of form change in humans and chimps. The only exception is the “globularization stage” in modern humans, an early postnatal stage associated with parietal and cerebellar enlargement. This study now includes also gorillas, orangs, and gibbons, confirming that after eruption of the deciduous dentition all hominoids share a similar pattern of form variation. Differences among species are largely a matter of degree of change, but within a shared set of rules. This implies that most of the observed differences among their endocranial forms take place before, in prenatal stages.

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