Our Ancestors’ Brains Stayed Surprisingly Ape-Like Until Relatively Recently

The modern human brain is a defining feature that sets us apart from our great sister relatives.

When it originated among our distant ancestors, it allowed us to gain self-awareness, capture abstract ideas, use knowledge to harness our environment, and use information-rich language for communication. However, it appears that the structure of our unique brains came much later than previously believed, probably 1.5 million years late.

Anthropologists led by the University of Zurich (UZH) in Switzerland performed mathematical tomography to examine the skulls of Homo fossils living in Africa, Georgia and Southeast Asia about 1 to 2 million years ago, according to the journal Science. Christoph Zollikofer, lead study author from the Department of Anthropology at UZH, said in a statement, “The problem is that the brains of our former males were not preserved as fossils. Their brain structures can only be removed from the folds on the inner surface of the fossil skull and the furrow impressions.”

Their findings indicate that modern human brain structures evolved in the Homo population of Africa alone 1.5 to 1.7 million years ago, with the first population of the surprisingly recent Homo species appearing in Africa about two and a half million years ago and settling around Damascus in present-day Georgia.

Despite their penis-like brains, these hominids were able to adapt to the conditions of Eurasia’s new environment and to demonstrate some impressive skills, such as building tools and developing complex social groups. Already in Africa, Homo cultures were increasingly evolving and the first signs of human language were beginning to appear. About 1.7 million years ago, evidence proved that a second wave of hominins had moved to Africa with significantly larger and “human” brains, and eventually settled around the Southeast Asian island of Java.

In the frontal lobe region, many basic differences found between the human brain and the brain, such as the apes. Since it well known that the frontal lobe is responsible for higher cognitive activities, including memory, emotions, problem-solving, and social interaction, it understood that these changes were associated with behaviors that are more complex and the rise of culture. “Characteristic features to humans are those areas in the frontal lobe that are responsible for planning and executing complex patterns of thought and action, and ultimately for language as well,” explained first author Marcia Ponce de León.