Human evolution favoured brain over brawn

Metabolite study demonstrates human muscle and brain tissue underwent disproportionate evolutionary change

A new study, published in the open access journal PLoS One Biology, has used metabolites to track evolutionary changes in brain and skeletal muscle tissues. Metabolites are metabolic products or intermediates of low molecular weight (1,500 amu or less), which are associated with the physiological processes that maintain the functionality of body tissues. Changes in the concentrations of these metabolites are thought to be closely related to evolutionary changes in the associated tissues.

Researchers measured the concentrations of more than 10,000 metabolites in the prefrontal cortex, primary visual cortex, cerebellar cortex, skeletal muscles and kidneys of humans, chimpanzees, macaque monkeys and mice using mass spectrometry-based techniques. They found that in most cases the differences reflected genetic distances between the species rather than environmental differences.

The striking exception was found in the human lineage. The concentration profiles of metabolites associated with the human prefrontal cortex, cerebellar cortex and skeletal tissues showed far greater changes than could be accounted for by genetic difference: by a factor of four for the brain tissue, and eight for the muscle tissue. In fact the muscle tissue is implied to have undergone more evolutionary change in the 6 to 7 million years since the divergence from chimpanzees than it did during the 130 or so million years separating mice from the common ancestor of the apes and Old World monkeys. No comparable differences were noted for the primary visual cortex or kidneys. Nor were significant differences to any of these results found after controlling for differences in diet and levels of physical activity.

It is well known that humans are physically quite weak in comparison to chimpanzees, despite weighing in at around twice the size. Surprisingly, this is largely based on anecdotal observations mostly predating the 1950s. Accordingly, the researchers set macaque, chimpanzee and human subjects a ‘pulling task’, which tested both upper and lower body strength. These tests confirmed the anecdotal observations.

The researchers concluded that the metabolic changes in human muscle tissue were associated with a drastic reduction in muscle strength; and that these changes might be linked to the changes in brain metabolism and enhanced cognitive abilities.

The findings are an extension of Aiello and Wheeler’s ‘expensive tissue’ hypothesis, which proposed that the considerable energy requirements of the human brain (around 20 percent of the total energy budget) could only be met by making savings elsewhere. Aiello and Wheeler (1995) proposed these savings were made by downsizing other energetically-expensive organs, principally the gut. Apparently, though, this was insufficient and further savings were required in the form of a decrease in the energy expenditure of skeletal muscle.

1.  Bozek, K. et al., Exceptional Evolutionary Divergence of Human Muscle and Brain Metabolomes Parallels Human Cognitive and Physical Uniqueness. PLoS One Biology 12(5), e1001871 (2014).
2.  Aiello, L. & Wheeler, P., The expensive tissue hypothesis: the brain and the digestive system in human and primate evolution. Current Anthropology 36, 199-221 (1995).

Link (open access):


The Venus of Willendorf

The Venus of Willendorf is a small 11.1 cm (4 3/8 in) high figurine carved from oolitic limestone and tinted with red ochre.

The 25,000-year-old figurine dates to the Gravettian period and is one of the most iconic artefacts of the European Upper Palaeolithic. It was discovered in 1908 by archaeologist Josef Szombathy near the village of Willendorf in Austria, and since then it has resided in the Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna. It is currently on display in the Mineralogy galleries, having been relocated there while the Prehistory galleries undergo refurbishment. I took the photographs of the front, side and rear views when I visited the museum during a recent trip to Vienna. From a personal point of view, the enigmatic figurine did much to spark my interest in prehistory, so I was very keen to see it in person for the first time.

With its large breasts, full figure and exaggerated sexual characteristics, the contrast between the Venus of Willendorf and the classical portrayal of the Roman goddess could not be greater. Yet there is nothing crude or primitive about its execution; it is immediately obvious that the figurine is as finely-worked as anything from classical times.

The face is concealed behind rows of plaited hair, which comprise seven concentric bands surrounding the head, with two more semi-circular bands below at the back of the neck. Another interpretation is that the figurine is wearing a woven fibre hat.
Female figurines with similar attributes are known dating to throughout the European Upper Palaeolithic, though most are from the Gravettian period. Despite its obvious inaccuracy, the term ‘Venus figurines’ has been used to describe them since the first examples were found in the nineteenth century. They are often interpreted as fertility figures or mother goddesses, although their real function remains unknown.

13,000 year old skull and mtDNA reinforces continuity between Paleoindians and Native Americans

Teenaged girl ‘Naia’ shared craniofacial features with earliest-known Americans, but genetic profile is common among today’s Native Americans 

The first people to reach the New World arrived around 15,000 years ago, having migrated across the Beringia land bridge that then linked Siberia to Alaska. The Paleoindians, as they are known, possessed craniofacial features that differ markedly to those of present-day Native Americans. Their skulls were long and narrow, the face narrow and the forehead prominent. By contrast, present-day Native Americans are broad-faced, with rounder skulls. A facial reconstruction of Kennewick Man – an 8,400 year old skull found in the Columbia River, Kennewick, WA – is said to bear startling a resemblance to the actor Sir Patrick Steward.

It has therefore been suggested that there were two migrations to the New World, with the Paleoindians arriving first and later being replaced by the ancestors of the present-day Native Americans. However, others argue that the differences arose in situ, possibly as a result of changes in diet when the Paleoindians adopted agriculture during the period between 8,000 and 2,000 years ago. Another possibility is that the changes are simply the result of genetic drift.

The ‘two migrations’ theory has received a significant setback with the recovery of a near-complete human skeleton of a female aged 15 to 16 years from Hoyo Negro, a submerged collapsed chamber in the Sac Actun cave system in the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico. The skeleton has been nicknamed ‘Naia’ (Greek for ‘water nymph’), and it has been dated to between 12,000 and 13,000 years old. Naia’s craniofacial features are typical of the Paleoindian morphology, but mitochondrial DNA extracted from a molar teeth has been identified as belonging to the haplogroup D1, which occurs only among present-day Native Americans. This is consistent with the view that there was continuity between Paleoindians and present-day Native Americans.

Researchers now intend to sequence Naia’s nuclear DNA, which they hope will shed further light on the origins of the first Americans.


1. Chatters, J. et al., Late Pleistocene Human Skeleton and mtDNA Link Paleoamericans and Modern Native Americans. Science 344, 750-754 (2014).

Rice versus wheat agriculture could explain cultural differences within China, claim researchers

Greater interdependency found in rice-growing regions

People living in the rice-growing regions of southern China are more interdependent, loyal, and nepotistic, and less likely to divorce than their counterparts in the wheat-growing regions north of the Yangtze, according to a study published in the journal Science.

Han Chinese students from various regions in the country underwent a series of tests, including the ‘triad task’, which shows subjects lists of three items, such as train, bus, and tracks. They then decide which two items should be paired together. Two of the items (trains and buses) can be paired because they belong to the same category (trains and buses are forms of transport), and two (trains and tracks) because they share a functional relationship (trains run on tracks). Participants from rice-growing regions were more likely to pair the train and the track, whereas those from wheat-growing regions tended to pair the train and the bus.

The so-called ‘rice theory’ is an extension of subsistence style theory, which argues that some forms of subsistence (such as farming) require more functional interdependence than other forms (such as herding). Over time, societies that have to cooperate intensely become more interdependent, whereas societies that do not have to depend on each other as much become more individualistic. Previous studies have tended to focus on farming versus herding rather than differences between types of farming.

The two major differences between farming rice and wheat are irrigation and labour. Rice paddies require the construction and maintenance of elaborate irrigation systems, in turn requiring cooperation between farmers – often at village level. Farmers also need to coordinate their use of water so as not to adversely affect the supplies of their neighbours. Overall, growing paddy rice is at least twice as labour intensive as wheat farming.

The rice theory predicts that a Unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno mentality will apply to anybody living in a region where rice has been farmed for thousands of years, not just those directly involved with its production. This prediction was borne out by the study, as few if any of the participants had actually farmed rice or wheat for a living.

My feelings are that while this is an interesting study, one should always be cautious about cultural determinism.


1. Talhelm, T. et al., Large-Scale Psychological Differences Within China Explained by Rice Versus Wheat Agriculture. Science 344, 603-608 (2014).


Study traces origins of Neolithic in South Asia

Eastward dispersal from Southwest Asia was slower than that unto Europe

A new study, published in the open-access journal PLoS One, has considered the eastwards spread of agriculture from Southwest Asia. This has been less well studied than the westwards expansion into Anatolia and Europe.

Researchers conducted a statistical analysis of radiocarbon dates for 160 Neolithic sites in western and southern Asia. The locations of these sites suggest that the dispersal of farmers eastwards from the Zagros followed two routes: a northern route via northern Iran, southern Central Asia and Afghanistan, and a southern route via Fars through the interior of southern Iran.

Analysis of the radiocarbon dates indicated an eastwards expansion at an average speed of 0.65 km per year, rather slower than the 1 km per year documented for Europe. The authors of report considered this to be unsurprising. Firstly, the arid climate and complicated topography of the region are less favourable for agriculture. Because of this, the early Neolithic settlements in Iran were relatively small and widely separated. Secondly, the European expansion was aided by the Danube, the Rhine and the Mediterranean coastline, but there are no major rivers in Afghanistan or Iran that could play a similar role.

The authors were encouraged that the fairly simple ‘wave of advance’ model used captured the salient features of the data studied, but stressed the need for a more detailed analysis that would consider local environments and climatic conditions.


1. Gangal, K., Sarson, G. & Shukurov, A., The Near-Eastern Roots of the Neolithic in South Asia. PLoS One 19 (5), e95714 (2014).


How to think like a Neandertal, by Thomas Wynn and Frederick Coolidge

Of all early humans, none have captured the public imagination to anywhere near the extent of the Neanderthals. Indeed, with the possible exception of the dinosaurs, no extinct species is so deeply rooted in our popular culture. The idea that tens of thousands of years ago, people very much like ourselves shared the planet with another human species is one that intrigues many, although the term ‘Neanderthal’ is all too often used in a pejorative sense, and there is a widespread perception of the Neanderthals as dimwits.

In this engaging and accessible book, which is nevertheless as rigorous as any textbook, anthropologist Thomas Wynn and psychologist Frederick Coolidge paint a very different picture of the Neanderthals and their way of life. Drawing on archaeological and fossil evidence, they go beyond reconstructing the Neanderthal world and attempt to deduce their underlying thought processes.

In the first chapter, we are given an introduction to the world of the Neanderthals. From the start, Wynn and Coolidge refer to the Neanderthals as ‘people’, which is entirely correct as they were every bit as human as we are. The name comes from Neander Tal (‘Neander Valley’) near Dusseldorf, where Neanderthal remains were first identified in the 1850s (it was originally spelled ‘Neander Thal’, hence the more commonly-used spelling, but it has always been pronounced ‘tal’ and not ‘thal’). We learn that the Neanderthals were short, stocky, powerfully-built folk, with chinless, protruding faces, pronounced browridges over their eyes, and long, broad noses. The braincase was long and low, rather than the globular shape of modern people. Many features of their distinctive anatomy were adaptations to the harsh conditions of Ice Age Europe, but in comparison to very early humans it turns out that modern people are actually far more distinctive than Neanderthals.

An important difference is the shape of the braincase, which reflects the actual shape of the brain itself. Neanderthal brains were differently shaped to ours, and about ten percent larger. Does this mean that they were ten percent smarter than us? Wynn and Coolidge believe that they were neither more nor less intelligent than us – just different. This conclusion provides a focus for the rest of the book.

Neanderthals lived hard and died hard. Shanidar 1 lived in Iraq about 50,000 years ago, and was in his late 30s when he was killed by a rock fall. But long before his death he had suffered a number of major injuries, any one of which could have killed him. He owed his survival to caring companions, who nursed him back to health – and a dogged ability to cope with pain and life-changing injuries. Nor was Shanidar 1 particularly unusual: the pattern of healed injuries suffered by Neanderthals is very similar to those suffered by rodeo riders, suggesting that were regularly pitted against large, dangerous animals.

Each subsequent chapter focusses on a different aspect of Neanderthal life, and uses the evidence to build on this initial picture of them as tough but compassionate folk. Topics include hunting, spear making, family life, burial traditions and language. Wynn and Coolidge even examine Neanderthal humour before characterising them as pragmatic, stoical, risk-taking, empathic (in that they cared for their sick and injured), hard-hearted (in that they were prepared to leave the sick and injured behind if they needed to move camp), conservative (from the point of their extremely static technology, not their voting intentions), and xenophobic (in that they rarely met strangers and distrusted them when they did).

The final chapter plays a game of ‘Trading Places’ and speculates how a Neanderthal might fare in our modern world, and how a modern human in theirs. Wynn and Coolidge suggest that Neanderthals would do well in our world, and would excel as doctors, mechanics or soldiers. On the other hand, they suggest that a modern human would struggle to make a go of Neanderthal living.

The demise of the Neanderthals is covered fairly briefly. The arrival of modern humans in Ice Age Europe is viewed from the Neanderthal perspective. It is surmised that the end came when the climate began to deteriorate 30,000 years ago. This had happened before, and the Neanderthals had able to cope – but now they had competition. The modern humans were more adaptable and inventive when it came to finding new sources of food and developing new hunting methods. The Neanderthals retreated south to the Iberian Peninsula, where they held out for a while, but in the end they died out.

Wynn and Coolidge suggest that the Neanderthals may survive as dim cultural memories. Possibly some European folk traditions have their origins in ancient encounters with Neanderthals. More plausibly, they also suggest that our enduring fascination with the Neanderthals is that they were humans who led very different lives to ourselves, yet were still somehow like us. The Neanderthals live on as “inexact mirrors of ourselves”, Wynn and Coolidge conclude.

How to think like a Neandertal, by Thomas Wynn and Frederick Coolidge is published in the USA by Oxford University Press © 2012

The engraved ochres of Blombos Cave

World’s earliest abstract art

Seventy-three thousand years ago, an elderly man sat in the mouth of a limestone cave, intently working on a small rectangular piece of reddish-brown ochre. From time to time, he paused in his work and stared out towards the sea that lay a kilometre away. First he scraped and ground the piece flat on two sides and then, with the aid of a sharp stone tool, he engraved a cross-hatched geometrical design upon one of the newly-ground facets. It was the second such piece he had made, but there would be no others because a few weeks later he fell ill with a respiratory disease. A younger man would probably have recovered, but at 48 he was old and worn out. Within a few days, he was dead.

When his companions eventually decided it was time to move on from the cave that had been their home for the last six months, they took most of their few possessions with them. But the old man’s ochres were forgotten and left behind. Within a few months, the ochres and all other traces of the brief occupation were buried beneath wind-blown sand, and they would not see the light of day again for very long time indeed….

In actuality, we have no idea who engraved the two pieces of ochre found at Blombos Cave in 2002, and although it is likely that they were both the work of the same individual we cannot be certain. The cave is located on the southern coast of South Africa in a limestone cliff 35 m (115 ft.) above sea level, 100 m (330 ft.) from the coast, though when occupied the coastline was further away. Discovered by archaeologist Christopher Henshilwood, it is one of the most extensively researched sites from the African Middle Stone Age.

Henshilwood has been familiar with the site since his childhood, since it is located on land owned by his grandfather. As a boy, he found a number of artefacts, dating from comparatively recent prehistoric times. In 1991, he returned there as a PhD student, hoping to discover similar artefacts. Instead, he found a number of bone tools and stone points that dated from a far earlier period, over 70,000 years ago.

After completing his PhD at the University of Cambridge, Henshilwood obtained funding to commence excavations at Blombos Cave, and he continues to lead work at the site to this day. Three Middle Stone Age phases of occupation have been identified. These are known as M1 (73,000 years ago), M2 (subdivided between an upper phase 77,000 years ago and a lower phase 80,000 years ago) and M3 (125,000 years ago). Each phase contains a number of occupation layers, but they are quite shallow indicating that the cave was only occupied sporadically and for relatively short periods of time.

However, while the cave was in use its occupants enjoyed a varied diet of large fish, shellfish, seals, dolphins and land mammals. Mole rats were often roasted over a fire and eaten; these large burrowing rodents are considered a delicacy by local farm workers to this day. The later occupations of the cave are associated with the Stillbay tool industry, which has first identified in the 1920s and named for the village of Still Bay, which lies a short distance from Blombos Cave.

The Stillbay was one of the cutting-edge industries of the African Middle Stone Age, and was noted for its finely-worked leaf-shaped stone points, which were made from high-quality materials including chert, quartzite and silcrete. The Stillbay people also made and used bone awls and projectile points, similar to those seen in ethnographic collections. Such implements are far more difficult to manufacture than stone tools. Other examples of Stillbay high tech included compound adhesives for hafting stone points to spears, and the use of heat treatment and pressure flaking for finishing stone artefacts. The Stillbay industry was widespread, and not confined to the region around Blombos Cave and Still Bay. Curiously, however, it was short-lived and persisted for less than a thousand years, before being replaced by seemingly less advanced industries of the type more typical of the African Middle Stone Age.

Perhaps the most important discovery at Blombos Cave has been the engraved ochres. Ochres are a range of minerals containing iron oxide that exist in a range of colours including red, yellow, brown and purple. They have long been used as pigments and their first known use was at least 266,000 years ago at Twin Rivers, a complex of caves in southern Zambia – before the appearance of modern humans. It is possible that the Twin Rivers ochre was used for utilitarian purposes, such as for making adhesives, for medicinal purposes, hide processing, or even as Stone Age sunblock. However, the consistent selection of brightly-coloured and often hard to grind materials suggests an ornamental explanation such as for body painting. In South Africa, red ochre appears in the archaeological record from at least 160,000 years ago, and invariably material with the reddest hues seems to have been preferred – again suggesting a non-utilitarian purpose.

Several thousand pieces of ochre have been found at Blombos Cave, and in 2002, Henshilwood reported the two pieces of engraved ochre from the 73,000 year old M1 phase, which were catalogued as AA 8937 and AA 8938. Both had been engraved with cross-hatched patterns, using a sharp stone tool to make wide grooves upon surfaces previously prepared by grinding. On AA 8938, in addition to cross-hatching, the pattern is bounded top and bottom by parallel lines, with a third parallel line running through the middle. The fact that the two pieces are so similar suggests a deliberate intent, rather somebody absent-mindedly scratching away at the pieces with a sharp object. Somebody who knew just what they were doing must have sat down and engraved the two pieces. Other engraved ochres were later identified, although they were less spectacular than AA 8937 and AA 8938. They came from all three phases of the site, and some were over 100,000 years old.

The Blombos Cave ochres are central to the debate about the emergence of modern human behaviour, which anthropologists define as the ability of humans to use symbols to organise their thoughts and actions. Symbols are anything that refers to an object or an idea, and can take the form of sounds, images or objects. They may refer directly to an object or idea, for example a representational image; or they may be totally abstract, such as spoken or written words. Thus for example a drawing of a cat, the sound ‘cat’ or the written letters ‘c-a-t’ may all be used to refer to a cat. We use symbols all the time – whenever we read a newspaper, check the time, consult a map or admire a painting or sculpture. All of these activities involve symbolic behaviour: human society could not function without it. Modern syntactical language is a system of communication that uses symbols in the form of spoken and (in the last six thousand years) written words to enable an effectively infinite range of meanings to be conveyed.

The earliest human species such as Homo habilis and Homo erectus are thought to have had only a very limited ability to use symbols, but it is hotly debated when the fully symbolic behaviour of present-day people emerged. Was it shared with some archaic humans – in particular the Neanderthals – or was it limited to Homo sapiens, emerging at the same time as anatomical modernity around 200,000 years ago? Some go further and argue that even Homo sapiens lacked behavioural modernity until about 40,000 to 50,000 years ago. Proponents of this view believe that a behavioural ‘Great Leap Forward’ occurred at this time as a result of a favourable genetic mutation that rewired the brain and enabled syntactical language and other trappings of behavioural modernity to develop.

They base this view around the observation that artefacts that are unequivocally the products of modern thought processes – cave paintings, figurines and carvings – do not appear in the archaeological record until that time. But Henshilwood argues that the engraved geometrical patterns on the ochres imply the existence of modern syntactical language, and that modern human behaviour must therefore have emerged much earlier.

Henshilwood dismisses other possible explanations for the marks on the ochres. For example, he claims that they could not the by-product of testing for the quality of powder that could be obtained from the ochres, as only a few lines would be required for this purpose. He also believes that the marks are unlikely to have been the result of absent-minded doodling because great care was taken in completing the patterns and ensuring the incisions matched up. Furthermore, engraving lines on hard pieces of ochre requires full concentration in order to apply the right pressure and keep the depth of incision constant. He believes that not only were the marks on the ochres made with deliberate intent, but recurring motifs on ochres found in all three of the Middle Stone Age phases are evidence of a tradition of engraved geometric patterns that began more than 100,000 years ago and persisted for tens of millennia.

The most obvious question is what was the significance of the geometric patterns? Henshilwood notes that the Christian cross would appear equally abstract to somebody unfamiliar with religious iconography. It is possible that the patterns meant something quite specific to the people who made them, though just what we simply don’t know and probably never will know.

Another question is if humans were able to produce abstract art over 100,000 years ago, why was figurative art not seen until so much later? One possibility is that humans were still not behaviourally fully modern and were not at this stage able to make figurative images, though Henshilwood rejects this possibility. He notes that there are many cultures that do not make figurative art, and many others that do so using perishable materials that would not survive for tens of thousands of years.

Henshilwood believes the fact that the ochre engravings were intentionally created and depict distinctive geometrical patterns is enough to demonstrate that they are the product of a society of behaviourally-modern humans. Given the evidence for technological sophistication during the Stillbay period, we should not find this unduly surprising.

Photo credit:

Image copyright held by author, Chris Henshilwood
Photo by Henning (2007)
Webpage available at:
Licence: CC by Share Alike 3.0 unported