Did the modern brain shape only evolve recently?

Study claims that brain did not reach present-day range of variation until between 100,000 and 35,000 years ago.

A new study (Neubauer, et al., 2018) has suggested that globular form of the human cranial vault did not reach its present-day range of variation until between 100,000 and 35,000 years ago, and that this was linked to continuing evolutionary change affecting the shape and proportions of the brain. Fully modern human behaviour, it is claimed, did not emerge until that time.

Present-day humans are distinguished from archaic humans such as Neanderthals by a globular as opposed to a long, low cranial vault. The earliest representatives of our species (‘archaic Homo sapiens’), who lived around 300,000 years ago, retained the archaic brain shape; but by 200,000 years ago this had given way to the modern, globular form – or had it?

Paleoanthropologists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany used CT scans to generate virtual endocasts of modern human skulls from 315,000 to 195,000 years ago, 120,000 years ago, 35,000 to 8,000 years ago, along with skulls of Neanderthals, Homo heidelbergensis, and Homo erectus. They applied statistical methods to these, and they concluded that globularity within the present-day range of variation did not appear until between 100,000 and 35,000 years ago.

The transition from the long, low to globular condition has been long attributed to changes in the proportions of rather than the size of the brain. However, the Max Planck report suggested that this happened in two stages. In the first stage, the cerebellum, parietal, and temporal areas increased in size. This was followed by a second stage in which the cerebellum continued to increase in size, but this was accompanied by size increases in the occipital lobes. This second stage was not completed until between 100,000 and 35,000 years ago. The report suggested that the most important changes were the expansion of the parietal areas and the cerebellum.

The parietal areas are associated with orientation, attention, perception of stimuli, sensorimotor transformations underlying planning, visuospatial integration, imagery, self-awareness, working and long-term memory, numerical processing, and tool use. The cerebellum is associated not only with motor-related functions including coordination of movements and balance but also with spatial processing, working memory, language, social cognition, and affective processing.

The report links these changes with evidence for the emergence of modern human behaviour in the archaeological record. It notes that, firstly, the onset of the Middle Stone Age in Africa 300,000 years ago corresponds closely in time the earliest known fossils of Homo sapiens (the Jebel Irhoud remains from Morocco). Secondly, behavioural modernity gradually developed over time in concert with increasing globularity. Thirdly, the point at which the modern condition was achieved corresponds to the transition from the Middle to the Later Stone Age in Africa and from the Middle to the Upper Palaeolithic in Europe around 50,000 to 40,000 years ago.

The idea that anatomically modern humans were not behaviourally modern in the first instance is an old one, based on the idea changes in the archaeological records of Europe and Africa 50,000 years ago were linked to a cognitive ‘Great Leap Forward’. This, it was argued, was the result of a favourable genetic mutation that somehow ‘rewired’ the human brain, enabling it to function more efficiently. The Max Planck report rejects this conclusion, suggesting that the Great Leap Forward simply represented the end-point of the globularization process.

The problem is that the notion that changes in the archaeological record could be linked to a cognitive advance 50,000 years ago was thoroughly debunked by anthropologists Sally McBrearty and Alison Brooks almost two decades ago – ironically in a paper cited by the authors of the Max Planck report. (McBrearty & Brooks, 2000) In Europe, there is no doubt that a dramatic change is seen with the onset of the Upper Palaeolithic. Cave paintings, carved figurines, and other art appears for the first time. Nobody doubts that these artefacts are products of wholly modern human minds – but they simply herald the arrival of modern humans in Europe, not a cognitive advance by people already living there. Similarly, the transition from Middle to Later Stone Age in Africa is more parsimoniously explained by the need of growing populations for better tools and more sophisticated hunting techniques. Many supposed innovations can be found tens of thousands of years earlier at African Middle Stone Age sites. These include:

  • 60,000-year-old ostrich eggshells engraved with graphic patterns from Diepkloof Rock Shelter, South Africa.
  • Evidence for a well-developed catfish harvesting industry at Katanda on the Upper Semliki River in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 90,000 years ago.
  • Ochre pieces engraved with abstract patterns from Blombos Cave, South Africa, in some cases over 100,000 years old.
  • Microliths from Pinnacle Point, South Africa, dating to 164,000 years ago. Microliths are used in multi-component tools, and they are associated with the most advanced (mode 5) stone tool technologies.

Furthermore, many traits once considered to be markers of late emerging modern human behaviour have now been identified much further back in the archaeological record, and indeed are not restricted to modern humans. These include fowling and use of seafood, both of which have since also been attributed to Neanderthals.

This evidence suggests that modern human behaviour had certainly emerged by 100,000 years ago, and probably by 164,000 years ago. While a link between globularity and modern human behaviour is likely, the associated cognitive changes probably only occurred during the first phase of globularization between 315,000 to 195,000 years ago. Subsequent increases in globularity might be linked to factors other than changes in brain shape. Early modern humans were far more powerfully built than present-day people, and the more gracile, fully-modern form did not appear until after 35,000 years ago. Brains actually show a slight decrease in average size during this period.


McBrearty, S. & Brooks, A., 2000. The revolution that wasn’t: a new interpretation of the origin of modern human behaviour. Journal of Human Evolution, Volume 39, pp. 453-563.

Neubauer, S., Hublin, J. & Gunz, P., 2018. The evolution of modern human brain shape. Science Advances, 24 January, Volume 4, p. eaao5961.


Modern humans left Africa almost 200,000 years ago

But should we be surprised?

With an age range of 120,000 to 90,000 years old, the fossils from the Levantine sites of Skhul and Qafzeh have long been the oldest known anatomically modern human remains from outside Africa. The recent find of an upper jawbone and associated dentition at Misliya Cave in Israel has now been independently dated by uranium series (U-Th), combined uranium and electron spin resonance (U-ESR), and thermoluminescence (TL) methods to yield an age range of 194,000 to 177,000 years old. The jawbone and teeth are associated with the Homo sapiens clade, meaning that they predate the Skhul and Qafzeh remains by more than 50,000 years. (Hershkovitz, et al., 2018)

The Misliya Cave remains were associated with large numbers of Levallois (mode 3) stone tools, characteristic of the Middle Palaeolithic.

While the findings have understandably generated a good deal of excitement, should we be unduly surprised? The Sahara and Sinai deserts can only be crossed during interglacials, when warm, wet climatic conditions cause these normally inhospitable regions to green, and the Levant effectively becomes a northeasterly extension of Africa. The date range of the Skhul and Qafzeh remains suggest that these people left Africa during the Eemian interglacial (Marine Isotope Stage 5e) 126,000 to 110,000 years ago. Similarly, the upper end of the age range of Misliya Cave remains lies within the warm, wet Marine Isotope Stage 7 which lasted from 245,000 to 186,000 years ago.

Until recently, the earliest anatomically modern humans were believed to be those from Omo, Kenya, now thought to be 195,000 years old (though originally thought to be more recent). Accordingly, it was not thought that modern humans could have left Africa prior to the Eemian. Recent discoveries from China and the Arabian Peninsula have overturned the longstanding view that the Levant was the extent of our species’ excursions beyond Africa prior to around 65,000 years ago. However, the Eemian was still thought to represent the upper limit.

The re-dating of the Jebel Irhoud remains from Morocco last year has changed the picture. The remains were found at a cave site 100 km (60 miles) from Marrakech in the early 1960s and were originally thought to be no more than 40,000 years old. The puzzle was that while the facial features are modern, the brain case is still long and low, a characteristic of archaic humans and suggesting that they really belonged to a much earlier lineage of Homo sapiens. This eventually turned out to be the case. In 2007, the remains were found to be much older at 160,000 years old with US-ESR methods – but even this turned out to be a gross underestimate. Excavations carried out between 2004 and 2011 enabled radiation dosages to be estimated more accurately, yielding a TL date of 286,000 ± 32,000 years old – making the Jebel Irhoud the earliest representatives of our species by some considerable way.

With modern humans having existed throughout Marine Isotope Stage 7, it is unsurprising that some of them reached the Levant, and entirely possible that some went further. This raises the possibility that some of these pioneers encountered and interbred with Neanderthals, which would explain a 2017 genetic study which suggested that Neanderthals and modern humans were interbreeding as long ago as the period between 460,000 and 219,000 years ago (Posth, et al., 2017). The upper end is clearly an overestimate, but the lower end could point to interbreeding in the Levant, where Neanderthals are known to have been present. While there is no suggestion at this stage that modern humans reached Europe prior to 46,000 years ago, such a discovery would call into question the attribution of recent discoveries, such as the stone circle Bruniquel Cave in southwest France reported in 2016 to be 176,500 years old, and accordingly assumed to be the work of Neanderthals. (Jaubert, et al., 2016)

Hershkovitz, I. et al., 2018. The earliest modern humans outside Africa. Science, Volume 359, pp. 456-459.
Jaubert, J. et al., 2016. Early Neanderthal constructions deep in Bruniquel Cave in southwestern France. Nature, 2 June, Volume 534, pp. 111-114.
Posth, C. et al., 2017. Deeply divergent archaic mitochondrial genome provides lower time boundary for African gene flow into Neanderthals. Nature Communications, 4 July, Volume 8, p. 16046.

Meat-eating and food processing were major drivers of human evolution

Study shows how dietary changes and stone tools enabled reductions in size of teeth, jaws and gut

In comparison to earlier hominins, Homo erectus was bigger both in stature and brain size. As such, its energy requirements would have increased – but paradoxically the teeth and chewing muscles were smaller, maximum bite forces weaker and the gut size was reduced. It has long been assumed that this was made possible by increased meat consumption, slicing and pounding food with stone tools, and by cooking. However, the latter was uncommon until around 500,000 years ago. By these means, it is believed that Homo erectus and later humans reduced the both amount of chewing required for their food and workload of the gut in digesting it.

In a newly-published study, Zink and Lieberman report on a series of experiments intended to test these hypotheses. They measured chewing performance in adult human subjects fed size-standardized portions of meat and underground storage organs (roots, tubers, etc.) which are thought to have formed a major component of hominin diet. Goat meat, yams, carrots and beets were chosen for the test; goat is tougher than beef and therefore more similar to the wild game eaten by early hominins. The food was either unprocessed, processed by simple mechanical methods available in Lower Palaeolithic times (slicing and pounding), or roasted (the simplest form of cooking).

They found that the subjects were unable to chew the raw meat effectively, but slicing it resulted in substantial reductions in both the amount of chewing and bite forces required, and in smaller and more digestible meat particles were swallowed. Roasted meat required a greater chewing effort, but even smaller meat particles resulted. However, even unprocessed meat required considerably less masticatory effort than the raw USOs.

Although the advent cooking brought considerable benefits in terms of hygiene and increased energy yields, Zink and Lieberman believe that the reductions in dental size and jaw musculature observed in Homo erectus would have been made possible by the combined effects of eating more meat and mechanically processing both it and USOs. By eating a diet of one-third meat and two-thirds USOs, and slicing the meat and pounding the USOs with stone tools prior to eating, early humans would have reduced chewing by 17 percent and enabled a 26 percent reduction in bite forces.

Although it is possible that food processing and meat eating favoured evolutionary selection for smaller teeth and jaws, Zink and Lieberman believe that it is more likely that these relaxed the selective pressures maintaining robust masticatory anatomy, thus enabling selection to decrease facial and dental size for other functions such as speech production, locomotion, thermoregulation, and possibly even changes in the size and shape of the brain, so leading eventually to the modern condition of Homo. Regardless of what evolutionary factors favoured these changes, they would not have been possible without increased meat eating combined with food processing technology.

Zink, K. & Lieberman, D., Impact of meat and Lower Palaeolithic food processing techniques on chewing in humans. Nature (Published online) (2016).

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):

Were multiple early human species living in Georgia, 1.85 million years ago?

New skull with ‘enigmatic’ jawbone and differing tool technologies suggests that two different hominin groups are represented by Dmanisi remains.

The former Soviet republic of Georgia is located at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. Lying on the eastern shores of the Black Sea, it was the destination of Jason and the Argonauts in their quest for the Golden Fleece, but long before this it was a stopping point for the earliest-known hominin migration out of Africa. In 1984, stone tools were discovered at the small medieval town of Dmanisi in the southeast of the country, 93 km (58 miles) southwest of the capital, Tbilisi. Archaeologists broke through the foundations of a medieval building into an ancient river deposit, where simple stone tools resembling those made by the earliest humans were found with the bones of extinct mammals.

During the 1990s, the remains of early humans were recovered, including two partial skulls and a lower jawbone. The fossils were dated by palaeomagnetic, potassium-argon and argon-argon methods, giving an age for the remains of 1.77 million years old (Gabunia, et al., 2000). Subsequent dating of the stone tools indicated that the site was first occupied 1.85 million years ago, and that repeated occupations continued over a period of 80,000 years. There was evidently a long-term human presence in the Caucasus at around or even before the time of the earliest evidence for Homo erectus in Africa (Ferring, et al., 2011).

There have been a number of subsequent discoveries of human remains at the site. These include the skull, lower jawbone and partial skeleton of an adolescent (Vekua, et al., 2002; Lordkipanidze, et al., 2007); the skulls and lower jawbones of two adults (Lordkipanidze, et al., 2006; Lordkipanidze, et al., 2013); and postcranial bones from three other individuals, all adults (Lordkipanidze, et al., 2007). One of the skulls belonged to an elderly male who had lost all but one of his teeth some years prior to his death. He could not have survived unaided and must have been cared for by his companions throughout those last years of his life (Lordkipanidze, et al., 2005; Lordkipanidze, et al., 2006). The other skull, the fifth to be discovered at the site and hence known as Skull 5, is characterised by a large face and thick browridges. Skull 5 is complete and undeformed; it is the only known fully-preserved adult hominin skull from the early Pleistocene (Lordkipanidze, et al., 2013).

From the various remains, body size metrics have been estimated for the Dmanisi hominins. They were 1.45 to 1.66 m (4 ft. 9 in. to 5 ft. 5 in.) tall and weighed 40.0 to 50.0 kg (88 to 110 lb.). The cranial capacities of the five skulls range from 546 to 730 cc, about half that of a modern human. The encephalization quotient (a measure of brain size in relation to body size) lies in the range from 2.4 to 3.13; a figure that is at the lower end of the estimates for African Homo erectus, and is more comparable to that of Homo habilis or Australopithecus (Lordkipanidze, et al., 2007; Lordkipanidze, et al., 2013).

The Dmanisi hominins display a mosaic of primitive and derived (more modern) features. Their limb proportions were similar to those of a modern human. The lower limbs and feet were essentially modern, although the feet turned slightly inwards. On the other hand, the forearm lacked what is known as humeral torsion. In modern humans, the elbow joint is typically rotated relative to the shoulder joint, so that the forearm naturally hangs with the palms facing inwards; but the Dmanisi forearm lacked this rotation, so their palms were oriented more forwards. The inward-turning feet, lack of humeral torsion, small body size and small brain size may be seen as primitive traits, sharing more in common with Homo habilis than with Homo erectus (Lieberman, 2007; Lordkipanidze, et al., 2007).

Initially assigned to African Homo erectus (Vekua, et al., 2002), the Dmanisi hominins were later put forward as a new human species, Homo georgicus (Gabunia, et al., 2002); though this proposal has since been retracted (Lordkipanidze, et al., 2013), and it has been suggested that early African Homo erectus was not only quite widespread, but also unusually variable in both body and brain size, and also less modern than sometimes supposed (Lieberman, 2007).

Two more radical (and diametrically-opposed) possibilities have recently been put forward. The first is that the various species often proposed for early African Homo (Homo habilis, Homo rudolfensis, Homo ergaster and Homo erectus) were all actually variants of the same species, and that early Homo was a single lineage which evolved over time without differentiating into multiple species. This conclusion is based on a claim that shape variation between the five Dmanisi skulls is roughly the same as that seen among the various early Homo skulls from East Africa, even though the former represents a single species and the latter are generally thought to represent several (Lordkipanidze, et al., 2013).

The second proposal (Bermúdez de Castro, et al., 2014) is that Skull 5 represents a different group of early hominins to that of the other Dmanisi remains. The lower jawbone is larger than those of others, and is said to represent a ‘large and somewhat enigmatic individual’. Its shape differs, and the differences cannot be accounted for in terms of body size or sex. It possesses a mosaic of primitive and derived features that are absent from other Dmanisi specimens. Furthermore, patterns of dental wear suggest a higher intake of fibrous and abrasive foods. It has accordingly been suggested that the jawbone is adapted to a different ecological niche to the other Dmanisi hominins, and that it represents a different species.

Although tools document a long-term human presence at Dmanisi, all the actual human remains were found in the same geological layer. This makes the ‘two species’ scenario problematic, as it implies that both species lived at about the same time. However, the stratigraphy of Dmanisi is complex, and it is possible that the fossil remains were re-deposited in the same geological layer after initially occupying sediments of different ages. It has also been claimed that the tools found at Dmanisi are consistent with the existence of two different populations.

More evidence is needed to determine just where the Dmanisi hominins fit into the broader human evolutionary picture, but it is becoming clear that the first hominin dispersal out of Africa was a far more complex process than was at one time supposed.

1. Gabunia, L. et al., Earliest Pleistocene Hominid Cranial Remains from Dmanisi,Republic of Georgia: Taxonomy, Geological Setting, and Age. Science 228, 1019-1025 (2000).

2. Ferring, R. et al., Earliest human occupations at Dmanisi (Georgian Caucasus) dated to 1.85–1.78 Ma. PNAS 108 (26), 10432-10436 (2011).

3. Vekua, A. et al., A New Skull of Early Homo from Dmanisi, Georgia. Science 297, 85-89 (2002).

4. Lordkipanidze, D. et al., Postcranial evidence from early Homo from Dmanisi, Georgia. Nature 449, 305-310 (2007).

5. Lordkipanidze, D. et al., A Fourth Hominin Skull From Dmanisi, Georgia. The Anatomical Record Part A: Discoveries in Molecular, Cellular, and Evolutionary Biology 288A, 1146–1157 (2006).

6. Lordkipanidze, D. et al., A Complete Skull from Dmanisi, Georgia, and the Evolutionary Biology of Early Homo. Science 342, 326-331 (2013).

7. Lordkipanidze, D. et al., The earliest toothless hominin skull. Nature 434, 717-718 (2005).

8. Lieberman, D., Homing in on early Homo. Nature 449, 291-292 (2007).

9. Gabunia, L., de Lumley, M.-A., Vekua, A., Lordkipanidze, D. & de Lumley, H., Découverte d’un nouvel hominidé à Dmanissi (Transcaucasie, Géorgie). C.R. Palévol. 1, 243–253 (2002).

10. Bermúdez de Castro, J., Martinón-Torres, M., Sier, M. & Martín-Francés, L., On the Variability of the Dmanisi Mandibles. PLoS One 9 (2), e88212 (2014).

Human footprints up to one million years old discovered at Happisburgh, Norfolk

Human footprints up to one million years old discovered at Happisburgh, Norfolk

Footprints left by small group of adults and children are oldest discovered outside Africa

Human footprints dating to between one million and 780,000 years old have been reported on the beach of the coastal village of Happisburgh, Norfolk (pronounced ‘Hazeborough’), and are the earliest-known direct evidence for the presence of humans in northern Europe. The footprints briefly emerged at low tide in May 2013, having being exposed by rough seas.

Within a fortnight, they had vanished again – but not before a team led by Nick Ashton from the British Museum had obtained plaster casts and 3d images. A total of 152 footprints were recorded, of which twelve yielded complete outlines suitable for analysis. It is thought that these twelve footprints represented five individuals ranging in height from 0.93 to 1.73 m (3 ft. 0 in. to 5 ft. 8 in.), suggesting the presence of both adults and children. It has been suggested that the Happisburgh hominins are related to Homo antecessor (‘Pioneer man’), a human species known from Sierra de Atapuerca in northern Spain during the period between 1.2 million and 800,000 years ago (Ashton, et al., 2014).

Early humans from this period are broadly categorised as Homo erectus. In Europe, Homo erectus was later replaced by the larger-brained Homo heidelbergensis, which might have been the forerunner of the Neanderthals in Europe and modern humans in Africa.

The Happisburgh footprints are the earliest direct evidence for humans in Britain, but tools used by these first Britons have been coming to light since 2005, when 700,000-year-old flint artefacts were reported from Pakefield in Suffolk (Parfitt, et al., 2005). In 2010 even earlier flint artefacts were reported from Happisburgh, estimated to be at least 780,000 years old, and probably older (Parfitt, et al., 2010). Previously, the earliest uncontested evidence for humans in northern Europe dated to no earlier than around 500,000 years ago (Parfitt, et al., 2005).

Analysis of animal remains suggests the Happisburgh people occupied the edges of forests at what was then an estuary of the River Thames, and lived towards the end of a warm interglacial period. It is not certain when the interglacial occurred, but there were warm periods from 866,000 to 814,000 years ago, and from 970,000 to 936,000 years ago (Parfitt, et al., 2010).

Britain was at this time connected to the mainland and lying on the southern edge of the forests of northwestern Europe. The climate was similar to that of today and while comfortable by British standards, it would have been chilly for those used to a Mediterranean or African climates. It remains unclear whether expansion into northern latitudes with lower winter temperatures required human physical adaptation, seasonal migration or developments in technology such as hunting, clothing, the use of shelters and the control of fire (Parfitt, et al., 2005; Parfitt, et al., 2010; Roberts & Grun, 2010).

1. Ashton, N. et al., Hominin Footprints from Early Pleistocene Deposits at Happisburgh, UK. PLoS One 9 (2) (2014).
2. Parfitt, S. et al., The earliest record of human activity in northern Europe. Nature 438, 1008-1012 (2005).
3. Parfitt, S. et al., Early Pleistocene human occupation at the edge of the boreal zone in northwest Europe. Nature 466, 229-233 (2010).
4. Roberts, A. & Grun, R., Early human northerners. Nature 466, 189 (2010).

Reassessment of 1950s fossil find provides early evidence for hominins in Central Africa

2.0 to 2.6-million-year-old tooth is from australopithecine or early human.

A reassessment of a fossil tooth from an old archaeological collection suggests that early hominins had extended their range to the western branch of Africa’s Great Rift Valley by no later than two million years ago. Since the late 1950s, large numbers of early hominin fossils have been found in the eastern branch of the Great Rift Valley, which is often described as the Cradle of Humanity. However, up until now, none have been found in the western branch.

Ishango 11 is an archaeological site in the Democratic Republic of Congo; it is located alongside the Semliki River, in the western branch of the Great Rift Valley. In the 1950s, the site was excavated by the Belgian geologist Jean de Heinzelin, who recovered numerous fossil human and animal remains, together with stone and bone artefacts. The assemblage dates mainly to the early part of the African Late Stone Age, from 25,000 to 19,000 years ago. It is housed in the Department of Anthropology and Prehistory at the Royal Belgian Institute of Science, Brussels.

However, the finds also included an upper left first molar that did not appear to be from such a recent period. Known as #Ish25, doubts were cast on its affinities to modern humans as long ago as 1958. A recent study has shown that #Ish25 probably originated from an earlier geological layer than the other fossils and artefacts. Animal remains associated with this layer suggest that it dates to between 2.6 and 2.0 million years ago. These dates make #Ish25 the earliest fossil hominin find from the western branch of the Great Rift Valley (though not the earliest from Central Africa, as much earlier hominins are known from Chad).

Various statistical analyses of the shape and size of #Ish25 suggest closer affinities to hominins from the Late Pliocene/Early Pleistocene than those from the Middle Pleistocene to Recent epochs. The exact hominin species to which the tooth belongs cannot be determined with certainty; Australopithecus africanus, Paranthropus robustus and early Homo are all possibilities.

The western Great Rift Valley underwent episodes of climate change 3.0, 2.6 and 1.8 million years ago; these led to the partial replacement of Congo flora and fauna with those typical of the East Africa; the latter are adapted to more open grassland conditions. The #Ish25 findings suggest that these conditions led to a dispersal of hominins into the region from either East Africa or South Africa.

The study also demonstrates how valuable knowledge can often be gained by applying modern techniques to old anthropological collections.


1. Crevecoeur, I. et al., First Early Hominin from Central Africa (Ishango, Democratic Republic of Congo). PLoS One 9 (1), e84652 (2014).