How humans evolved bigger brains

Brain size increased rapidly during human evolution due to the expansion of many brain regions, resulting in human brains being exceptionally larger than those of our closest relatives.
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Image credit: DJ (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Humans have much larger brains than other primates, but it is not clear exactly when and how this difference emerged during evolution. Some scientists believe that the expansion of a part of the brain called the neocortex – which handles sight, hearing, conscious decision-making and language – drove the increase in the size of the human brain. Newer studies have challenged that idea.

One way to learn more about how humans evolved bigger brains is to compare the size of the brain, and specific parts of the brain, between humans and our closest relatives: non-human primates. To make accurate comparisons, scientists must account for many factors. Closely related primates may have more similar traits because they more recently shared a common ancestor. This means the evolutionary relationships between species need to be considered. Larger animals also tend to have larger brains so it is important to consider body size, too.

Now, Miller at al. show that the human brain is much larger than expected even after accounting for these factors, and that increases in brain size accelerated over the course of early human evolution. In the analyses, the brain and skull sizes of different living primate species, like chimpanzees and gorillas, and fossils of extinct primates, including Neanderthals, were compared using mathematical models.

These findings suggest that larger brains provided fitness advantages that led to large brain sizes in modern humans and Neanderthals. These increases in brain size were not driven by disproportionate growth in the neocortex alone, but rather by increases in the size of many parts of the brain. Increases in the relative size of the cerebellum, which is essential for balance and movement, were also important.