When and Why Did Human Brains Decrease in Size? A New Change-Point Analysis and Insights From Brain Evolution in Ants

Jeremy M. DeSilva, James F.A. Traniello, Alexander G. Claxton, Luke D. Fannin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations

Abstract

Human brain size nearly quadrupled in the six million years since Homo last shared a common ancestor with chimpanzees, but human brains are thought to have decreased in volume since the end of the last Ice Age. The timing and reason for this decrease is enigmatic. Here we use change-point analysis to estimate the timing of changes in the rate of hominin brain evolution. We find that hominin brains experienced positive rate changes at 2.1 and 1.5 million years ago, coincident with the early evolution of Homo and technological innovations evident in the archeological record. But we also find that human brain size reduction was surprisingly recent, occurring in the last 3,000 years. Our dating does not support hypotheses concerning brain size reduction as a by-product of body size reduction, a result of a shift to an agricultural diet, or a consequence of self-domestication. We suggest our analysis supports the hypothesis that the recent decrease in brain size may instead result from the externalization of knowledge and advantages of group-level decision-making due in part to the advent of social systems of distributed cognition and the storage and sharing of information. Humans live in social groups in which multiple brains contribute to the emergence of collective intelligence. Although difficult to study in the deep history of Homo, the impacts of group size, social organization, collective intelligence and other potential selective forces on brain evolution can be elucidated using ants as models. The remarkable ecological diversity of ants and their species richness encompasses forms convergent in aspects of human sociality, including large group size, agrarian life histories, division of labor, and collective cognition. Ants provide a wide range of social systems to generate and test hypotheses concerning brain size enlargement or reduction and aid in interpreting patterns of brain evolution identified in humans. Although humans and ants represent very different routes in social and cognitive evolution, the insights ants offer can broadly inform us of the selective forces that influence brain size.

Original languageEnglish
Article number742639
JournalFrontiers in Ecology and Evolution
Volume9
DOIs
StatePublished - 22 Oct 2021

Keywords

  • ant
  • brain
  • evolution
  • Holocene
  • hominin

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