One of the world’s most important fossils has a story to tell
about the brain evolution of modern humans and their ancestors, according to Florida State University
evolutionary anthropologist Dean Falk.
The Taung fossil—the first australopithecine ever discovered—has
two significant features that were analyzed by Falk and a group of
anthropological researchers. Their findings, which suggest brain evolution was
a result of a complex set of interrelated dynamics in childbirth among new
bipeds, were published in the Proceedings
of the National Academy of Sciences.
“These findings are significant because they provide a highly
plausible explanation as to why the hominin brain might grow larger and more complex,”
The first feature is a “persistent metopic suture,” or unfused
seam, in the frontal bone, which allows a baby’s skull to be pliable during
childbirth as it squeezes through the birth canal. In great apes—gorillas,
orangutans, and chimpanzees—the metopic suture closes shortly after birth. In
humans, it does not fuse until around two years of age to accommodate rapid
The second feature is the fossil’s endocast, or imprint of the
outside surface of the brain transferred to the inside of the skull. The
endocast allows researchers to examine the brain’s form and structure.
After examining the Taung fossil, as well as huge numbers of
skulls belonging to apes and humans, as well as corresponding 3D CT (3D
computed tomographic) scans, and taking into account the fossil record for the
past 3 million years, Falk and her colleagues noted three important findings:
The persistent metopic suture is an adaptation for giving birth to babies with
larger brains; is related to the shift to a rapidly growing brain after birth;
and may be related to expansion in the frontal lobes.
“The persistent metopic suture, an advanced trait, probably
occurred in conjunction with refining the ability to walk on two legs,” Falk
said. “The ability to walk upright caused an obstretric dilemma. Childbirth
became more difficult because the shape of the birth canal became constricted
while the size of the brain increased. The persistent metopic suture
contributes to an evolutionary solution to this dilemma.”
The later fusion of the metopic suture is most likely an
adaptation of hominins who walked upright to be able to more easily give birth
to babies with relatively large brains. The unfused seam is also related to the
shift to rapidly growing brains after birth, an advanced human-like feature as
compared to apes.
“The later fusion was also associated with evolutionary expansion
of the frontal lobes, which is evident from the endocasts of australopithecines
such as Taung,” Falk said.
The Taung fossil, which is estimated to be around 2½ million years
old, was discovered in 1924 in Taung,
It became the “type specimen,” or main model, of the genus Australopithecus
africanus when it was announced in 1925.
An australopithecine is any species of the extinct genera Australopithecus
that lived in Africa, walked on
two legs and had relatively small brains.
Falk conducted the research with Marcia S. Ponce de Leon, Christoph P.E.
Zollikofer, and Naoki Morimoto of the Anthropological Institute and Museum at
the University of Zurich in Switzerland.
Source: Florida State University