Update: Brain growth in Homo erectus, and the age of the Mojokerto fossil

The Mojokerto calvaria. You’re looking at the left side of the
 skull: the face would be to the left. Check it out in 3D here.

A few months ago I posted an abridged version of the presentation I gave at this year’s meetings of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, about brain growth in Homo erectus. This study, co-authored with Jeremy DeSilva, adopts a novel approach (see “Methods” in that earlier post) to analyze the Mojokerto fossil (right). The specimen is the only H. erectus non-adult complete enough to get a decent estimate of brain size (or rather, the overall volume of the brain case) – probably 630 to 660 cubic centimeters (Coqueugniot et al. 2004; Balzeau et al., 2004). So to study brain growth in the extinct species, we just have to connect a range of estimated brain sizes at birth (around 290 cubic centimeters, based on predictive equations by DeSilva and Lesnik, 2008) to that of Mojokerto. But, the speed of brain growth implied by this comparison depends on how old poor Mojokerto was when s/he died.

Most recently, Hélen Coqueugniot and colleagues (2004) used CT scans of the fossil to examine the fusion of its various bones, to suggest the poor kid died between six months to 1.5 years, if not even younger. Antoine Balzeau and team (2005) also studied scans of the fossil, and their analysis of its virtual endocast presented conflicting age estimates, but they argued the poor kid was probably no older than 4 years. Earlier studies had suggested the kid was up to 8 years. Now, for my previous post/conference presentation, we assumed the Coqueugniot estimate was correct – but what if we consider a full range of ages for Mojokerto, from 0.03-6.00 years?

Brain size, relative to newborns’ values, at different ages in humans (black circles) and chimpanzees (red triangles). Homo erectus median and mean are the thick solid and dashed blue lines, respectively, and the 90% and 95% confidence intervals are indicated by the thinner, dotted blue lines. Data are the same as in the previous post.

The plot above depicts brain size relative to newborns: each circle (humans) and triangle (chimpanzees) represents the proportional size difference between a newborn (less than 1 week) and an older individual, up to 6 years. Obviously, relative brain size gets bigger in humans and chimpanzees over time. Interestingly, even though humans and chimps have very different brain sizes, the proportional brain size changes overlap a lot between species, especially at younger ages. Ah, the joys of cross-sectional samples.

But what’s especially interesting here are the blue lines on the graph, indicating estimates of proportional size change in Homo erectus, assuming Mojokerto’s skull could hold 630 cc of delicious brain matter, and that the species’ skulls at birth could hold about 290 cc, give or take several cc. The thick solid and dashed lines just above 2 on the y-axis are the mean and median of our estimates – Mojokerto’s brain averages around 2.2 times larger than predicted newborns. Such a proportion is most likely to be found in humans between 6 months to a year of age, and in chimpanzees between around 6 months and 2 years. The confidence intervals, the highest and lowest bounds of our estimates for Homo erectus proportional size change, are the thinner dashed lines on the graph. They help us constrain our estimates, and further suggest that the proportional difference found for H. erectus is most likely to be found in either chimpanzees or humans around 1 year of age – just like Coqueugniot and colleagues predicted!!!

Thus, independent evidence – brain size of Mojokerto and estimated brain size at birth in Homo erectus – corroborates a previously estimated age at death for the Mojokerto fossil, the poor little Homo erectus baby. This further supports our estimates of brain growth rates in this species, as described in the previous post.

ResearchBlogging.orgSo to summarize, fairly scant fossil evidence compared with larger extant species samples using randomization statistics, argue for high, human-like infant brain growth rates in Homo erectus by around 1 million years ago. Our ancestors were badasses.

Remember, if you want the R code I wrote to do this study, just lemme know!

Those references
Balzeau A, Grimaud-Hervé D, & Jacob T (2005). Internal cranial features of the Mojokerto child fossil (East Java, Indonesia). Journal of human evolution, 48 (6), 535-53 PMID: 15927659

Coqueugniot H, Hublin JJ, Veillon F, Houët F, & Jacob T (2004). Early brain growth in Homo erectus and implications for cognitive ability. Nature, 431 (7006), 299-302 PMID: 15372030

DeSilva JM, & Lesnik JJ (2008). Brain size at birth throughout human evolution: a new method for estimating neonatal brain size in hominins. Journal of human evolution, 55 (6), 1064-74 PMID: 18789811


Pre-publication: Brain growth in Homo erectus (plus free code!)

The annual meetings of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists were going on all last week, and I gave my first talk before the Association (co-authored with Jeremy DeSilva). The talk focused on using resampling methods and the abysmal human fossil record to assess whether human-like brain size growth rates were present in our >1 mya ancestor Homo erectus. This is something I’ve actually been sitting on for a while, and wanted to wait til after the talk to post for all to see. I haven’t written this up yet for publication, but before then I’d like to briefly share the results here.

Background: Humans’ large brains are critical for giving us our unique capabilities such as language and culture. We achieve these large (both absolutely, and relative to our body size) brains by having really high brain growth rates across several years; most notable are exceptionally high, “fetal-like” rates during the first 1-2 years of life. Thus, rapid brain growth shortly after birth is a key aspect of human uniqueness – but how ancient is this strategy?

Materials: We can plot brain size at birth in humans and chimpanzees (our closest living relatives) to visualize what makes humans stand out (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Brain size (volume) at given ages. Humans=black, chimpanzees=red. Ranges of brain size at birth, and the chronological age of the Mojokerto fossil, in blue.

Human data come from Cogueugniot and Hublin (2012), and chimpanzees from Herndon et al. (1999) and Neubauer et al. (2012). The earliest fossil evidence able to address this question comes from Homo erectus. Because of the tight relationship between newborn and adult brain size (DeSilva and Lesnik 2008), we can use adult Homo erectus brain volumes (n=10, mean = 916.5 cm^3) to predict that of the species’ newborns: mean = 288.9 cm^3, sd = 17.1). An almost-recent analysis of the Mojokerto Homo erectus infant calvaria suggests a size of 663 cm^3 and an age of 0.5-1.25 years (Coqueugniot et al. 2004; this study actually suggests an oldest age of 1.5 years, but the chimpanzee sample here requires us to limit the study to no more than 1.25 years). Because we have a H. erectus fossil less than 2 years of age, and we can estimate brain size at birth, we can indirectly assess early brain growth in this species.

Methods: Resampling statistics allow inferences about brain growth rates in this extinct species, incorporating the uncertainty in both brain size at birth, and in the chronological age of the Mojokerto fossil. We thus ask of each species, what growth rates are necessary to grow one of the newborn brain sizes to any infant between 0.5-1.25 years? And from there, we compare these resampled growth rates (or rather, ‘pseudo-velocities’) between species – is H. erectus more similar to modern humans or chimpanzees? There are 294 unique newborn-infant comparisons for humans and 240 for the chimpanzee sample. We therefore compare these empirical newborn-infant pairs from extant species to 7500 resampled H. erectus pairs, randomly selecting a newborn H. erectus size based on the parameters above, and randomly selecting an age from 0.5-1.25 years for the Mojokerto specimen. This procedure is used to compare both absolute size change (the difference between an infant and a newborn size, in cm^3/year), and and proportional size change (infant/newborn size).

Results: Humans’ high early brain growth rates after birth are reflected in the ‘pseudovelocity curve’ (Figure 2). Chimps have a similar pattern of faster rates earlier on, but these are ultimately lower than humans’. Using the Mojokerto infant’s brain size (and it’s probable ages) and the likely range of H. erectus neonatal brain sizes (mean = 288, sd = 17), it is fairly clear that H. erectus achieved its infant brain size with high, human-like rates in brain volume increase.

Figure 2. Brain size growth rates (‘pseudo-velocity’) at given ages. Humans=black, chimpanzees=red, and Homo erectus,=blue.

However, if we look at proportional size change, the factor by which brain size increases from birth to a given age, we see a great deal of overlap both between age groups within a species, and between different species. Cross-sectional data create a great deal of overlap in implied proportional size change between ages within a species; it is easier to consider proportional size change between taxa, conflating ages, then  (Figure 3). Humans show a massive amount of variation in potential growth rates from birth to 0.5-1.25 years, and chimpanzees also show a great deal of variation, albeit generally lower than in the human sample. Relative growth rates in Homo erectus are intermediate between the two extant species.

Figure 3. Proportional brain size increase (infant/newborn size). 

Significance: Brain size growth shortly after birth is critical for humans’ adaptative strategy: growing a large brain requires a lot of energy and parental (especially maternal) investment (Leigh 2004). Plus, in humans this rapid increase may correspond with the creation of innumerable white-matter connections between regions of the brain (Sakai et al. 2012), important for cognition or intelligence. The H. erectus fossil record (1 infant and 10 adults) provides a limited view into this developmental period. However, comparative data on extant animals (e.g. brain sizes from birth to adulthood), coupled with resampling statistics, allow inferences to be made about brain growth rates in H. erectus over 1 million years ago.

Assuming the Mojokerto H. erectus infant is accurately aged (Coqueugniot et al. 2004), and that Homo erectus followed the same neonatal-adult scaling relationship as other apes and monkeys (DeSilva and Lesnik 2008), it is likely that H. erectus had human-like rates of absolute brain size growth. Thus, the energetic and parental requirements to raise such brainy babies, seen in modern humans, may have been present in Homo erectus some 1.5 million years ago or so. This may also imply rapid white-matter proliferation (i.e. neural connections) in this species, suggesting an intellectually (i.e. socially or linguistically) stimulating infancy and childhood in this species. At the same time, relative brain size growth appears to scale with overall brain size: larger brains require proportionally higher growth rates. This is in line with studies suggesting that in many ways, the human brain is a scaled-up version of other primates’ (e.g. Herculano-Houzel 2012).

This study was made possible with published data, and the free statistical programming language R.

Contact me if you want the R code used for this analysis, I’m glad to share it!!!

Coqueugniot H, Hublin JJ, Veillon F, Houët F, & Jacob T (2004). Early brain growth in Homo erectus and implications for cognitive ability. Nature, 431 (7006), 299-302 PMID: 15372030

Coqueugniot H, & Hublin JJ (2012). Age-related changes of digital endocranial volume during human ontogeny: results from an osteological reference collection. American journal of physical anthropology, 147 (2), 312-8 PMID: 22190338

DeSilva JM, & Lesnik JJ (2008). Brain size at birth throughout human evolution: a new method for estimating neonatal brain size in hominins. Journal of human evolution, 55 (6), 1064-74 PMID: 18789811

Herculano-Houzel S (2012). The remarkable, yet not extraordinary, human brain as a scaled-up primate brain and its associated cost. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 109 Suppl 1, 10661-8 PMID: 22723358

Herndon JG, Tigges J, Anderson DC, Klumpp SA, & McClure HM (1999). Brain weight throughout the life span of the chimpanzee. The Journal of comparative neurology, 409 (4), 567-72 PMID: 10376740

Leigh SR (2004). Brain growth, life history, and cognition in primate and human evolution. American journal of primatology, 62 (3), 139-64 PMID: 15027089

Neubauer, S., Gunz, P., Schwarz, U., Hublin, J., & Boesch, C. (2012). Brief communication: Endocranial volumes in an ontogenetic sample of chimpanzees from the taï forest national park, ivory coast American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 147 (2), 319-325 DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.21641

Sakai T, Matsui M, Mikami A, Malkova L, Hamada Y, Tomonaga M, Suzuki J, Tanaka M, Miyabe-Nishiwaki T, Makishima H, Nakatsukasa M, & Matsuzawa T (2012). Developmental patterns of chimpanzee cerebral tissues provide important clues for understanding the remarkable enlargement of the human brain. Proceedings. Biological sciences / The Royal Society, 280 (1753) PMID: 23256194

Come hear me talk about brains on Tuesday

This coming Tuesday I’ll be giving a talk about the evolution and development of the human brain, as part of the seminar series of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences here at Nazarbayev University. My research doesn’t really fall neatly under the realms of ‘humanities and social sciences,’ so  the talk should be a neat change of pace for these SHSS seminars. I’ll be previewing something I’ve been working on with Dr. Jeremy DeSilva, and that I’ll be presenting at the AAPA conference in a few weeks. So if you can’t make it to Astana, maybe you can catch the shorter show in Knoxville!

Here’s info from the flier (sorry about the title, I’m new to this; also, I won’t be talking for 90 minutes):

Building the Most Powerful Computer: Evo-Devo of the Human Brain

4:20-5:50 pm
Tuesday, 26 March 2013

at Nazarbayev University, Block 7, Room 7-507
53 Kabanbay Batyr Ave.

Synopsis: Your brain is one of the most remarkable things to emerge in all the history of Life, and has been a critical part of humans’ adaptive success. This talk will examine how this machine came into existence. I will first describe how the brain grows and develops across an individual’s lifetime. Next I turn to the possible ways development was modified during the course of our evolution to result in our singularly powerful brains. Special attention is given to teasing out secrets of brain evolution from the dismal fossil record.