NEW ORLEANS — A relatively small brain can pack a big evolutionary punch. Consider Homo naledi, a famously puzzling fossil species in the human genus. Despite having a brain only slightly larger than a chimpanzee’s, H. naledi displays key humanlike neural features, two anthropologists reported April 20 at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.
Those brain characteristics include a region corresponding to Broca’s area, which spans parts of the right and left sides of the brain in present-day people. The left side is typically involved in speech and language.
“It looks like Homo naledi’s brain evolved a huge amount of shape change that supported social emotions and advanced communication of some type,” said Shawn Hurst of Indiana University Bloomington, who presented the new findings. “We can’t say for sure whether that included language.” Frontal brain locations near Broca’s area contribute to social emotions such as empathy, pride and shame. As interactions within groups became more complex in ancient Homo species, neural capacities for experiencing social emotions and communicating verbally blossomed, Hurst suspects.
Scientists don’t know how long ago H. naledi inhabited Africa’s southern tip. If H. naledi lived 2 million or even 900,000 years ago, as some researchers have suggested (SN: 8/6/16, p. 12), humanlike brains with a language-related area would be shocking. A capacity for language is thought to have emerged in Homo over the last few hundred thousand years at most.
Discoverers of H. naledi, led by anthropologist Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, will announce an estimated age for the species and describe new fossil finds within the next few weeks, Hurst said.
Hurst and Ralph Holloway of Columbia University led a team that laser scanned the inside surfaces of several partial H. naledi skulls to create virtual casts, or endocasts, of brain surfaces. An endocast reproduces the shape and, with varying success, details of the surface of the brain that were imprinted on the walls of the braincase while an individual was alive. Such brain impressions are not always clear, which has sparked debate over how to interpret them.
Two grooves identified on an endocast from a partial H. naledi skull frame the language-related section of Broca’s area in humans today, Hurst said. H. naledi’s brain also possessed folds of tissue that largely covered a surface section where the grooves converged. Similar folds of tissue typically cover the surface of Broca’s area in modern human brains.
The general shape of that part of the frontal brain in humans differs greatly from that of living apes and fossil hominids dating to at least 700,000 to 1 million years years ago, Hurst added.
H. naledi also displays a humanlike pattern of surface features at the back of the brain, although to a lesser extent than at the brain’s front, Holloway said. Endocasts for this analysis came from two other partial H. naledi skulls.
Specific protrusions and other features at the back of H. naledi’s brain are more pronounced on the left side, Holloway said. In people today, the same left-sided bias in brain organization is associated with right-handedness.
In the past, Holloway and anthropologist Dean Falk of Florida State University in Tallahassee have sharply disagreed over how to identify neural features on fossil endocasts, including a key groove in tissue at the back of the brain. After hearing Hurst and Holloway’s presentations, Falk expressed doubt that H. naledi’s brain was as humanlike as they concluded.
Shortly after the presentations, Hurst and Falk hashed out their differences head-to-head as they jointly studied a solid cast of the partial H. naledi brain surface displaying proposed signs of Broca’s area. They agreed on much about the fossil species’ neural setup, with one major exception. “I’m skeptical that two frontal [grooves] frame an area that corresponds to Broca’s area,” Falk said. If she’s right, then H. naledi communicated much less like present-day people than proposed by Hurst. Falk plans to study the new endocasts more closely and compare them with endocasts of other fossil hominids.
Editor’s note: This story was updated April 25, 2017, to correct the age range of the fossil hominids referred to in the comparison of brain shape humans, living apes and fossil hominids.