28 February 2022: ‘Us’ Part 4 – Using your noggin

It’s not how big it is, but what you do with it

Forgive the pun, but for decades it seemed a no-brainer that the chief qualification to be considered human was the size of your brain. Obviously, it had to be a of a certain respectable capacity, never quite defined, but a degree or two larger than a chimpanzee’s organ was a good start. There was some embarrassment when it was determined that the average brain capacity of Homo neanderthalensis was larger than our own[i], but that misgiving aside it was assumed that if not a directly comparative intelligence was a prerequisite, then certainly something within shooting distance.

One mistaken assumption here is between brain size and intelligence, something made very clear in recent years by the discovery of the stone tool-making H. floresiensis (with a brain the size of a chimpanzee). Recent work done on corvids, for example, suggests that ravens and crows possess a Theory of Mind[ii] – the capacity to imagine that another crow might have its own thoughts – which in turn suggested a reasonably developed sense of self-awareness, an emergent property traditionally associated with intelligence[iii].

Homo heidelbergensis had a brain around 1200 cc, well within the range of H. sapiens. Photo: Simon Brown.

Another mistaken assumption is that our larger brain size is extraordinary among our cousins, but average brain size has not increased dramatically in total capacity since H. heidelbergensis, a species that first saw light of day 600,000 years ago.[iv]

Indeed, Homo species sit comfortably on the line that matches a generic primate’s brain size to its body size. In other words, if you’re a primate, the bigger you are the bigger your brain gets. (This isn’t peculiar to primates, of course, and applies to many mammalian groups, eg rodents, elephants and aardvarks, but primates do have larger brains than mammals of similar body mass).[v]

Interestingly, there are three exceptions to this general rule, all three of which are closer to us genetically than any other primates: the orangutan, the chimpanzee and the gorilla. The orangutan falls just below the curve, the chimpanzee falls a little further, and the gorilla furthest of all. Extensive studies with chimpanzees and gorillas, however, show that both species are intelligent and self-aware enough to have developed a Theory of Mind.

Demonstrably, brain size is not irretrievably married to a set physical size, just as brain size is not irretrievably married to a set level of intelligence.

I know that you know that I know …

It does seem self-awareness, or sentience, is an emergent property of intelligence.[vi] In other words, as an animal increases in intelligence, at some point it will become aware of its own existence. This is more than simply being able to experience pleasure or pain, but the ability to experience life subjectively.

Objects found with the remains of H. floresiensis strongly suggests they made stone-age level weapons and tools.[vii] Obviously, such complex toolmaking suggests an active intelligence capable of learning new skills and – as importantly – passing those skills on to the next generation. This in turn suggests H. floresiensis possessed a language; if not a spoken language such as ours, with a huge vocabulary and complex rules of grammar, then at least some way to transmit a limited amount of information effectively and efficiently.

Evidence also exists that H. floresiensis hunted and scavenged animals such as the dwarf stegodon, a kind of elephant. To be clear, a dwarf elephant could still grow to more than two metres in height. For something the size of H. floresiensis to hunt stegodon strongly suggests they hunted in groups, which in turn strongly suggests their language was something more than a series of grunts.

With H. naledi, we are on somewhat less firm ground. Although they were larger-brained hominins than H. floresiensis, the remains of at least 15 individuals from the Rising Star Cave in South Africa were discovered without any tools or evidence of tool making. However, the species possessed a hand not dissimilar to our own, and would probably have been capable of tool-making. It is hard to imagine a hominin species living in Africa in this period, between 236,000 and 335,000 years ago, and not picking up the skill from one of the other hominin species occupying southern Africa at the same time (including, quite possibly, our own).

The Rising Star Cave in South Africa, where the fossils of several Homo naledi were discovered in the Dinaledi Chamber. H. naledi almost certainly would have needed fire – and a great deal of determination – to find their way to the chamber from its entrance. Courtesy of Creative Commons.

Furthermore, palaeoanthropologist Lee Berger, who led the expedition to recover the H. naledi remains from the Rising Star Cave, believes bodies were intentionally and repeatedly deposited there. This implies two things: first, ritual behaviour on the part of the species, and second, that they were capable of making fire, since the chamber the bones were discovered in is at the end of a long, dark, dangerous and narrow route.[viii]

I may not know much about art, but …

In his influential work on human development, The Ascent of Man, Jacob Bronowski wrote, ‘Man is not the most majestic of creatures. Long before the mammals even, the dinosaurs were far more splendid. But he has what no other animal possesses, a jig-saw of faculties which alone, over three thousand million years of life, make him creative. Every animal leaves traces of what it was; man alone leaves traces of what he created.’[ix]

Whether or not Bronowski used the term man to mean, specifically, H. sapiens, or more broadly to mean humans in general, we know that our cousins left behind more than traces of what they created. We have hundreds of stone tools, the tailings and debris of stone-tool manufacturing, and even examples of art.

I would suggest this equates to culture.

But what if there are no physical signs of culture, does it mean culture does not exist? It is often fallacious to argue that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but in cultural endeavours such as language or dance, there can be no evidence before the invention of writing and art.

Vervet on the lookout for predators. Photo: Simon Brown.

Simple language can be identified in many primates. Vervet monkeys, for example, have distinct calls for each of their four main predators: pythons, baboons, leopards and eagles. But we will probably never know which human species was the first to communicate with what we would describe as a complex language, one capable of conveying abstract thought. Vervet monkeys may be able to tell their fellows that a leopard is approaching, but they cannot say the leopard is hiding behind that bush or over that hill, let alone discuss the rights and wrongs of predation.

We see culture operating among our more social hominid cousins, the chimps and gorillas. Long-term field studies suggest, for example, that cultural variation exists among different chimpanzee groups, including differences in grooming, courtship and tool usage.[x] It is the ‘combined repertoire’ of chimp behaviours that is significant, demonstrating a range of cultural behaviours, a diversity that once was attributed only to our own species.

It is with the application and development of tool usage that the first signs of a distinct ‘human’ culture are found in palaeoanthropology. Whereas chimps and some bird species, like humans, use tools made from plants to gather food or built shelter, humans are the first animals to make stone tools, improving on the original material through knapping. Later, humans combined stone with other material, such as wooden handles, to improve their effectiveness; in other words using tools to make better tools. Indeed, the making of stone tools was once considered the boundary marker between members of Homo and earlier genera. Since then, the boundary for stone-tool making has been pushed well beyond those species traditionally grouped under our own genus.

Oldowan stone age tools. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Photographer: Didier Descouens.

The oldest crafted stone tools found so far are from Lomekwi in Kenya, dating back 3.3 mya[xi]. First discovered in 2011, they were probably made by a species belonging to either the Australopithecus or the Kenyanthropus genera. The tools were found in an area where Kenyanthropus platyops fossils had been found earlier.

But we have to wait more than 700,000 years before there is clear evidence of stone-tool making on a large scale, something we’ll cover in detail in a later post.

Eventually some hominins were not simply making stone tools: ‘The people who made the hand axes clearly had a specific shape in mind, and often went far beyond a purely utilitarian form in the care with which they produced them.’[xii] This is an example of humans crafting tools for aesthetic appeal, not just knapping to produce a sharp edge or a convenient grip.

Earliest example of art was created by Homo erectus 500,000 years ago. Courtesy of Creative Commons. Photographer unknown.

It is with H. erectus we find the first real example of an attempt at making what we would now call ‘art’. In 2014, scientists from Netherland’s Leiden University announced the discovery of a sea shell that had been engraved with a zigzag pattern 500,000 years ago, something identified by ANU scientist Dr Stephen Munro (who did his PhD under Colin Groves!). The shell was originally collected with others at the end of the 19th century by Eugène Dubois – the discoverer of H. erectus in Java – but had not been closely examined since the 1930s. The scientists demonstrated that not only was the engraving not the result of natural forces, but that the pattern was made by ‘a strong and skillful tool-maker’[xiii]. The new date pushed back the first evidence for art by 400,000 years.

With language we’re on much shakier ground. Research suggests the physiological requirements for language exist in at least some monkeys. The stumbling block seems to arise in the way the brain is wired[xiv].

Nonetheless, as noted above with vervet monkeys, a language with a basic vocabulary exists among many primate species. It has even been shown that different species of monkey may understand some of each other’s vocabulary[xv]. Some species have even developed a basic grammar[xvi].

Extensive work has been done on language among the great apes, both in the wild and under controlled conditions. For example, the remarkable success scientists have had teaching American Sign Language to Washoe, a chimpanzee, and Koko, a lowland gorilla, demonstrate their capacity to learn quite complex vocabulary, often using it to express emotions such as sadness.

Koko, a western lowland gorilla, with her pet cat All Ball. Courtesy of Creative Commons. Photographer unknown.

But even the most optimistic view of these experiments shows that non-human great apes never demonstrate a level of intelligence found in a three-year old human child. No chimpanzee or gorilla, for example, has ever used their acquired vocabulary to ask a question.[xvii]

There is genetic evidence to suggest that the development of the capacity for language accelerated in humans after we split from the chimpanzees some seven to eight million years ago[xviii], but precisely when humans started speaking in a way that we would describe as ‘human’ is unknown; it may never be known. As with so many things in evolution, the development of a complex language capable of expressing abstract thoughts almost certainly occurred along a spectrum.

Between them, language and craft handed humans a huge advantage in the evolutionary stakes. Making stone tools, for example, minimised our weaknesses, knives and hammers allowing us to make up for a lack of sharp claws and fangs. Later, bows and throwing spears made up for our lack of speed in the chase.

Language allowed us to magnify our strengths, especially the ability to learn new things and pass that learning on to succeeding generations.

Language, and culture generally, seems to be something we share with other members of our genus, and indeed, as they are presently classified, earlier genera.

In the next post we’ll talk about bipedalism and one of the most controversial of hominin species – H. ergaster.

Other posts in this series can be found here:

‘Us’ Part 1 – Out of Africa

‘Us’ Part 2 – Burdalone

‘Us’ Part 3 – The devil in the detail

‘Us’ Part 5 – Feet and socks

‘Us’ Part 6 – Kith and kin


[i] Specifically, larger on average than the modern human brain, although the brains of archaic H. sapiens were in fact comparable to H. neanderthalensis. The following excerpt is from here.

‘To measure fossil brain volume, anthropologists have traditionally filled skulls with beads or seeds, and dumped the contents into a graduated cylinder (a precise measuring cup). They’ve also submerged molds of skulls into water, measuring the volume displaced. Today CT (computed tomography) scanning methods offer more accurate (and less-messy) measurements, but much of the data in textbooks and other references was collected the old fashioned way.

‘Based on these values, we can confidently say fossil Neanderthals and modern humans from the same time period had similar brain sizes. Twenty-three Neanderthal skulls, dating between 40,000 and 130,000 years ago, had endocranial volumes between 1172 to 1740 cm3. A sample of 60 Stone Age Homo sapiens ranged from 1090 to 1775 cm3.’

[ii] https://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms10506

[iii] And there is now evidence that some birds, eg the Australian magpie, can demonstrate altruism. See here.

[iv] Modern H. sapiens have brains ranging between 1030cc-1620cc; judging from what fossil skulls we have, the H. heidelbergensis brain averaged around 1250cc. See https://australian.museum/learn/science/human-evolution/homo-heidelbergensis/

[v] For a great explanation of how all this works, check out The Human Advantage by Suzana Herculano-Houzel. It’s a great read! See https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/human-advantage

[vi] For example, see https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnins.2020.548071/full and https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7304239/

[vii] http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v532/n7599/full/nature17179.html

[viii] https://elifesciences.org/articles/24234

[ix] Bronowski, J. The Ascent of Man, London, 1976 (BBC Edition), p 42

[x] https://www.nature.com/articles/21415

[xi] https://www.nature.com/articles/nature14464

[xii] Stringer, C. & Andrews, P. The Complete World of Human Evolution. London, 2011. P 209.

[xiii] http://www.news.leiden.edu/news-2014/the-story-behind-the-discovery-that-turned-archaeology-on-its-head.html

[xiv] http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/12/why-monkeys-can-t-talk-and-what-they-would-sound-if-they-could

[xv] http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/282/1807/20150265

[xvi] http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/clever-monkeys-monkeys-and-language/3948/

[xvii] Some scientists argue that Koko’s language skills were a result of ‘operant conditioning’, whereas others state she was indeed capable of simple questions. See Wikipedia entry here for more information and references.

[xviii] https://www.nature.com/articles/nature01025

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