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Химия Big Brains and Hungry Hominids
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No sooner had humans perfected their stride than the next pivotal event in human evolution—the dramatic enlargement of the brain—began. According to the fossil record, the australopithecines never became much brainier than living apes, showing only a modest increase in brain size, from around 400 cubic centimeters four million years ago to 500 cubic centimeters two million years later. Homo brain sizes, in contrast, ballooned from 600 cubic centimeters in H. habilis some two million years ago up to 900 cubic centimeters in early H. erectus just 300,000 years later. The H. erectus brain did not attain modern human proportions (1,350 cubic centimeters on average), but it exceeded that of living nonhuman primates.

From a nutritional perspective, what is extraordinary about our large brain is how much energy it consumes—roughly 16 times as much as muscle tissue per unit weight. We therefore use a much greater share of our daily energy budget to feed our voracious brains. In fact, at rest brain metabolism accounts for a whopping 20 to 25 percent of an adult human’s energy needs—far more than the 8 to 10 percent observed in nonhuman primates, and more still than the 3 to 5 percent allotted to the brain by other mammals.

How did such an energetically costly brain evolve? One theory, developed by Dean Falk of Florida State University, holds that bipedalism enabled hominids to cool their cranial blood, thereby freeing the heat-sensitive brain of the temperature constraints that had kept its size in check. I suspect that, as with bipedalism, a number of selective factors were probably at work. But brain expansion almost certainly could not have occurred until hominids adopted a diet sufficiently rich in calories and nutrients to meet the associated costs.

Comparative studies of living animals support that assertion. Across all primates, species with bigger brains dine on richer foods, and humans are the extreme example of this correlation, boasting the largest relative brain size and the choicest diet. According to recent analyses by Loren Cordain of Colorado State University, contemporary hunter-gatherers derive, on average, 40 to 60 percent of their dietary energy from animal foods (meat, milk and other products). Modern chimps, in comparison, obtain only 5 to 7 percent of their calories from these comestibles. Animal foods are far denser in calories and nutrients than most plant foods. It stands to reason, then, that for early Homo, acquiring more gray matter meant seeking out more of the energy-dense fare.

Fossils, too, indicate that improvements to dietary quality accompanied evolutionary brain growth. All australopithecines had skeletal and dental features built for processing tough, low-quality plant foods. The later, robust australopithecines—a dead-end branch of the human family tree that lived alongside members of our own genus—had especially pronounced adaptations for grinding up fibrous plant foods, including massive, dish-shaped faces; heavily built mandibles; ridges, or sagittal crests, atop the skull for the attachment of powerful chewing muscles; and huge, thickly enameled molar teeth. (This is not to say that australopithecines never ate meat. They almost certainly did on occasion, just as chimps do today.) In contrast, early members of the genus Homo, which descended from the gracile australopithecines, had much smaller faces, more delicate jaws, smaller molars and no sagittal crests—despite being far larger in terms of overall body size than their predecessors. Together these features suggest that early Homo was consuming less plant material and more animal foods.

As to what prompted Homo’s initial shift toward the higher-quality diet necessary for brain growth, environmental change appears to have once more set the stage for evolutionary change. The continued desiccation of the African landscape limited the amount and variety of edible plant foods available to hominids. Those on the line leading to the robust australopithecines coped with this problem morphologically, evolving anatomical specializations that enabled them to subsist on more widely available, difficult to chew foods. Homo took a different path. As it turns out, the spread of grasslands also led to an increase in the relative abundance of grazing mammals such as antelope and gazelle, creating opportunities for hominids capable of exploiting them. H. erectus did just that, developing the first hunting-and-gathering economy in which game animals became a significant part of the diet and resources were shared among members of the foraging groups. Signs of this behavioral revolution are visible in the archaeological record, which shows an increase in animal bones at hominid sites during this period, along with evidence that the beasts were butchered using stone tools.

These changes in diet and foraging behavior did not turn our ancestors into strict carnivores; however, the addition of modest amounts of animal foods to the menu, combined with the sharing of resources that is typical of hunter-gatherer groups, would have significantly increased the quality and stability of hominid diets. Improved dietary quality alone cannot explain why hominid brains grew, but it appears to have played a critical role in enabling that change. After the initial spurt in brain growth, diet and brain expansion probably interacted synergistically: bigger brains produced more complex social behavior, which led to further shifts in foraging tactics and improved diet, which in turn fostered additional brain evolution.


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  • - Big Brains and Hungry Hominids

    No sooner had humans perfected their stride than the next pivotal event in human evolution—the dramatic enlargement of the brain—began. According to the fossil record, the australopithecines never became much brainier than living apes, showing only a modest increase in brain size, from around 400 cubic centimeters four million years ago to 500 cubic centimeters two million years later. Homo brain sizes, in contrast, ballooned from 600 cubic centimeters in H. habilis some two million years... [читать подробенее]