Brain Growth in Homo erectus


Humans' massive brains stand out as one of our species' defining features. Growth and development are the means by which our large brains are achieved, and these mechanisms also distinguish us from other animals. The evolution of brain growth is difficult to reconstruct as fossil samples are generally small, and brain growth occurs within a minuscule proportion of an individual's life. Although there are several nonadult hominin cranial fossils, the earliest specimen to shed light on this issue is the Homo erectus infant from Mojokerto. This infant's proportional brain size is consistent with both human and chimpanzee models of brain growth. On the basis of absolute size, however, this infant implies growth rates that are higher than chimpanzees' and within the modern human range. It is therefore likely that the behaviour and life history of H. erectus were more similar to those of modern humans than has generally been appreciated.

Key Concepts

  • Human brain growth is an important part of our unique life history.
  • Brain size growth ceases early in life, and so the poor fossil record obfuscates the evolution of brain growth.
  • Analysis of the Nariokotome adolescent skeleton led to the correct conclusion that human‐like secondary altriciality was present in Homo erectus, albeit from the wrong data.
  • The Mojokerto child's cranium, with an endocranial volume of around 650 cc, is the only H. erectus individual that died during the period of brain growth.
  • The relative brain size of Mojokerto can be found in samples of chimpanzees or humans, meaning proportional brain size does not distinguish patterns of growth.
  • The finding of a common relationship between neonatal‐adult brain size among catarrhine primates means that a reasonable estimate of neonatal brain size, around 300 cc, can be estimated for H. erectus.
  • Reconstructed brain growth rates, combining the Mojokerto infant's brain size and likely age at death with the species' estimated neonatal brain size, indicate that H. erectus was similar to humans in retaining high growth rates for at least a year.

Keywords: brain; growth; ontogeny; life history; cognition; hominin

Figure 1. Hominin brain size (cc). Boxes and whiskers represent sample tendencies with individual specimen values depicted as points. 1, Australopithecus; 2, early African Homo; 3, Dmanisi H. erectus; 4, African H. erectus; 5, early Indonesian H. erectus; 6, Chinese H. erectus; 7, late Indonesian H. erectus and 8, modern humans.
Figure 2. Brain growth in humans, chimpanzees and H. erectus. Growth curves are fit to human and chimpanzee data points, with the outer plot rugs indicating brain sizes for individuals over 5 years of age. H. erectus data are indicated in blue: the rug on the right depicts early Indonesian adult cranial capacities (cf. Figure), and plotted lines indicate the estimated size and age range of the Mojokerto infant, as well as H. erectus neonatal brain size.
Figure 3. Proportional brain size across ontogeny in humans (filled black circles) and chimpanzees (open red circles). (a) Each individual value is divided by the adult average for its species. Open triangles represent Mojokerto's ECV divided by nine Early Indonesian H. erectus adults. (b) Each individual value is divided by the neonatal average for its species. Blue lines indicate the estimated range of age and proportional ECV for Mojokerto.
Figure 4. Average annual brain growth rates, necessary to grow a randomly selected neonate to a randomly selected infant size. Black circles represent humans, red squares chimpanzees and blue triangles H. erectus.


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Further Reading

Leigh SR (2004) Brain growth, life history, and cognition in primate and human evolution. American Journal of Primatology 164: 139–164.

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Cofran, Zachary(Jun 2017) Brain Growth in Homo erectus. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0027076]