Modern human skulls have a unique “globular” (round) shape. Our closest known cousins, the long-extinct Neandertals, had elongated skulls that are typical of most primates. This striking shape difference is suspected to reflect evolutionary changes in the relative sizes of structures of the human brain, perhaps even in the ways that key brain areas are connected to each other. However, brain tissue doesn’t itself fossilise, so the underlying biological explanation has remained elusive. In collaboration with paleoanthropologists at the MPI for Evolutionary Anthropology (Leipzig) we have developed a new strategy to investigate this question, bringing together fossil skull data, brain imaging, and genomics. For a description of our first work in this area, identifying initial candidate genes, see here. We are now scaling-up our approach for investigations of larger samples such as the UK Biobank, to reveal additional genetic loci associated with globularity, and to indicate how this fascinating trait is linked to other aspects of human biology.

Example publication:

Gunz, P., et al. (2019). Neandertal introgression sheds light on modern human endocranial globularity. Current Biology, 29(1), 120-127. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2018.10.065. [pdf]

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