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03.07.2015 - 14:23 Uhr  
Department of Human Evolution

Breaking News

July 03, 2015
Complexity before size: Old world monkey had a tiny but complex brain

The brain hidden inside the oldest known Old World monkey skull has been visualized for the first time. Victoriapithecus had a small brain relative to its body size with an olfactory bulb about three times as large as that in present-day monkeys

The oldest known Old World monkey, Victoriapithecus, first made headlines in 1997 when its fossilized skull was discovered on an island in Kenya’s Lake Victoria, where it lived 15 million years ago. An international team led by Fred Spoor of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and University College London (UCL), UK, has now visualized this monkey’s brain for the first time: The creature’s tiny but remarkably wrinkled brain supports the idea that brain complexity can evolve before brain size in the primate family tree. Especially surprising was the size of the monkey’s olfactory bulb: It was three times larger in Victoriapithecus than in present-day monkeys of comparable body size.

Link to Max Planck Press Release

L. Gonzales, B. Benefit, M. McCrossin and F. Spoor
Cerebral Complexity Preceded Enlarged Brain Size and Reduced Olfactory Bulbs in Old World Monkeys
Nature Communications, 3 July 2015. DOI: 10.1038/ncomms8580



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Led by Jean-Jacques Hublin, the Department of Human Evolution was founded in 2004 as part of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (MPI-EVA). The department primarily studies fossil hominins and aims to reconstruct their biology, behavior and cultural evolution. Hominins are an extremely successful group of species that have expanded across the entire planet and have succeeded in coping with virtually all eco-geographical niches. Hominins have modified their environment to a spectacular extent, provoked one of the most major mass extinctions in the earth’s history, and have developed some degree of control over their own genome and those of other species. For the first three or four millions years of their evolution, like other mammals, hominins competed with other species and adapted to environmental changes primarily through biological adaptations; that is, by modifying their size, diet, locomotion and reproductive pattern. However, during the last two million years, the development of complex behavior related to the emergence of technology and more broadly, to human culture, has opened an entirely new chapter of primate evolution. Human evolution is unparalleled in life history because it is a bio-cultural process. What makes this process unique is the increasing importance of culture in the adaptive strategy of the species and, even more so, the increased interaction between culture and biology.

Addressing questions such as:
“What factors led to the emergence of humans?”,
“What makes them different from other primates?” or
“What is anatomical and cultural modernity?”
requires the interdisciplinary perspective of researchers coming from very different backgrounds. Also of importance is the study of extant and fossil apes in order to access the entire spectrum of adaptations covered by our closest relatives.


The Department of Human Evolution hosts two associated Research Groups:

Max Planck Research Group on Plant Foods in Hominin Dietary Ecology

Max Planck Weizmann Center for Integrative Archaeology and Anthropology (MPWC)


In addition to research at the MPI-EVA, there is a strong commitment to education and training. Prospective Ph.D. candidates are encouraged to consider the
Leipzig School of Human Origins, (IMPRS - International Max Planck Research School) which started in 2005.