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28.10.2016 - 12:13 Uhr  
Department of Human Evolution

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September 26, 2016
Ear ossicles of modern humans and Neandertals – different shape, similar function

Scientists find the greatest number of small ear ossicles known from Neandertals so far and compare them to the ossicles of modern humans

A research team led by scientists of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology scanned the skulls of Neandertals and found the small middle ear ossicles, which are important for hearing. To their surprise, the Neandertal ossicles are morphologically distinct from the ones of modern humans. Despite the differences in morphology, the function of the middle ear is largely the same in the two human species. The authors relate the differences to different evolutionary trajectories in brain size increase and suggest that these findings might be indicative of consistent aspects of vocal communication in modern humans and Neandertals. These findings are also of importance for shedding light on the emergence of human spoken language, which can only be inferred indirectly from the archaeological and fossil record.

Link to Max Planck Press Release

Stoessel, Alexander, Romain David, Philipp Gunz, Tobias Schmidt, Fred Spoor, and Jean-Jacques Hublin.
Morphology and Function of Neandertal and Modern Human Ear Ossicles

(October 11, 2016)

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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.