Human brain evolution: How the increase of brain plasticity made us a cultural species


Why are humans so different from other primate species? What makes us so capable of creating language, art and music? The specializations in human brain anatomy that are responsible for our unique behavioral and cognitive traits evolved over a very short period of evolutionary time (between six and eight million years). Recent evidence suggests that, alongside a reorganization of the brain and an increase in its size, neural plasticity may also play a major role in explaining the evolutionary history of our species. Plasticity is the propensity of the brain to be molded by external influences, including the ecological, social and cultural context. The impact of these environmental influences in shaping human behavior has been long recognized, but it has been only recently that scientists have started discovering the more pronounced plasticity of human brains compared to our close relatives.



genes; environment; development; altriciality; epigenetics

Full Text:



  • Bermúdez de Castro, J. M., Martinón-Torres, M., Prado, L., Gómez-Robles, A., Rosell, J., López-Polín, L., ... Carbonell, J. L. (2010). New immature hominin fossil from European Lower Pleistocene shows the earliest evidence of a modern human dental development pattern. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(26), 11739–11744. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1006772107

  • Bianchi, S., Stimpson, C. D., Duka, T., Larsen, M. D., Janssen, W. G. M., Collins, Z., … Sherwood, C. C. (2013). Synaptogenesis and development of pyramidal neuron dendritic morphology in the chimpanzee neocortex resembles humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(2), 10395–103401. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1301224110

  • Bruner, E., De La Cuétara, J. M., & Holloway, R. L. (2011). A bivariate approach to the variation of the parietal curvature in the genus Homo. The Anatomical Record, 294(9), 1548–1556. doi: 10.1002/ar.21450

  • Dennis, M. Y., Nuttle, X., Sudmant, P. H., Antonacci, F., Graves, T. A., Nefedov, M., … Eichler, E. E. (2012). Evolution of human-specific neural SRGAP2 genes by incomplete segmental duplication. Cell, 149(4), 912–922. doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2012.03.033

  • Dunsworth, H. M., Warrener, A. G., Deacon, T., Ellison, P. T., & Pontzer, H. (2012). Metabolic hypothesis for human altriciality. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(38), 15212–15216. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1205282109

  • Enard, W., Gehre, S., Hammerschmidt, K., Hölter, S. M., Blass, T., Somel. M., … Pääbo, S. (2009). A humanized version of FOXP2 affects corticobasal ganglia circuits in mice. Cell, 137(5): 961–971. doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2009.03.041

  • Fjell, A. M., Westlye, L. T., Amlien, I., Tamnes, C. K., Grydeland, H., Engvig, A., … Walhovd, K. B. (2015). High-expanding cortical regions in human development and evolution are related to higher intellectual abilities. Cerebral Cortex, 25(1), 26–34. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bht201

  • Gokhman, D., Lavi, W., Prüfer, K., Fraga, M. F., Riancho, J. A., Kelso, J., … Carmel, L. (2014). Reconstructing the DNA methylation maps of the Neandertal and the Denisovan. Science, 344(6183), 523–527. doi: 10.1126/science.1250368

  • Gómez-Robles, A., Hopkins, W. D., Schapiro, S. J., & Sherwood, C. C. (2015). Relaxed genetic control of cortical organization in human brains compared with chimpanzees. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(51), 14799–14804. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1512646112

  • Gunz, P., Neubauer, S., Maureille, B., & Hublin, J. J. (2010). Brain development after birth differs between Neanderthals and modern humans. Current Biology, 20(21), R921–R922. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2010.10.018

  • Hill, J., Inder, T., Neil, J., Dierker, D., Harwell, J., & Van Essen, D. (2010). Similar patterns of cortical expansion during human development and evolution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(29), 13135–13140. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1001229107

  • Hublin, J. J., Neubauer, S., & Gunz, P. (2015). Brain ontogeny and life history in Pleistocene hominins. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 370(1663), 20140062. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2014.0062

  • Maricic, T., Günther, V., Georgiev, O., Gehre, S., Curlin, M., Schreiweis, C., … Pääbo, S. (2013). A recent evolutionary change affects a regulatory element in the human FOXP2 gene. Molecular Biology and Evolution, 30(4), 844–852. doi: 10.1093/molbev/mss271

  • Martínez-Abadias, N., Esparza, E., Sjøvold, T., González-José, R., Santos, M., Hernández, M., & Klingenberg, C. P. (2012). Pervasive genetic integration directs the evolution of human skull shape. Evolution, 66(4), 1010–1023. doi: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.2011.01496.x

  • Miller, D. J., Duka, T., Stimpson, C. D., Schapiro, S. J., Baze., W. B., McArthur, M. J., … Sherwood, C. C. (2012). Prolonged myelination in human neocortical evolution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(41), 16480–16485. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1117943109

  • Petanjek, Z., Judaš, M., Šimić, G., Rašin, M. R., Uylings, H. B. M., Rakic, P., & Kostović, I. (2011). Extraordinary neoteny of synaptic spines in the human prefrontal cortex. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(32), 13281–13286. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1105108108

  • Portmann, A. (1969). Biologische Fragmente zu einer Lehre vom Menschen. Basel: Benno Schwabe. Rosenberg, K. R. (1992). The evolution of modern human childbirth. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 35(S15), 89–124. doi: 10.1002/ajpa.1330350605

  • Sacher, G. A., & Staffeldt, E. F. (1974). Relation of gestation time to brain weight for placental mammals: Implications for the theory of vertebrate growth. American Naturalist, 108(963), 593–615.

  • Sakai, T., Matsui, M., Mikami, A., Malkova, L., Hamada, Y., Tomonaga, M., … Matsuzawa, T. (2012). Developmental patterns of chimpanzee cerebral tissues provide important clues for understanding the remarkable enlargement of the human brain. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 280(1753), 20122398. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2012.2398

  • Schuppli, C., Isler, K., & Van Schaik, C. P. (2012). How to explain the unusually late age at skill competence among humans. Journal of Human Evolution, 63(6), 843–850. doi: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2012.08.009

  • Smith, T. M., Tafforeau, P., Reid, D. J., Pouech, J., Lazzari, V., & Zermeno, J. P. (2010). Dental evidence for ontogenetic differences between modern humans and Neanderthals. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(49), 20923–20928. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1010906107

  • Tau, G. Z., & Peterson, B. S. (2009). Normal development of brain circuits. Neuropsychopharmacology, 35(1), 147–168. doi: 10.1038/npp.2009.115

Creative Commons License
Texts in the journal are –unless otherwise indicated– published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License