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Need for social skills helped shape modern human face

The modern human face is distinctively different to that of our near relatives and now researchers believe its evolution may have been partly driven by our need for good social skills.

Need for social skills helped shape modern human face
Skulls of hominins over the last 4.4 million years 
[Credit: Rodrigo Lacruz]
As large-brained, short-faced hominins, our faces are different from other, now extinct hominins (such as the Neanderthals) and our closest living relatives (bonobos and chimpanzees), but how and why did the modern human face evolve this way?

A new review published in Nature Ecology and Evolution and authored by a team of international experts, including researchers from the University of York, traces changes in the evolution of the face from the early African hominins to the appearance of modern human anatomy.

They conclude that social communication has been somewhat overlooked as a factor underlying the modern human facial form. Our faces should be seen as the result of a combination of biomechanical, physiological and social influences, the authors of the study say.

The researchers suggest that our faces evolved not only due to factors such as diet and climate, but possibly also to provide more opportunities for gesture and nonverbal communication - vital skills for establishing the large social networks which are believed to have helped Homo sapiens to survive.

"We can now use our faces to signal more than 20 different categories of emotion via the contraction or relaxation of muscles", says Paul O'Higgins, Professor of Anatomy at the Hull York Medical School and the Department of Archaeology at the University of York. "It's unlikely that our early human ancestors had the same facial dexterity as the overall shape of the face and the positions of the muscles were different."

Instead of the pronounced brow ridge of other hominins, humans developed a smooth forehead with more visible, hairy eyebrows capable of a greater range of movement. This, alongside our faces becoming more slender, allows us to express a wide range of subtle emotions - including recognition and sympathy.

"We know that other factors such as diet, respiratory physiology and climate have contributed to the shape of the modern human face, but to interpret its evolution solely in terms of these factors would be an oversimplification," Professor O'Higgins adds.

The human face has been partly shaped by the mechanical demands of feeding and over the past 100,000 years our faces have been getting smaller as our developing ability to cook and process food led to a reduced need for chewing.

This facial shrinking process has become particularly marked since the agricultural revolution, as we switched from being hunter gatherers to agriculturalists and then to living in cities - lifestyles that led to increasingly pre-processed foods and less physical effort.

"Softer modern diets and industrialised societies may mean that the human face continues to decrease in size", says Professor O'Higgins. "There are limits on how much the human face can change however, for example breathing requires a sufficiently large nasal cavity."

"However, within these limits, the evolution of the human face is likely to continue as long as our species survives, migrates and encounters new environmental, social and cultural conditions."

Source: University of York [April 15, 2019]


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1 comment :

  1. Thanks for this, but it was not the need for social skills that shaped our face: in the light of comparative biology, the question of how and when the modern human face originated is not so unclear any more (e.g. Vaneechoutte 2011, Rhys Evans 2013, 2019). It was our ancestors' locomotion and diet that shaped our facial and other anatomy.
    All hominoid apes still retain centrally-placed lumbar spines, which suggest that Mio-Pliocene hominoids (including australopiths and habilis) were already vertical (orthograde) probably since about 20 Ma (Morotopithecus), not only for wading and walking bipedally, but also e.g. for climbing vertically (arms overhead).
    Starting from the generally apelike australopithecine face (still seen also in A. or H. habilis), there were apparently two important innovations in the evolution of human facial anatomy.
    (1) The available evidence (fossil data, paleo-milieu, isotopes, nutrition etc.) shows that early-Pleistocene archaic Homo spread intercontinentally along African and Eurasian coasts, and from there gradually trekked inland along rivers and wetlands.
    Seafood is extremely rich in brain-specific nutrients such as DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), and the pachyosteosclerotic skeleton seen in H. erectus and relatives is uniquely seen in littoral mammals. Other anatomical traits of archaic Homo, such as platycephaly and platymeria, also suggest a waterside (initially coastal) dispersal. Most likely, our littoral ancestors collected part of their diet by frequent diving for shellfish (cf stone tool use) and possibly also seaweeds in shallow coastal waters. This most parsimoniously explains some facial innovations we see in archaic Homo (such as midfacial projection, large piriform aperture, retromolar space) as well as modern human retentions that can largely be attributed to from this phase (such as hyoidal descent, small oral opening, insiciform canines, closed parabolic toothrow, globular tongue, smooth and vaulted palate, MYH16 inactivation, which were arguably due to the suction and swallowing of soft littoral foods, rather than to terrestrial foods which had to be bitten and chewed more thoroughly). Paleo-environmental data and isotopic evidence suggest that gradually (presumably mid-Pleistocene) human ancestors ventured more and more inland along rivers and wetland, possibly initially seasonally.
    (2) The second innovation in early H. sapiens showed e.g. the disappearence of pachyosteosclerosis, platymeria and platycephaly (hence a more globular braincase), and the appearence of a flatter face (reduction of midfacial prognathism), very long and caudally-directed spinous processes mid-thoracally, longer tibias, more pronounced basicranial flexion and the shift of the eyes underneath the frontal brain (rather than in front of it). All this suggests reduction or loss of diving habits, and the evolution of exclusive bipedality for wading and walking. For references, google e.g. "coastal dispersal 2019 Verhaegen".
    IOW, not social skills, but the ancestral diet were most important in shaping our face.


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