Peking man differing from modern humans in brain asymmetry

June 28, 2011, Institute of Vertebrae Paleontology and Paleoanthropology
The six Peking man’s endocasts used in the study, showing left lateral views. Credit: WU XiuJie

Paleoanthropologists studying the fossil endocasts of Australopithecus, Homo habilis, Homo erectus, Neanderthals, and Homo sapiens have reported that almost all brain endocasts display distinct cerebral asymmetry. Peking man’s endocasts are good examples of ancestral brains and are useful in studying human evolution. However, studies examining brain asymmetries in fossil hominids are usually limited to scoring of differences in hemisphere protrusion rostrally and caudally, or to comparing the width of the hemispheres.

Dr. WU XiuJie and PAN Lei, one of her graduate students, Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP), Chinese Academy of Sciences, using 3D laser scanning, examined asymmetries of the hemisphere volumes and surface areas in the Zhoukoudain , well known as Peking man, dated to 0.4–0.8 Ma. They found that Peking man exhibited a greater variation than the modern humans in the relative sizes between the left and right hemispheres, and no differences in the two hemispheres in Peking man, while in the modern endocasts the left hemisphere was significantly greater than the right hemisphere, as reported in the latest issues of Chinese Science Bulletin 56 (21):2215-2220.

evolution is one of the most important aspects of human evolution. For fossil hominids, the soft brain tissue was removed during fossilization. As such, endocasts are the direct material for the study of brain evolution. An endocast is an impression taken from the inside of a cranium that reflects the external features of the brain anatomy in detail.

Six nearly complete crania from Peking man were discovered at Zhoukoudian Locality 1 in the suburbs of Beijing since the official excavation in 1927. From these, six endocasts were reconstructed from the original cranium fossils from Zhoukoudian Homo erectus. Dr. Wu used a 3D laser surface technique to scan the Peking man’s endocasts in order to reconstruct the 3D brain images. Using these methods Wu was able to calculate absolute and relative volumes and surface areas of two hemispheres for this study.

Virtual 3D endocasts of Peking man and methods used to split the left and right hemispheres. (a) Standard X-axis reference plane; (b), (c) standard Y-axis reference plane. (d)-(f) Methods used to split the left hemisphere; (d), (g), (h) methods used to split the right hemisphere. Credit: WU XiuJie

Compared with modern humans, Peking man’s brain casts have small brain size, low height and low position of the greatest breadth, flat frontal and parietal lobes, depressed Sylvian areas, strong posterior projection of the occipital lobes, anterior positioning of the cerebellar lobes relative to the occipital lobes, and relative simplicity of the meningeal vessels.

The study shows that the absolute hemisphere volumes and surface areas exhibited no significant asymmetries in the Peking man or in modern specimens. However, the relative hemisphere volumes against surface areas differed between the two groups, suggesting that brain asymmetries originated from relative brain sizes rather than absolute brain volumes during human evolution. These anatomical changes are likely related to the origin of human brain lateralization.

The anatomical structures of Peking man’s brain maybe differs from the modern human, suggesting that Peking man had no ability to communicate with each other in the form of language. During , brain anatomical asymmetries experienced marked changes, and certain human abilities including language, intelligence, and cognition are likely related to these asymmetrical changes.

“Although it was suggested that might exhibit a left hemisphere larger than the right hemisphere, studies restricted to the traditional method of examination were not able to examine these parameters. Using a 3D laser surface technique, we were able to calculate the absolute and relative volumes and surface areas of the two hemispheres”, said Dr. WU, the lead author and research designer.

Explore further: Brain Endocast of Nanjing 1 Homo erectus Reconstructed

Related Stories

Brain Endocast of Nanjing 1 Homo erectus Reconstructed

June 22, 2011

Endocasts are the most direct evidence for studying human brain evolution. Endocasts can provide information on brain size, general shape, morphology, and anatomical features of the external surface. Dr. WU Xiujie, Institute ...

Unique canine tooth from Peking man found

May 11, 2011

( -- Fossils from so-called Peking man are extremely rare, as most of the finds disappeared during World War II. A unique discovery has been made at the Museum of Evolution at Uppsala University—a canine ...

Is the Hobbit's brain unfeasibly small?

January 27, 2010

( -- The commonly held assumption that as primates evolved, their brains always tended to get bigger has been challenged by a team of scientists at Cambridge and Durham. Their work helps solve the mystery of whether ...

Recommended for you

Study sheds new light on ancient human-turkey relationship

January 17, 2018

For the first time, research has uncovered the origins of the earliest domestic turkeys in ancient Mexico. The study also suggests turkeys weren't only prized for their meat—with demand for the birds soaring with the Mayans ...

Lifting barriers to citizenship for low-income immigrants

January 15, 2018

Taking the Oath of Allegiance at a naturalization ceremony is an emotional moment for many immigrants, and for good reason: it is the culmination of an often arduous process and many years of striving. Citizenship also opens ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.