Skull of early human found with 'pinhead' brain like a gorilla's

A spectacularly preserved skull of one of the earliest human ancestors to emerge from Africa about 1.75 million years ago has been unearthed by scientists in Georgia.

A spectacularly preserved skull of one of the earliest human ancestors to emerge from Africa about 1.75 million years ago has been unearthed by scientists in Georgia.

The skull has the smallest brain of any unambiguously human fossil, indicating that early humans did not need big brains to journey out of Africa.

Scientists found the skull and jawbone at Dmanisi, which has already revealed fossils of a sabre-toothed tiger and prehistoric rhinoceros, deer, wolf and horse. It is the third set of human remains believed to be of early Homo erectus to be dug from the site. However, the petite size of the skull with its thin brow ridge and short nose – but huge canine teeth – has amazed palaeontologists, who believe it might be of a female.

Professor Chris Stringer, head of human origins at the Natural History Museum in London, said: "This latest skull is astonishingly well preserved and quite exceptional. It's also completely unexpected."

The skull's features are human yet the brain is not much bigger than that of an ape. These early people would have looked human and used simple stone tools.

"This is astonishing. If you looked hard enough you could probably find a gorilla with a brain that big. They may have been pinheads but below the neck they would have looked largely human," he said.

David Lordkipanidze, of the Georgian Academy of Sciences in Tbilisi, published details of the find today in the journal Science. It is said to be the largest collection of individuals from any archaeological site older than about 800,000 years.

The difference in size between this skull and two much bigger skulls and jawbones found with it suggests either that two species lived at the site or that the difference in size between males and females was once much bigger than it is in modern humans.

"Here we have the chance to study a population. We are seeing a difference mainly in size, not morphology [shape]. For now, my hypothesis is that we are seeing variability within the population," he writes.

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