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17 November 2010
Similarity between Neanderthal and human brains at birth

New-born humans' brains are about the same size and of similar appearance to those of Neanderthals, but alter in the first year of life, a new scientific study suggested. After birth and particularly during the first year of life the differences in development are stark, said lead author Phillipp Günz of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany. "There was a huge difference in the way they grew their brain compared to modern humans in the first one-and-a-half and two years," Günz said.
     To compare the two brains, scientists assembled a virtual Neanderthal brain by scanning skull fragments and comparing the computer models at different stages of growth to the human baby brain. The human brain began much more activity in neural circuitry in the first year of life, which may have helped early Homo sapiens survive in the process of natural selection, the study said. "The interesting thing is within modern humans, the size of the brain correlates only very weakly with any measure of intelligence," he said. "It's more the internal structure of the brain that is important. And the Neanderthal, they were smart because they had a huge brain," he added, "but we don't think the Neanderthal saw the world as we do."
     Dr Günz said the issue of whether cognitive differences exist between modern humans and Neanderthals is hotly debated in anthropology and archaeology. The elongated overall shape of the braincase has not changed much in the course of more than two million years of human evolution, despite a big increase in endocranium volume. It is the globular braincases of modern humans that distinguish our own species from our closest fossil relatives and ancestors.
     The new findings show that, at the time of birth, both Neanderthals and modern humans have elongated braincases, but only modern humans change to a more globular shape in the first year of life.

Edited from Discovery News (8 November 2010), Telegraph.co.uk (9 November 2010)

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