Cranium of a Four Million Year Old Hominin Shows Similarities to That of Modern Humans

Summary: Researchers report the cranium of a 4 million year old hominin shows striking similarity to that of modern humans.

Source: University of the Witwatersrand.

A cranium of a four-million-year-old fossil, that, in 1995 was described as the oldest evidence of human evolution in South Africa, has shown similarities to that of our own, when scanned through high resolution imaging systems.

The cranium of the extinct Australopithecus genus was found in the lower-lying deposits of the Jacovec Cavern in the Sterkfontein Caves, about 40km North-West of Johannesburg in South Africa. Dr Amelie Beaudet from the School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies of the University of the Witwatersrand and her colleagues from the Sterkfontein team scanned the cranium at the Evolutionary Studies Institute, based at the University of the Witwatersrand, in 2016 and applied advanced imaging techniques in “virtual paleontology” to further explore the anatomy of the cranium. Their research was funded by the Centre of Excellence in Palaeosciences, the Claude Leon Foundation and the French Institute of South Africa and was published in the Journal of Human Evolution.

“The Jacovec cranium represents a unique opportunity to learn more about the biology and diversity of our ancestors and their relatives and, ultimately, about their evolution,” says Beaudet. “Unfortunately, the cranium is highly fragmentary and not much could be said about the identity nor the anatomy of the Jacovec specimen before.”

Through high resolution scanning, the researchers were able to quantitatively and non-invasively explore fine details of the inner anatomy of the Jacovec specimen and to report previously unknown information about the genus Australopithecus.

“Our study revealed that the cranium of the Jacovec specimen and of the Ausralopithecus specimens from Sterkfontein in general was thick and essentially composed of spongy bone,” says Beaudet. “This large portion of spongy bone, also found in our own cranium, may indicate that blood flow in the brain of Australopithecus may have been comparable to us, and/or that the braincase had an important role in the protection of the evolving brain.”

the skull
Original picture (left) and virtual rendering of the Jacovec cranium (middle) with two sections revealing the inner structure (right). image is credited to Amelie Beaudet.

In comparing this cranium to that of another extinct group of our family tree, Paranthropus, that lived in South Africa along with the first humans less than two-million-years ago, their study revealed an intriguing and unexpected aspect of the cranial anatomy in this genus.

“We also found that the Paranthropus cranium was relatively thin and essentially composed of compact bone. This result is of particular interest, as it may suggest a different biology,” says Beaudet.

Situated in the Cradle of humankind, a Unesco World Heritage Site, the South African paleontological sites have played a pivotal role in the exploration of our origins. In particular, the Sterkfontein Caves site has been one of the most prolific fossil localities in Africa, with over 800 hominin remains representing 3 genera of hominin recovered since 1936, including the first adult Australopithecus, the iconic “Mrs Ples” and “Little Foot”, the most complete single skeleton of an early hominin yet found.

“The Jacovec cranium exemplifies the relevance of the Sterkfontein fossil specimens for our understanding of human evolution,” says Beaudet. “Imaging techniques open unique perspectives for revisiting the South African fossil assemblage.”

About this neuroscience research article

Source: Schalk Mouton – University of the Witwatersrand
Publisher: Organized by
Image Source: image is credited to Amelie Beaudet.
Original Research: Abstract for “Cranial vault thickness variation and inner structural organization in the StW 578 hominin cranium from Jacovec Cavern, South Africa” by Amélie Beaudet, Kristian J. Carlson, Ronald J.Clarke, Frikkiede Beer, Jelle Dhaene, Jason L. Heaton, Travis R .Pickering, and Dominic Stratford in Journal of Human Evolution. Published May 21 2018.

Cite This Article

[cbtabs][cbtab title=”MLA”]University of the Witwatersrand”Cranium of a Four Million Year Old Hominin Shows Similarities to That of Modern Humans.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 25 June 2018.
<>.[/cbtab][cbtab title=”APA”]University of the Witwatersrand(2018, June 25). Cranium of a Four Million Year Old Hominin Shows Similarities to That of Modern Humans. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved June 25, 2018 from[/cbtab][cbtab title=”Chicago”]University of the Witwatersrand”Cranium of a Four Million Year Old Hominin Shows Similarities to That of Modern Humans.” (accessed June 25, 2018).[/cbtab][/cbtabs]


Cranial vault thickness variation and inner structural organization in the StW 578 hominin cranium from Jacovec Cavern, South Africa

The Sterkfontein Caves site is one of the richest early hominin fossil localities in Africa. More specifically, the fossiliferous deposits within the lower-lying Jacovec Cavern have yielded valuable hominin remains; prominent among them is the Australopithecus partial cranium StW 578. Due to the fragmentary nature of the braincase, the specimen has not yet been formally assigned to a species. In this context, we employ microtomography to quantify cranial thickness and composition of StW 578 in order to assess its taxonomic affinity. As comparative material, we investigate 10 South African hominin cranial specimens from Sterkfontein (StW 505, Sts 5, Sts 25, Sts 71), Swartkrans (SK 46, SK 48, SK 49) and Makapansgat (MLD 1, MLD 10, MLD 37/38), attributed to either Australopithecus or Paranthropus, as well as 10 extant human and 10 extant chimpanzee crania. Thickness variation in and structural arrangement of the inner and outer cortical tables and the diploë are automatically assessed at regular intervals along one parasagittal and one coronal section. Additionally, topographic cranial vault thickness distribution is visualized using color maps. Comparisons highlight an absolutely and relatively thickened condition of the StW 578 cranial vault versus those of other South African Plio-Pleistocene hominins. Moreover, in StW 578, as well as in the Australopithecus specimens Sts 5 and Sts 71 from Sterkfontein, the diploic layer contributes substantially to cumulative vault thickness (i.e., >60%). Within the comparative sample investigated here, StW 505 and Sts 71 from Sterkfontein Member 4, both attributed to Australopithecus, most closely resemble StW 578 in terms of cranial vault thickness values, tissue proportions, and two- and three-dimensional distributions. Including additional Plio-Pleistocene Australopithecus and Paranthropus crania from South and East Africa in future studies would further help establish morphological variability in these hominin taxa.

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