Saturday, February 18, 2006

There's Something Fishy About Human Brain Evolution

AUTHOR: Arnet Sheppard

SOURCE: Eureka Alert

COMMENTARY: Allen MacNeill (following the article)

Forget the textbook story about tool use and language sparking the dramatic evolutionary growth of the human brain. Instead, imagine ancient hominid children chasing frogs. Not for fun, but for food.

According to Dr. Stephen Cunnane it was a rich and secure shore-based diet that fueled and provided the essential nutrients to make our brains what they are today. Controversially, according to Dr. Cunnane our initial brain boost didn't happen by adaptation, but by exaptation, or chance.

"Anthropologists and evolutionary biologists usually point to things like the rise of language and tool making to explain the massive expansion of early hominid brains. But this is a Catch-22. Something had to start the process of brain expansion and I think it was early humans eating clams, frogs, bird eggs and fish from shoreline environments. This is what created the necessary physiological conditions for explosive brain growth," says Dr. Cunnane, a metabolic physiologist at the University of Sherbrooke in Sherbrooke, Quebec.

The evolutionary growth in hominid brain size remains a mystery and a major point of contention among anthropologists. Our brains weigh roughly twice as much as our similarly sized earliest human relative, Homo habilis two million years ago. The big question is which came first – the bigger brain or the social, linguistic and tool-making skills we associate with it?

But, Dr. Cunnane argues that most anthropologists are ignorant or dismissive of the key missing link to help answer this question: the metabolic constraints that are critical for healthy human brain development today, and for its evolution.

Human brains aren't just comparatively big, they're hungry. The average newborn's brain consumes an amazing 75-per cent of an infant's daily energy needs. According to Dr. Cunnane, to fuel this neural demand, human babies are born with a built-in energy reservoir – that cute baby fat. Human infants are the only primate babies born with excess fat. It accounts for about 14 per cent of their birth weight, similar to that of their brains.

It's this baby fat, says Dr. Cunnane, that provided the physiological winning conditions for hominids' evolutionary brain expansion. And how were hominid babies able to pack on the extra pounds? According to Cunnane their moms were dining on shoreline delicacies like clams and catfish.

"The shores gave us food security and higher nutrient density. My hypothesis is that to permit the brain to start to increase in size, the fittest early humans were those with the fattest infants," says Dr. Cunnane, author of the book Survival of the Fattest, published in 2005.

Unlike the prehistoric savannahs or forests, argues Dr. Cunnane, ancient shoreline environments provided a year-round, accessible and rich food supply. Such an environment was found in the wetlands and river and lake shorelines that dominated east Africa's prehistoric Rift Valley in which early humans evolved.

Dr. Cunnane points to the table scrap fossil evidence collected by his symposium co-organizer Dr. Kathy Stewart from the Canadian Museum of Nature, in Ottawa. Her study of fossil material excavated from numerous Homo habilis sites in eastern Africa revealed a bevy of chewed fish bones, particularly catfish.

More than just filling the larder, shorelines provided essential brain boosting nutrients and minerals that launched Homo sapiens brains past their primate peers, says Dr. Cunnane, the Canada Research Chair in Brain Metabolism and Aging.

Brain development and function requires ample supplies of a particular polyunsaturated fatty acid: docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). DHA is critical to proper neuron function. Human baby fat provides both an energy source for the rapidly growing infant grey matter, and also, says Dr. Cunnane, a greater concentration of DHA per pound than at any other time in life.

Aquatic foods are also rich in iodine, a key brain nutrient. Iodine is present in much lower amounts from terrestrial food sources such as mammals and plants.

It was this combination of abundant shoreline food and the "brain selective nutrients" that sparked the growth of the human brain, he says.

"Initially there wasn't selection for a larger brain," argues Dr. Cunnane. "The genetic possibility was there, but it remained silent until it was catalyzed by this shore-based diet."

Dr. Cunnane acknowledges that for the past 20 years he's been swimming upstream when it comes to convincing anthropologists of his position, especially that initial hominid brain expansion happened by chance rather than adaptation.

But, he says, the evidence of the importance of key shoreline nutrients to brain development is still with us – painfully so. Iodine deficiency is the world's leading nutrient deficiency. It affects more than a 1.5 billion people, mostly in inland areas, and causes sub-optimal brain function. Iodine is legally required to be added to salt in more than 100 countries.

Says Dr. Cunnane: "We've created an artificial shore-based food supply in our salt."


Dr. Stephen Cunnane
(819) 821-1170, ext. 2670 (office)
Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council


Several decades ago, Elaine Morgan ignited a controversy among anthropologists and paleontologists by writing The Aquatic Ape and The Descent of Woman, in which she popularized the theories of Sir Alistair Hardy, who proposed that the evolution of humans from our primate ancestors could best be explained by the assumption that seashores, not savannahs, are our "ancestral" habitat. At the time, both Morgan and Hardy were, like Lynn Margulis and Peter Mitchell, considered to be "crackpots" and "nut cases."

However, recent research into human evolutionary biogeography has lent convincing support to the "aquatic ape hypothesis. As you can see in this website, the biogeographical distribution of marker DNA sequences in our phylogenetic clade closely mirrors the archaeological and paleontological evidence for hominin migrations out of east Africa. For over a million years, our ancestors hugged the shorelines of the old and new worlds...indeed, as any glance at a world map shows, we still do.

Gotta go; it's time for our family swimming lesson at the YMCA ;-).



Location Online: Eureka Alert

Original posting/publication date timestamp:
Public release date: 18-Feb-2006


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At 2/19/2006 02:46:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If I remember correctly, the Aquatic Ape put forth the theory that humans lived for a period of time in the water, not near the water. That's quite different. Evolving large brains and baby fat while living at the seashore and eating fish is more plausible than Morgan's idea, which is that we're hairless and fat as infants because we were aquatic or amphibious at that life stage.

At 3/02/2006 01:21:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

For an examination of the work that's been done on the "aquatic ape" theory, check out Aquatic Ape Theory: Sink or Swim?. The theory's proponents have a long history of very inaccurate research -- that's the kindest way to put it; others might say that claiming research says the opposite of what it actually says, and doing things like altering quotes and such, is more than merely inaccurate.

At 1/10/2008 10:35:00 AM, Blogger aquape said...

AAT opponents usu.misrepresent AAT (sea/lake/riverside adaptations of human ancestors after the human/chimp divergence c.5 Ma) & mostly use outdated strawman arguments.
For recent views & discussions please see or google "aquarboreal"

At 6/22/2013 08:32:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some recent info on the so-called "aquatic ape theory".
Humans didn’t descend from "aquatic apes", but our Pleistocene ancestors were too slow & heavy (physiology & anatomy) for regular running over open plains.
Homo populations during the Ice Ages (with sea-levels often 100 m lower than today) apparently followed the coasts & rivers in Africa & Eurasia, eg, 800,000 years ago, they even reached Flores more than 18 km overseas.
- google "econiche Homo" for a demolition of the endurance running ideas
- eBook Was Man more aquatic in the past? introduction Phillip Tobias
- guest post at Greg Laden's blog
- Human Evolution conference London 8–10 May 2013 with David Attenborough, Don Johanson etc.
- M Verhaegen & S Munro 2011 "Pachyosteosclerosis suggests archaic Homo frequently collected sessile littoral foods" HOMO – J compar hum Biol 62:237-247
- M Vaneechoutte, S Munro & M Verhaegen 2012 "Reply to John Langdon's review of the eBook: Was Man more aquatic in the past?" HOMO – J compar hum Biol 63:496-503
- for ape & australopith evolution google "aquarboreal"
marc verhaegen


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