The CENIEH researcher Emiliano Bruner publishes a review paper about the brain of 'Homo habilis'

The Homo habilis fossil record has not grown in the last thirty years and there remain many doubts whether this is a valid species, as well as about the origins of the genus Homo.

Emiliano Bruner, a paleoneurologist at the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH), has just published a historical review article about paleoneurology and the brain of Homo habilis, in collaboration with Amélie Beaudet of the University of Cambridge (United Kingdom), in a special issue of the Journal of Human Evolution dedicated to its 50th anniversary.

Starting from a 1987 paper by the “father of Homo habilis”, the paleoanthropologist Phillip Tobias, the new paper reviews the advances in paleoanthropology over the last three decades, both methodologically and conceptually. The fossil record of H. habilis has not grown much in this time, and there remain many doubts whether this is a valid species, as well as about the origins of our own genus Homo.

On the one hand, many traits that have been important in paleoneurology, such as brain size, the morphology of the frontal lobes and cerebral asymmetries, while these remain relevant today in neurobiology, have not furnished interesting information for interpreting brain evolution in hominins.

On the other, many traits of the internal anatomy of the skull continue to be little known in our own species H. sapiens, which means that only limited conclusions can be drawn given also that the paleoanthropological record is scanty.

“Of course, what has improved over these thirty years are the technology and the methods of anatomical analysis, above all thanks to computerized tools, and so has our knowledge of the relationships between skull and brain at the level of growth and development”, says Bruner.

A discipline susceptible to speculation

One important point that must be considered is the considerable rise in public and media interest in science in general, and in paleoanthropology in particular. “But this interest is not always a good thing because it is contaminating the research with economic and market factors that might impair the objectivity of the discipline”, according to the CENIEH paleoneurologist.

In general, paleoanthropology is a field based on hypotheses that often cannot be settled, and it deals with topics that are striking and questions that have no direct effect on the common good. “These characteristics make paleoanthropology more susceptible to speculation and leave it exposed to both personal and institutional interests that could undermine the field's reputation”, concludes Bruner.