Docosahexaenoic acid, the aquatic diet, and hominin encephalization: Difficulties in establishing evolutionary links

Authors

  • Bryce A. Carlson,

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Anthropology, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia 30322
    • Department of Anthropology, Emory University, 1557 Dickey Dr., Atlanta, GA 30322
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  • John D. Kingston

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Anthropology, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia 30322
    • Department of Anthropology, Emory University, 1557 Dickey Dr., Atlanta, GA 30322
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Abstract

Distinctive characteristics of modern humans, including language, tool manufacture and use, culture, and behavioral plasticity, are linked to changes in the organization and size of the brain during hominin evolution. As brain tissue is metabolically and nutritionally costly to develop and maintain, early hominin encephalization has been linked to a release of energetic and nutritional constraints. One such nutrient-based approach has focused on the n-3 long-chained polyunsaturated fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which is a primary constituent of membrane phospholipids within the synaptic networks of the brain essential for optimal cognitive functioning. As biosynthesis of DHA from n-3 dietary precursors (alpha-linolenic acid, LNA) is relatively inefficient, it has been suggested that preformed DHA must have been an integral dietary constituent during evolution of the genus Homo to facilitate the growth and development of an encephalizing brain. Furthermore, preformed DHA has only been identified to an appreciable extent within aquatic resources (marine and freshwater), leading to speculation that hominin encephalization is linked specifically to access and consumption of aquatic resources. The key premise of this perspective is that biosynthesis of DHA from LNA is not only inefficient but also insufficient for the growth and maturation demands of an encephalized brain. However, this assumption is not well-supported, and much evidence instead suggests that consumption of LNA, available in a wider variety of sources within a number of terrestrial ecosystems, is sufficient for normal brain development and maintenance in modern humans and presumably our ancestors. Am. J. Hum. Biol. 19:132–141, 2007. © 2006 Wiley-Liss, Inc.

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