Pandora's growing box: Inferring the evolution and development of hominin brains from endocasts


  • Christoph Peter Eduard Zollikofer,

    Search for more papers by this author
    • Christoph P. E. Zollikofer has a Ph.D. in neurobiology and is Professor of Anthropology at the Anthropological Institute of the University of Zurich. His main research field is computer-assisted paleoanthropology, encompassing the investigation of patterns of morphological variability and evolutionary diversification among primates, computational modeling of morphogenetic and dispersal processes, and development of image-based analytical tools for anthropology. E-mail:

  • Marcia Silvia Ponce De León

    Search for more papers by this author
    • Marcia S. Ponce de León has a Ph.D. in anthropology and is Senior Lecturer at the Anthropological Institute of the University of Zurich. Her research focuses on the evolutionary developmental biology of fossil and modern humans and apes, new methods for morphometric analysis of three-dimensional patterns of craniofacial shape variation, and paleopathology and forensic osteology. E-mail:


The brain of modern humans is an evolutionary and developmental outlier: At birth, it has the size of an adult chimpanzee brain and expands by a factor of 2 during the first postnatal year. Large neonatal brain size and rapid initial growth contrast with slow maturation, which extends well into adolescence. When, how, and why this peculiar pattern of brain ontogeny evolved and how it is correlated with structural changes in the brain are key questions of paleoanthropology. Because brains and their ontogenies do not fossilize, indirect evidence from fossil hominin endocasts needs to be combined with evidence from modern humans and our closest living relatives, the great apes. New fossil finds permit a denser sampling of hominin endocranial morphologies along ontogenetic and evolutionary time lines. New brain imaging methods provide the basis for quantifying endocast-brain relationships and tracking endocranial and brain growth and development noninvasively. Combining this evidence with ever-more detailed knowledge about actual and fossil “brain genes,” we are now beginning to understand how brain ontogeny and structure were modified during human evolution and what the adaptive significance of these modifications may have been.