Climate changed our body and brain sizes

The average body size of humans has fluctuated significantly over the last million years and is strongly linked to temperature

August 11, 2021
The Scitech

An interdisciplinary team of researchers, led by the Universities of Cambridge and Tübingen, has gathered measurements of body and brain size for over 300 fossils from the genus Homo found across the globe. By combining this data with a reconstruction of the world’s regional climates over the last million years, they have pinpointed the specific climate experienced by each fossil when it was a living human. The study reveals that the average body size of humans has fluctuated significantly over the last million years, with larger bodies evolving in colder regions. Larger size is thought to act as a buffer against colder temperatures: less heat is lost from a body when its mass is large relative to its surface area. The results are published today in the journal Nature Communications.

A defining trait of the evolution of our genus is a trend of increasing body and brain size; compared to earlier species such as Homo habilis, we are 50% heavier and our brains are three times larger. But the drivers behind such changes remain highly debated. “Our study indicates that climate - particularly temperature - has been the main driver of changes in body size for the past million years,” said Professor Andrea Manica, a researcher in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology who led the study. He added: “We can see from people living today that those in warmer climates tend to be smaller, and those living in colder climates tend to be bigger. We now know that the same climatic influences have been at work for the last million years.”

Brain size tended to be larger when Homo was living in habitats with less vegetation, like open steppes and grasslands, but also in ecologically more stable areas. In combination with archaeological data, the results suggest that people living in these habitats hunted large animals as food - a complex task that might have driven the evolution of larger brains. “We found that different factors determine brain size and body size – they’re not under the same evolutionary pressures. The environment has a much greater influence on our body size than our brain size,” said Dr Manuel Will at the University of Tubingen, Germany, first author of the study. This research also suggests that non-environmental factors were more important for driving larger brains than climate, prime candidates being the added cognitive challenges of increasingly complex social lives, more diverse diets, and more sophisticated technology.

Source: Universities of Cambridge news release