Effects of brain and facial size on basicranial form in human and primate evolution

Markus Bastir, Antonio Rosas, Chris Stringer, J Manuel Cuétara, Robert Kruszynski, Gerhard W Weber, Callum F Ross, Matthew J Ravosa
Journal of Human Evolution 2010, 58 (5): 424-31
Understanding variation in the basicranium is of central importance to paleoanthropology because of its fundamental structural role in skull development and evolution. Among primates, encephalisation is well known to be associated with flexion between midline basicranial elements, although it has been proposed that the size or shape of the face influences basicranial flexion. In particular, brain size and facial size are hypothesized to act as antagonists on basicranial flexion. One important and unresolved problem in hominin skull evolution is that large-brained Neanderthals and some Mid-Pleistocene humans have slightly less flexed basicrania than equally large-brained modern humans. To determine whether or not this is a consequence of differences in facial size, geometric morphometric methods were applied to a large comparative data set of non-human primates, hominin fossils, and humans (N=142; 29 species). Multiple multivariate regression and thin plate spline analyses suggest that basicranial evolution is highly significantly influenced by both brain size and facial size. Increasing facial size rotates the basicranium away from the face and slightly increases the basicranial angle, whereas increasing brain size reduces the angles between the spheno-occipital clivus and the presphenoid plane, as well as between the latter and the cribriform plate. These interactions can explain why Neanderthals and some Mid-Pleistocene humans have less flexed cranial bases than modern humans, despite their relatively similar brain sizes. We highlight that, in addition to brain size (the prime factor implicated in basicranial evolution in Homo), facial size is an important influence on basicranial morphology and orientation. To better address the multifactorial nature of basicranial flexion, future studies should focus on the underlying factors influencing facial size evolution in hominins.

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