Modern human brain first appeared only 1.7 million years in Africa

The human brain as we know it today has not existed as long as thought. It only emerged in Africa some 1.7 million years ago, according to a study by researchers at the University of Zurich, published in the journal Science.

The first humanoids of the genus Homo appeared on the African continent some 2.5 million years ago. Although they were already walking on two feet like today’s modern human Homo sapiens, their brains’ size was 50 percent smaller, comparable to their genus Australopithecus’s ancestors.

“Until now, we started from the principle that the first humans already had a brain similar to that of modern humans 2.5 million years ago,” explains Professor Christoph Zollikofer from the Anthropology Institute at the University of Zurich. “According to our analyses, modern human brain structures only formed 1.5 to 1.7 million years ago.”


An international team led by Zollikofer and Marcia Ponce de León analyzed some 40 skulls of Homo erectus from 1 to 2 million years old from Africa and Asia using computer tomography.

The researchers established that the first humans to appear outside Africa – about 1.8 million years ago in present-day Georgia – did not yet have remarkably large or modern brains. However, these people could, for example, already make all kinds of tools.

Consequently, the modern human brain emerged only 1.7 million years ago, according to researchers. However, fossils from Java did confirm that the first Africans with a larger brain spread quickly and successfully to the southeast of Asia.

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