Cave Nerds?

Last Friday I read about the discovery of some stone age skulls in South Africa from people who had brains larger than ours.  Naturally I’m going to have to say something about that on my webpage about cave men, so here it is:

 

Boskop Man

This hominid was discovered a hundred years ago, but you probably haven’t heard of him. In 1913 two South African farmers at the small town of Boskop were digging a drainage ditch, and they uncovered part of a human skull. Something about the skull didn’t look right, so they took it to a museum. Sure enough, the skull was much larger than normal, but the face wasn’t larger to match, so it could not have belonged to a normal tall person. Rough estimates of the cranial capacity (the skull was incomplete, after all) produced a result of 1,750 cubic centimeters, making it 29 percent larger than a normal cranium. What’s more, much of the extra brain was in the front, where we do most of our advanced thinking, so he could have smarter than us, too. The skull’s age was estimated at 10,000 years, making the owner contemporary with Cro-Magnon Man (see below). This presented evolutionists with the same sort of problem as Piltdown Man did; primitive men were NOT supposed to have big brains! Fortunately for the evolutionists, there was only one specimen, and it was found without accompanying tools or animal fossils, so it was easy to ignore Boskop Man, and the world forgot about him.

Years later, Frederick FitzSimons found the graves of a few more big-headed folks, a hundred miles from the original site. Then in 2008, neuroscientists Gary Lynch and Richard Granger published a book entitled Big Brain: The Origins and Future of Human Intelligence. They proposed that Boskop Man had an average IQ of 150, meaning that more than half of them would have been smart enough to get into Mensa. So what was that brain power good for? Lynch and Granger felt it was used for superior sensory processing of the owner’s environment; Boskop Man would have had a perfect photographic memory. Or perhaps it caused him to act like a philosopher, spending much of his free time discussing elaborate ideas with anyone who cared to listen. In other words, Boskops were super nerds. To them we would have looked as primitive and brutish as Homo Erectus and Neanderthals look to us.

So if these guys were so brilliant, why didn’t they exterminate or enslave us? Lynch and Granger suggested that they simply may not have wanted to. What’s more, big brains can be a liability as well as an asset. Childbirth is difficult for modern women because of the large size of the baby’s head; imagine how tough it must have been for a Boskop woman to deliver! The danger of carrying such a baby to term could have been a strong incentive to avoid having kids (I told you they were nerds). Or they could have interbred with normal humans to avoid the problem; if they did that, they would have been absorbed into our ancestors, and some of us may carry Boskop genes today. Finally, the skills that come from a superior intellect aren’t very useful without a civilization to practice them in; if you’re living in the stone age, how would you balance a checkbook, compose a symphony, or write the next great software? Supposedly the Boskops realized that those who lived by brute force had an advantage over them, and accepted their fate–if they weren’t wiped out by our ancestors.

Classic evolutionary theory has the human brain growing larger, and mankind getting smarter, as time goes by. Scientists and science fiction writers have tried to extrapolate from that what our descendants will look like, and they predict future man will have less hair, smaller faces, and bigger heads (The example in the picture below is from the classic TV series "The Outer Limits."). Instead, Boskop Man appears to have resembled that already; was the "man from tomorrow" here yesterday? Occasionally we hear about somebody living in the wrong time, like Charles Babbage, who invented the computer 120 years before the world was ready for it; we could have a case of that here!

The man from tomorrow

Of course many scientists refuse to consider such a controversial idea. Some, like John Hawks, insist that the above speculation about the Boskop skulls is nothing but fantasy, and that the skulls do not represent an otherwise unknown race; more likely they represent a birth defect like hydrocephalus. Do we have another case of a disease masquerading as evolution, like when acromegaly makes modern men look like Neanderthals? It looks like we’ll have to treat Boskop Man like Denisova Man, and wait for more evidence before drawing any conclusions.

Published in: on November 12, 2012 at 1:29 pm  Leave a Comment  

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