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← What Happened to the Hominids Who Were Smarter Than Us?

What Happened to the Hominids Who Were Smarter Than Us? - Comments

Rawhard Dickins's Avatar Comment 1 by Rawhard Dickins

Space reserved for a suitable punch line.

Wed, 30 Dec 2009 17:37:00 UTC | #426889

blitz442's Avatar Comment 2 by blitz442

Wed, 30 Dec 2009 17:44:00 UTC | #426892

MarcCountry's Avatar Comment 3 by MarcCountry

Try this one, Rawhard:

Intelligent hominids? In South Africa? Impossible!

Wed, 30 Dec 2009 18:09:00 UTC | #426903

godsbelow's Avatar Comment 4 by godsbelow

I've got a few drops of Bushman blood in me - must account for my being exceedingly brilliant (haha)!

Lots of speculation, very little hard evidence in this article.

Wed, 30 Dec 2009 18:24:00 UTC | #426908

prettygoodformonkeys's Avatar Comment 5 by prettygoodformonkeys

Boskop was destined never to be popular. Perhaps, though, (the large brain) also made the Boskops excessively internal and self-reflective
I suggest that they had been beaten up every day after school, by academic C-level sports teams, and eventually succumbed.

Wed, 30 Dec 2009 18:27:00 UTC | #426910

blitz442's Avatar Comment 6 by blitz442

What an embarrassing article, full of rampant speculation, errors in logic, and fossil evidence that was apparently fully discredited 50 years ago.

You don't even need to be a professional to question some of these claims.

We have seen reports of Boskop brain size ranging from 1,650 to 1,900 cc. Let’s assume that an average Boskop brain was around 1,750 cc. What does this mean in terms of function? How would a person with such a brain differ from us? Our brains are roughly 25 percent larger than those of the late Homo erectus. We might say that the functional difference between us and them is about the same as between ourselves and Boskops.

Neanderthal brains were on average larger than ours, can we assume that there was a "functional difference" favoring the Neanderthals?

We internally activate many thoughts at once, but we can retrieve only one at a time. Could the Boskop brain have achieved the ability to retrieve one memory while effortlessly processing others in the background, a split-screen effect enabling far more power of attention?

Even if brain size accounts for just 10 to 20 percent of an IQ test score, it is possible to conjecture what kind of average scores would be made by a group of people with 30 percent larger brains. We can readily calculate that a population with a mean brain size of 1,750 cc would be expected to have an average IQ of 149.
This is a score that would be labeled at the genius level. And if there was normal variability among Boskops, as among the rest of us, then perhaps 15 to 20 percent of them would be expected to score over 180. In a classroom with 35 big-headed, baby-faced Boskop kids, you would likely encounter five or six with IQ scores at the upper range of what has ever been recorded in human history. The Boskops coexisted with our Homo sapiens forebears. Just as we see the ancient Homo erectus as a savage primitive, Boskop may have viewed us in somewhat the same way.

Split-screen brains? Sure. Maybe they were telepathic as well.

Can you predict IQ that accurately based on cranial size? Seems like a very simplistic extrapolation.

And can we reasonably expect some advanced cultural artifacts from these geniuses? So where are they?

Boskop’s greater brains and extended internal representations may have made it easier for them to accurately predict and interpret the world, to match their internal representations with real external events.

Yet they became extinct. And the possible reasons?

They died and we lived, and we can’t answer the question why. Why didn’t they outthink the smaller-brained hominids like ourselves and spread across the planet? Perhaps they didn’t want to.



Longer brain pathways lead to larger and deeper memory hierarchies. These confer a greater ability to examine and discard more blind alleys, to see more consequences of a plan before enacting it. In general this enables us to think things through. If Boskops had longer chains of cortical networks—longer mental assembly lines—they would have created longer and more complex classification chains. When they looked down a road as far as they could, before choosing a path, they would have seen farther than we can: more potential outcomes, more possible downstream costs and benefits.

"Perhaps the Boskops were trapped by their ability to see clearly where things would head. Perhaps they were prisoners of those majestic brains

So higher intelligence is maladaptive? Is life easier or harder for highly intelligent people in modern society who can more clearly see the road ahead? Are they "trapped by their big brains"?


There is another, again poignant, possible explanation for the disappearance of the big-brained people. Maybe all that thoughtfulness was of no particular survival value in 10,000 B.C. The great genius of civilization is that it allows individuals to store memory and operating rules outside of their brains, in the world that surrounds them. The human brain is a sort of central processing unit operating on multiple memory disks, some stored in the head, some in the culture. Lacking the external hard drive of a literate society, the Boskops were unable to exploit the vast potential locked up in their expanded cortex. They were born just a few millennia too soon.

So selection pressure results in these expensive, huge-ass brains, for "no particular survival value". If all of that expensive thoughtfulness was of no particular survival value, it certainly begs the question of how it arose in the first place. Spandrels then? The authors could have also at least have pondered whether sexual selection was at work.

In any event, Boskops are gone, and the more we learn about them, the more we miss them. Their demise is likely to have been gradual. A big skull was not conducive to easy births, and thus a within-group pressure toward smaller heads was probably always present, as it still is in present-day humans, who have an unusually high infant mortality rate due to big-headed babies. This pressure, together with possible interbreeding with migrating groups of smaller-brained peoples, may have led to a gradual decrease in the frequency of the Boskop genes in the growing population of what is now South Africa.

So are we talking about a separate species or subspecies, the “Boskops” (as much of the article implied) or the decline in the frequency of genes for big-headedness in a population over time?

This whole excerpt is confused, what a suck job by the Discover editors to publish it.

Wed, 30 Dec 2009 18:33:00 UTC | #426913

SaintStephen's Avatar Comment 7 by SaintStephen

5. Comment #445529 by prettygoodformonkeys on December 30, 2009 at 6:27 pm

I suggest that they had been beaten up every day after school, by academic C-level sports teams, and eventually succumbed.


Wed, 30 Dec 2009 18:55:00 UTC | #426918

blitz442's Avatar Comment 8 by blitz442

At the risk of sounding a lot like Steve Zara, can someone explain what this piece of psuedoscience is doing on, and how it promotes reason and science?

edit: No offense Steve

Wed, 30 Dec 2009 19:00:00 UTC | #426919

Malena's Avatar Comment 9 by Malena

Very speculative.
Some evidence against the intellence-brain size argument:
Primordial dwarves have chimp size like brains, usually normal mental capabilites and, some of them, can be remarkable intelligent.
So, brain size and intelligence have a very tiny relationship.

Wed, 30 Dec 2009 19:02:00 UTC | #426920

PianoManTC's Avatar Comment 10 by PianoManTC

Is it possible that the Boskops were an alien colony stranded on earth or purposely living on earth for research reasons£ Perhaps there was inter-breeding as well.

Wed, 30 Dec 2009 19:50:00 UTC | #426931

Dean Buchanan's Avatar Comment 11 by Dean Buchanan

From wiki:

"Boskop Man was once thought to be a unique and ancient hominid genus. The possible genus was based on a skull discovered in 1913. The skull of this hominid was 30 percent larger than the modern human skull. They lived in southern Africa probably between 30,000 and 10,000 years ago. [my edit:]The term "Boskop Man" is no longer used by anthropologists, and their supposedly unusual characteristics are considered to be a misinterpretation."

Aside from the fact that this article appears to be the wet dream of a overly romantic anthropologist, is he even speculating about something real?

Wed, 30 Dec 2009 19:52:00 UTC | #426932

NewEnglandBob's Avatar Comment 12 by NewEnglandBob

I agree with blitz442. That article is speculative and silly.

Wed, 30 Dec 2009 20:10:00 UTC | #426934

blitz442's Avatar Comment 13 by blitz442

12. Comment #445554 by NewEnglandBob

These guys are apparently neuroscientists, not anthropologists or archaeologists. They may even be brilliant neuroscientists. But they are clearly speaking well outside their field here.

If this article has any usefulness, it just shows how eminence in one area of science does not mean that you know what you are talking about in other areas.

Although given the ease in which you can find information that questions the whole Boskop claim, you really have to wonder about the due diligence and even the honesty of these guys. At least acknowledge the existence of anthropological arguments that state that these skulls are not unusual.

Perhaps this little Boskop thing was integral to the rest of the book. Sad.

Wed, 30 Dec 2009 20:19:00 UTC | #426936

PERSON's Avatar Comment 14 by PERSON

"10. Comment #445551 by PianoManTC on December 30, 2009 at 7:50 pm
Is it possible that the Boskops were an alien colony stranded on earth"
Not really.

Wed, 30 Dec 2009 20:25:00 UTC | #426939

blitz442's Avatar Comment 15 by blitz442

10. Comment #445551 by PianoManTC

Why would you expect an alien, with whom you share no common ancestry, to be able to breed with you, when we can't even breed with our closest cousins the chimpanzees?

Wed, 30 Dec 2009 20:38:00 UTC | #426946

Logicel's Avatar Comment 16 by Logicel

I want to see bad science journalism. I want to see what shape it takes so it can be confronted. Several science bloggers like Novella take these kinds of pieces apart, so rationalists can hone their critical thinking skills like blitz has done already in this thread.

In any event, Boskops are gone, and the more we learn about them, the more we miss them.

I doubt very much that these two guys would enjoy a nice dinner with a good red wine with any primitive hominid.

Wed, 30 Dec 2009 21:35:00 UTC | #426960

bachfiend's Avatar Comment 17 by bachfiend

I have got "Big Brain" on my Kindle, and I might get around to read it someday (there might be something of use in it). I gave up reading it in the first chapter with the reference to Boskop Man, and the realisation that it was definitely pseudoscience (Boskop man is just the right end of the bell curve of cranial capacity).

Wed, 30 Dec 2009 22:07:00 UTC | #426966

mordacious1's Avatar Comment 18 by mordacious1

Damn...I was just about to jump all over this article, but I got here too late and it has already been shredded. Good link by blitz442 in comment 2 covers it. These guys should have checked with a paleoantrhopologist before publishing something like this or as John Hawks said, googled it.

Wed, 30 Dec 2009 22:15:00 UTC | #426970

Quiddam's Avatar Comment 19 by Quiddam

Clearly they are humans from before the fall

We are all fallen and degenerate.

Wed, 30 Dec 2009 22:26:00 UTC | #426973

iur's Avatar Comment 20 by iur

Maybe big brains think slower because the conections are longer and the signals take more time to travel. makes sense to me. unless it's a positronic brain. Those could be very big because the speed of light is the standard velocity. But if you make a light speed brain the size of the Earth orbit... decisions (amazingly wise and smart, no doubt) coulkd take 8 minutes or more to happend. We Apes could destroy easy those superbrains with little thought...

Wed, 30 Dec 2009 23:53:00 UTC | #426988

PianoManTC's Avatar Comment 21 by PianoManTC

Blitz 442 and PERSON:
My post was a bit tongue-in-cheek. There was a lot of wishful thinking in the article (a bit of a reach for a "science" article) and I was following-up with some wishful thinking of my own. Science often does START with wishful speculation, however, and as long as it is recognized as such, can be useful in stimulating enlightening investigation of such ideas.

Thu, 31 Dec 2009 02:08:00 UTC | #427016

msloane's Avatar Comment 22 by msloane

Probably died out due to the inordinate number of female deaths at child birth.

Thu, 31 Dec 2009 02:22:00 UTC | #427019

King of NH's Avatar Comment 23 by King of NH

There are certainly many ways a more intelligent species can go extinct despite, rather than because, of its intelligence. Our noble species could even be he culprit. A Georgia trailer park is sufficient evidence to the human breeding capacity. Or it could have been a virus, climate pressure, hell, space aliens are even a better explanation than they self reflected themselves to death (Richard, is it really THAT easy to get a PhD in evolutionary biology?).

But brain size and intelligence are only loosely correlated. Perhaps their brains were larger because they were less efficient. "Brainiac" was thousands of times larger than my iPod. Why did we stop using such a powerful computer? Was it just too much AI? Did we have to destroy Frank Herbert's thinking machines? Or was it just a simple "size doesn't matter" circumstance? Just maybe, the larger brain burned too many calories per thought to compete with a slightly improved homo- design using more proton pumps in nervous cells, or better transmitters and/or hormones, or tweaked receptor sites... Without tissue, it is very difficult to get solid answers.

When it comes to anthropology and paleontology, a guy I once borrowed money from gave the best advice (in a dark cornfield): Keep digging.

Thu, 31 Dec 2009 03:41:00 UTC | #427034

InYourFaceNewYorker's Avatar Comment 24 by InYourFaceNewYorker

Well this is from "Discover" magazine. That's a reputable science magazine, is it not? So is this article legit or not?

Thu, 31 Dec 2009 04:23:00 UTC | #427043

mmurray's Avatar Comment 25 by mmurray

Thanks blitz442 for that link. I thought this bit was particularly interestingL

To be sure, there has been a reduction in the average brain size in South Africa during the last 10,000 years, and there have been parallel reductions in Europe and China -- pretty much everywhere we have decent samples of skeletons, it looks like brains have been shrinking. This is something I've done quite a bit of research on, and will continue to do so, because it's interesting. But it is hardly a sign that ancient humans had mysterious mental powers -- it is probably a matter of energetic efficiency (brains are expensive), developmental time (brains take a long time to mature) and diet (brains require high protein and fat consumption, less and less available to Holocene populations).


Thu, 31 Dec 2009 05:13:00 UTC | #427054

Olucatei's Avatar Comment 26 by Olucatei

They probably died out for the same reason nearly all animal populations never acquire the massively beneficial trait of great intelligence; the same reason not every population gains the massively beneficial ability of flight, and why many with it lose it when they no longer need it. Organs cost resources; brains gobble up precious sugars and fats. Today in more developed regions it likely wouldn't be as much of an issue.

Even if having great intelligence caused them to be imprisoned by their brains, assuming that being imprisoned by one's self makes sense, evolution would just select the individuals with great intelligence who didn't make a fuss about it, I mean, the male praying mantis is all too eager to feed itself to the female.

Thu, 31 Dec 2009 05:47:00 UTC | #427056

Saerain's Avatar Comment 27 by Saerain

I am 23 years aged, with a childlike face, an inordinately high forehead, an overall large cranium, narrow mouth, small nose, long extremities, and an IQ of 147. What's more, I'm attracted to similarly paedomorphic craniofacial features, lengthened extremities and high intelligence almost exclusively. Not to confuse high intelligence with great knowledge. I'm not educated well enough, myself, to feel that I have any business expecting that in a partner.

But I digress. My point is that I am conscious of my bias to want to believe this sort of thing due to having cause to be especially interested in it, so I try to fight that bias, and I think that I understand and share the skepticism being directed at the article. That said, I want to play devil's advocate against one of Blitz442's objections.

6. Comment #445532 by blitz442 on December 30, 2009 at 6:33 pm

Neanderthal brains were on average larger than ours, can we assume that there was a "functional difference" favoring the Neanderthals?
Note in what way the Neanderthal brains were larger than ours. They did not have larger prefrontal cortices (in fact, theirs were smaller), but larger occipital and parietal lobes. This is very consistent with what are believed to be the fundamental behavioral differences between Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens, is it not?

Thu, 31 Dec 2009 07:37:00 UTC | #427065

Steven Mading's Avatar Comment 28 by Steven Mading

I have a couple of questions about the claim that skull capacity is a measure of intelligence:

(1) What about (for lack of a better term) "wrinkliness"?

Can anyone with expertise in this field inform me of the veracity of the idea that the shape of the brain surface is also a major factor in thinking capacity, just as much as brain volume - that a "smoother" brain is less "smart" than a wrinkly one of the same volume because wrinkles increase networking connectivity? I'd heard of this idea but know nothing about how to follow up on if it's true or not.

(2) Surely the size of the cavity in the skull for the brain only provides an upper limit to how big the brain could be, rather than ensuring that the brain really is that big. Do we have evidence that the cerebrum always entirely fills up the space in the skull, all the way up to the edge, and that there's never anything else in there but cerebrum? For example, what if a species has a bigger skull not because it has a bigger brain, but because it's less efficient at supporting the brain with blood and so it needs more space dedicated to the "infrastructure" to support the brain?

Thu, 31 Dec 2009 12:47:00 UTC | #427143

Stafford Gordon's Avatar Comment 29 by Stafford Gordon

No artefacts; how strange.

Thu, 31 Dec 2009 13:45:00 UTC | #427149

Saerain's Avatar Comment 30 by Saerain

@Steven Mading:

1. The 'wrinkles' are gyri and sulci. Throughout our evolution, the number of neuronal interconnections in our neocortex has increased immensely, the brain folding in on itself, struggling to fit into our much less rapidly expanding skull.

High 'wrinkliness' does, indeed, pack more into a lesser volume, but it's also not a completely win-win alternative to increased skull size. Whilst it is certainly easier on the mother in childbirth, it's also difficult to nourish something so convoluted, and it increases the intracranial pressure that is already a common problem for us.

In short, a balance of gains in the two features (size and wrinkliness) is optimal.

2. I don't know that we have any examples of animals, let alone hominids, with brains that fill the available space significantly less than ours. I suppose it's possible, but evidently not probable.

Thu, 31 Dec 2009 16:17:00 UTC | #427185