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Mr. Ples Throws Scientists Into A Tizzy

June 18, 1998
Washington University School Of Medicine
Mr. Ples, a relative of early humans, didn't have such a big brain after all, a new study reveals. The results throw a wrench into ideas about brain evolution.

St. Louis, June 12, 1998 -- Mr. Ples, a relative of early humans, didn't have such a big brain after all, a new study reveals. The results, which make the cover story of today's Science, throw a wrench into ideas about brain evolution.

"This paper implies that something is very wrong with previous interpretations of early hominid brain capacity," says lead author Glenn C. Conroy, Ph.D. "Hopefully, it will launch more exact studies of other specimens." Conroy is a professor of anatomy and anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis.

The skull of Mr. Ples, found by Alun Hughes and Phillip Tobias in South Africa in 1989, is 2.6 to 2.8 million years old and is thought to have belonged to an australopithecine. These human-like creatures walked on two legs, ate tough vegetation, made primitive chopping tools and lived in a well-wooded, wetter Africa from about 3.5 to 2.5 million years ago.

Conroy and colleagues named the fossil Mr. Ples because it came from Sterkfontein, the same site as Mrs. Ples, the first virtually complete adult australopithecine skull. Mr. Ples' skull is well-preserved on one side but partly open on the other. It earlier was thought to have a brain capacity of more than 600 cc -- about two and a half cups of water. "Such a large brain would be quite extraordinary because all of the other Australopithecus africanus brains are in the mid-400 cc range," Conroy says.

In 1984, Conroy and radiologist Michael W. Vannier, M.D., developed a way of analyzing fossilized skulls that now is widely used: they imaged them with a CT (computed tomography) scanner. This allows researchers to see inside skulls that are filled with stone and to reconstruct hollow skulls that have pieces missing.

Moonlighting on a CT scanner in a Johannesburg hospital, Conroy made a virtual cast of Mr. Ples' skull. Analyzing every slice of the 3-D image, he calculated a brain size in the low-500s. "While that is still the largest brain known for A. africanus, it is nowhere near what has been bandied around by paleoanthropologists," says Conroy, who was too cautious to publish his surprising results right away.

In 1997, Conroy heard from Horst Seidler, Ph.D., at the University of Vienna, Austria. Seidler had used similar CT techniques on the famous Tyrolean Iceman. "I got this e-mail from a man I'd never met asking me for my complete data set from this 2.6 million-year-old fossil," Conroy recalls. "You normally don't send people your unpublished data, but I decided it would be nice to be trusting."

Several weeks later, Conroy and South African anthropologist Phillip V. Tobias, D.Sc., Ph.D., visited Seidler and Gerhard Weber, Ph.D., in Vienna. The Austrian scientists had made a real 3-D model as well as a virtual model from Conroy's data. Their calculations -- and the simple act of measuring how much water the plasticine model could displace -- matched those of Conroy. Mr. Ples' skull had a capacity of about 515 cc, the collaborators concluded. To confirm this result, they erased the skull bones in the computer image to create a virtual brain. Then they fitted the brain back inside the skull.

Back in St. Louis, Conroy analyzed an early hominid skull that sits on his desk. This A. africanus, also from Sterkfontein, turned out to have a capacity of 370 cc and not 440 cc as previously thought. "I was shocked," Conroy says, "because there was supposed to be a quantitative leap in brain size that distinguished early hominids from apes, yet 370 cc is the size of a chimpanzee brain. Our study of Mr. Ples clearly shows that somebody had a brain size of more than 500 cc 2.6 million years ago, however. So did brain size increase sharply in some australopithecines and gradually enlarge in their descendants to its present size of at least 1200 cc -- the capacity of a Harley Davidson engine?"

Although the new study provides more questions than answers, it points to three important conclusions, the researchers say. "First of all, there is no evidence that any australopithecine had a brain capacity anywhere near 600 cc," Conroy says. "Second, some estimates of brain size in early hominids may be too high. And third, 3-D digital models provide a very accurate way of determining how much brain there was inside a fossilized skull."

Tobias, who has been running the dig at Sterkfontein for more than 30 years, says, "Mr. Ples is a magnificent specimen that extends our understanding of the range of brain sizes in these emergent African 'missing links.' This skull was the last major discovery by Alun Hughes, a remarkable man who spent 40 years of his life excavating at Makapansgat and Sterkfontein and other South African sites under Raymond Dart and myself."

The work was supported by a grant to Conroy from the National Science Foundation and grants to Tobias for the excavation at Sterkfontein from the Foundation for Research Development (Pretoria) and the Witwatersrand University (Johannesburg). Siemens (South Africa), Selby Park Medical Centre (Johannesburg),and Zumtobel (Austria) helped support various phases of this research.

Conroy GC, Weber GW, Seidler H, Tobias PV, Kane A, Brunsden B. Endocranial capacity in a new early hominid cranium from Sterkfontein, South Africa. Science, June 12, 1998.

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