scientist measures a skull

Did drop in testosterone make humans more civilized?

A comparison of more than 1,400 ancient and modern skulls suggests human society advanced after people started being nicer to each other. And researchers say that change in behavior was likely due to a dip in testosterone.

Modern humans appear in the fossil record about 200,000 years ago, but it was only about 50,000 years ago that making art and advanced tools became widespread.

Human skulls changed in ways that indicate a lowering of testosterone levels at around the same time that culture was blossoming.

composite skull
A composite image shows the facial differences between an ancient modern human with heavy brows and a large upper face and the more recent modern human who has rounder features and a much less prominent brow. (Credit: Robert Cieri/University of Utah)

“The modern human behaviors of technological innovation, making art and rapid cultural exchange probably came at the same time that we developed a more cooperative temperament,” says Robert Cieri, a biology graduate student at the University of Utah who began this work as a senior at Duke University.

Heavy brows were out, rounder heads were in, and those changes can be traced directly to testosterone levels acting on the skeleton, according to anthropologist Steven Churchill, who supervised Cieri’s work on a senior honors thesis at Duke that led to the study published in the journal Current Anthropology.

What they can’t tell from the bones is whether these humans had less testosterone in circulation, or fewer receptors for the hormone.

The research team also included Duke animal cognition researchers Brian Hare and Jingzhi Tan, who say this argument is in line with what has been established in non-human species.

Mellow vs. angry apes

In a classic study of Siberian foxes, animals that were less wary and less aggressive toward humans took on a different, more juvenile appearance and behavior after several generations of selective breeding.

“If we’re seeing a process that leads to these changes in other animals, it might help explain who we are and how we got to be this way,” said Hare, who also studies differences between our closest ape relatives—aggressive chimpanzees and mellow, free-loving bonobos.

Those two apes develop differently, Hare explains, and they respond to social stress differently.

Chimpanzee males experience a strong rise in testosterone during puberty, but bonobos do not. When stressed, the bonobos don’t produce more testosterone, as chimps do, but they do produce more cortisol, the stress hormone.

Their social interactions are profoundly different and, relevant to this finding, their faces are different, too.

“It’s very hard to find a brow-ridge in a bonobo,” Hare says.

Softer faces

Cieri compared the brow ridge, facial shape and interior volume of 13 modern human skulls older than 80,000 years, 41 skulls from 10,000 to 38,000 years ago, and a global sample of 1,367 20th century skulls from 30 different ethnic populations.

The trend that emerged was toward a reduction in the brow ridge and a shortening of the upper face, traits which generally reflect a reduction in the action of testosterone.

There are a lot of theories about why, after 150,000 years of existence, humans suddenly leapt forward in technology. Around 50,000 years ago, there is widespread evidence of producing bone and antler tools, heat-treated and flaked flint, projectile weapons, grindstones, fishing and birding equipment, and a command of fire.

Was this driven by a brain mutation, cooked foods, the advent of language or just population density?

The Duke study argues that living together and cooperating put a premium on agreeableness and lowered aggression and that, in turn, led to changed faces and more cultural exchange.

“If prehistoric people began living closer together and passing down new technologies, they’d have to be tolerant of each other,” Cieri says. “The key to our success is the ability to cooperate and get along and learn from one another.”

The National Science Foundation, the Leakey Foundation, and the University of Iowa Orthodontics Department supported the project.

Source: Duke University

 

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2 Comments

  1. CaveMan

    “Did drop in testosterone make humans more civilized?”
    I respond…
    “Did drop in Estrogen make humans more civilized?”

  2. Jim Keneipp

    I think the days of the Y chromosome are numbered.

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