Did Lower Testosterone Help Civilize Humanity?

Study Links Increased Cooperation to Softer Skull Features

Aug. 1, 2014 – A study of 1,400 ancient and modern human skulls suggests that a reduction in testosterone hormone levels accompanied the development of cooperation, complex communication and modern culture some 50,000 years ago.

The research, published in today’s issue of the journal Current Anthropology, “uses craniofacial evidence to propose that lowered testosterone levels could explain the relatively sudden origin of modern behavior about 50,000 years ago,” says University of Utah biology graduate student Robert Cieri.

Cieri conducted the study of the feminization of human skulls and faces with colleagues at Duke University in North Carolina before moving to Utah in 2012. A news release from Duke University is below.

“Humans are uniquely able to communicate complex thoughts and cooperate even with strangers,” Cieri says. “New research on fossilized Stone Age humans from Europe, Africa and the Near East suggests these traits are linked, developed around 50,000 years ago, and were a driving force behind the development of complex culture.”

Homo sapiens, or modern humans, first appeared in the fossil record about 200,000 years ago, but evidence of modern behavior, such as symbolic artifacts and advanced tools are only about 50,000 years old, he adds.

“Human fossils from after modern behavior became common have more feminine faces, and differences between the younger and older fossils are similar to those between faces of people with higher and lower testosterone levels living today,” Cieri says.

He notes that lower testosterone is associated with social tolerance and cooperation in bonobos and chimpanzees, and with less aggression in humans. Cieri speculates that higher population densities could have triggered the shift towards lower testosterone levels, as people increasingly had to work together to succeed, and being highly aggressive became less advantageous.

“Whatever the cause, reduced testosterone levels enabled increasingly social people to better learn from and cooperate with each other, allowing the acceleration of cultural and technological innovation that is the hallmark of modern human success,” Cieri says.

 Note: Robert Cieri available only via cell and email through Aug. 15, and only sporadically through Aug. 3. Cell 203-470-7564.

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SOCIETY BLOOMED WITH GENTLER PERSONALITIES, MORE FEMININE FACES

DURHAM, N.C. – 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.

A new study appearing Aug. 1 in the journal Current Anthropology finds that human skulls changed in ways that indicate a lowering of testosterone levels at around the same time that culture was blossoming.

“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,” said lead author Robert Cieri, a biology graduate student at the University of Utah who began this work as a senior at Duke University.

The study, which is based on measurements of more than 1,400 ancient and modern skulls, makes the argument that human society advanced when people started being nicer to each other, which entails having a little less testosterone in action.

Heavy brows were out, rounder heads were in, and those changes can be traced directly to testosterone levels acting on the skeleton, according to Duke anthropologist Steven Churchill, who supervised Cieri’s work on a senior honors thesis that grew to become this 24-page journal article three years later.

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.

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 said, 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 said.

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 said. “The key to our success is the ability to cooperate and get along and learn from one another.”

This research was supported by the National Science Foundation, the Leakey Foundation and the University of Iowa Orthodontics Department.

Media Contacts For This Story

graduate student in biology
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Email address: bob.cieri@utah.edu
 
science news specialist, University of Utah Communications
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Email address: lee.siegel@utah.edu