Sense of smell said driver of evolution

Dec. 14, 2011 at 6:30 PM
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MUNICH, Germany, Dec. 14 (UPI) -- Modern humans have a better sense of smell than Neanderthals did and differences in brain structure suggest improved brain functions, German researchers say.

Neanderthals and modern humans, two different human species, independently evolved brains of roughly the same size but with differing shapes that may indicate a difference in the underlying brain organization, scientists from the Max Planck Society said.

The researchers used sophisticated 3D methods to quantify the shape of internal structures of fossil skulls and found that the temporal lobes, involved in language, memory and social functions as well as the olfactory bulbs related to olfaction -- the sense of smell -- are relatively larger in Homo sapiens than in Neanderthals, a society release said Wednesday.

Olfaction is among the oldest sense in vertebrates and "it is the only one that establishes a direct connection between the brain and its environment," researcher Markus Bastir said.

While other senses must pass through different cortical filters, olfaction goes from the environment right into the highest centers of the brain, he said.

The larger olfactory bulbs and relatively larger temporal lobes in Homo sapiens compared with any other human species may point toward improved and different olfactory sense responsible for the evolution of advanced behaviors and social functions, researchers said.

"Evidence is accumulating that Neanderthals and modern humans independently evolved large brains and that their brains might have worked differently," Philipp Gunz from the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig said.

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