Theories on Why Our Bigger Brained Predecessors Vanished

Wait. We're not the smartest of them all? Turns out there was a hominid species before us with a brain a quarter larger than our own. So why isn't anyone talking about it?

"The history of evolutionary studies has been dogged by the intuitively attractive, almost irresistible idea that the whole great process leads to greater complexity, to animals that are more advanced than their predecessors," write Gary Lynch and Richard Granger in this month's Discover magazine. "We're drawn to the idea that we are the end point, the pinnacle not only of the hominids but of all animal life."

The whole idea that we survived as a species due in large part to our wits goes out the window when you bring in these mysterious, big brained hominids. So who were they and what happened to them?

Boskop bone fragments were discovered in 1913, after two farmers in a small South African town by the same name found a rather strange looking skull while digging in a drainage ditch. The skull, which was dated 10,000-30,000 years old, made its way to S.H. Haughton, one of South Africa's few formally trained paleontologists at the time, who found that this human-like skull was capable of protecting a brain 25 percent larger than our own.

Now just think, our brains are said to be 25 percent larger than those of the now defunct Homo erectus. If we were able to accomplish so much with a brain 25 percent larger than a Homo erectus, what could a brain 50 percent larger do? Try wrapping your now miniscule brain around that.

What's weirder is that with further examination, it was discovered that whatever genus owned the skull also had small, childlike features — a Boskop face only takes up 1/5 of its cranium size, while a typical European adult face takes up roughly 1/3 of its cranium size.

Big head, small face? Sounds familiar, eh?

Lynch and Granger, who wrote about Boskops in their book Big Brain: The Origins and Future of Human Intelligence note in their Discover article that we aren't the only ones to think of stereotypical extraterrestrials when we hear about Boskop characteristics. American anthropologist and naturalist Loren Eiseley wrote about this very idea in his book, The Immense Journey in 1958. "Back there in the past, ten thousand years ago. The man of the future, with the big brain, the small teeth. He lived in Africa. His brain was bigger than your brain. His face was straight and small, almost a child's face."

Lynch and Granger argue about all the possible ways the extra girth in the Boskop brain may have lead to their demise. We don't want to spoil this great read, but our money is on the whole alien theory. Maybe Boskops didn't go extinct, but rather they fled when things got too rough? Wouldn't that be the smart thing to do?

What Happened to the Hominids Who Were Smarter Than Us? [Discover]