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A Neanderthal skull
A Neanderthal skull
Stephane De Sakutin, AFP/Getty Images

Scientists May Have Finally Figured Out Why We Have Eyebrows

A Neanderthal skull
A Neanderthal skull
Stephane De Sakutin, AFP/Getty Images

If you look at a pictures of some of the earlier branches of humanity's family tree, like Neanderthals or Homo erectus, you might notice that Homo sapiens got off relatively lightly, eyebrow-wise. Most early hominins had thick, bony brow ridges rather than the smooth brows of modern humans. For years, researchers have been arguing over why those thick ridges existed—and why modern humans evolved tinier brows. A new study suggests that heavy brow ridges had social usefulness that was more important than their physiological function.

Previous research has suggested that thick brow ridges helped connect early hominins' eye sockets with their brain cavities, or protected the skull from the physical stress put on it by chewing jaws, or even helped early hominins take punches to the face.

The new study by University of York researchers, published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, used a digital model of a fossil skull, thought to be between 125,000 and 300,000 years old, of an extinct species called Homo heidelbergensis that evolved sometime between 300,000 and 600,000 years ago in what is now Zambia. The researchers manipulated the model, changing the size of the brow ridge and seeing what happened when they applied different bite pressures. They found that the brow ridge was much bigger than it needed to be if its purpose was just to connect the eye sockets with the brain case, and that it didn't seem to protect the skull from the force of biting.

Instead, the researchers suggest that the brow ridge played a social role. Other primates have similar brow ridges that serve a social purpose rather than a mechanical one, like male mandrills, whose colorful, heavy-browed muzzles serve as dominance displays. Heavy brow ridges may have played a similar role in early human species.

As Homo sapiens evolved, more subtle communication may have taken precedence over the permanent social signal of a giant brow ridge. As foreheads became more vertical, eyebrows could move more freely and subtly, leading to important social signals in modern humans, like expressions of surprise or indignation.

An accompanying analysis in the same journal, by Spanish paleontologist Markus Bastir, cautions that the results of the new study are appealing, but should be taken with a grain of salt. The specimen used for the digital model was missing a mandible, and the researchers subbed in a mandible from a Neanderthal, a related species but still a distinct one from Homo heidelbergensis. This may have altered the analysis of the model and bite stresses. Still, the study provides "exciting prospects for future research," he writes.

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A Neanderthal skull
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Humans Might Have Practiced Brain Surgery on Cows 5000 Years Ago
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi

In the 1970s, archaeologists discovered a site in France containing hundreds of cow skeletons dating back 5000 to 5400 years. The sheer number wasn't surprising—human agriculture in that part of the world was booming by 3000 BCE. What perplexed scientists was something uncovered there a few decades later: a cow skull bearing a thoughtfully drilled hole. Now, a team of researchers has released evidence that suggests the hole is an early example of animal brain surgery.

Fernando Ramírez Rozzi, a paleontologist with the French National Center for Scientific Research, and Alain Froment, an anthropologist at the Museum of Mankind in Paris, published their findings in the journal Nature Scientific Reports. After comparing the opening to the holes chiseled into the skulls of humans from the same era, they found the bones bore some striking similarities. They didn't show any signs of fracturing from blunt force trauma; rather, the hole in the cow skull, like those in the human skulls, seemed to have been carved out carefully using a tool made for exactly that purpose. That suggests that the hole is evidence of the earliest known veterinary surgery performed by humans.

Trepanation, or the practice of boring holes into human skulls, is one of the oldest forms of surgery. Experts are still unsure why ancient humans did this, but the level of care that went into the procedures suggests that the surgery was likely used to treat sick patients while they were still alive. Why a person would perform this same surgery on a cow, however, is harder to explain.

The authors present a few theories, the first being that these ancient brain surgeons were treating a sick cow the same way they might treat a sick human. If a cow was suffering from a neural disease like epilepsy, perhaps they though that cutting a hole in its head would relieve whatever was agitating the brain. The cow would have needed to be pretty special to warrant such an effort when there were hundreds of healthy cows living on the same plot of land, as evidenced by the skeletons it was found with.

Another possible explanation was that whoever operated on the cow did so as practice to prepare them for drilling into the heads of live humans one day. "Cranial surgery requires great manual dexterity and a complete knowledge of the anatomy of the brain and vessel distribution," the authors write in the study. "It is possible that the mastery of techniques in cranial surgery shown in the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods was acquired through experimentation on animals."

Either way, the bovine patient didn't live to see the results of the procedure: The bone around the hole hadn't healed at all, which suggests the cow either died during surgery or wasn't alive to begin with.

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A Neanderthal skull
Stefan Sauer, AFP/Getty Images
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
13-Year-Old Amateur Archaeologist Discovers the Buried Treasure of a Danish King
Stefan Sauer, AFP/Getty Images
Stefan Sauer, AFP/Getty Images

In January, amateur archaeologist René Schön and his 13-year-old student Luca Malaschnitschenko were scouring a field on an island in the Baltic Sea when something small and silver triggered their metal detector. What they initially thought was aluminum trash turned out to be a coin from a 10th-century treasure hoard that once belonged to a Danish king, AP reports.

Schön and Malaschnitschenko discovered the site on the eastern German island of Ruegen, but it wasn't until mid-April that state archaeologists uncovered the hoard in its entirety. Both of the amateur archaeologists were invited back to take part in the final dig, which spanned 4300 square feet.

The treasure trove includes pearls, jewelry, a Thor's hammer, and about 100 silver coins, with the oldest dating back to 714 CE and the most recent to 983 CE. Experts believe the collection once belonged to the Viking-born Danish king Harald "Harry" Bluetooth, who abandoned his Norse faith and brought Christianity to Denmark.

Pile of silver coins.
Stefan Sauer, AFP/Getty Images

Threatened by a rebellion led by his son, the king fled Denmark in the late 980s—around the same time the silver hoard was buried—and took refuge in Pomerania, on the southern coast of the Baltic Sea. He died there in 987.

Harry Bluetooth derived his nickname from his bluish dead tooth. Today his legacy lives on in the Swedish Bluetooth technology that bears his name. The symbol for the tech also uses the runic characters for his initials: HB.

According to the archaeologists who worked there, the dig site represents the largest trove of Bluetooth coins ever discovered in the southern Baltic region.

[h/t AP]

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