Brains, teeth and life histories in hominins: a review

The role of the brain in the somatic development, as well as in the establishment of the different variables of the life history pattern in vertebrates has been largely debated. Moreover, during the last thirty years, dental development has been used as a good proxy to infer different aspects of the life history in hominins, primarily due to the correlation that exists between age at first molar eruption and brain size in the order Primates. We review these questions using what is known about brain growth and maturation, dental development and life history pattern, mainly in Homo sapiens and Pan troglodytes. It has been assumed that the brain represents the pace-maker of our development. However, we consider that our particular phenotype is the result of a hierarchical genetic program modulated by epigenetic and environmental factors. The particular bauplan of any kind of organisms (e.g. primates) may explain the high correlation observed between different variables of its life history pattern, brain size or dental development. However, the correlation of these variables seems to be less reliable when dealing with low-rank taxonomical categories (i.e., species). We suggest that, while there is likely some relationship between the rate of somatic development and tooth development, our brain size and maturation (and, by extension, those of other species of the genus Homo) have derived towards a particular trajectory, with a unique pattern of prenatal and postnatal time and rate of growth and, particularly, with remarkable slow brain maturation. We suggest that extremely slow brain maturation could be a very recent acquisition of the last H. sapiens populations. Furthermore, our review of the literature suggests caution in drawing conclusions about aspects of the life history of the hominins from the information we can obtain from dental development in fossil specimens.