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Wednesday, 5 December, 2001, 23:42 GMT
Prehistoric man 'was never a teenager'
Early Homo erectus skulls, AP
Scientists studied fossilised teeth
By the BBC's Ania Lichtarowicz

Prehistoric humans did not go through a period of adolescence, according to new scientific evidence published in the journal Nature.

Scientists believe that one of our ancestors, Homo erectus, may have developed more like an ape and missed out on adolescence - which evolved in later humans to allow for extra learning time.

Homo erectus roamed parts of Africa about two million years ago and showed many modern human characteristics, such as shorter arms.

Scientists had believed these features all evolved simultaneously to create modern man, but a new study on the fossilised teeth of Homo erectus shows he was never a typical teenager.

Ape-like

Teeth are a very accurate way of calculating how old someone is, and how quickly they develop shows how quickly an individual reaches adulthood.

Teenagers, AP
Adolescence as we know it developed about half a million years ago, scientists say
By cutting thin sections of a tooth and looking at it under a powerful microscope, it was possible to count markings in the tooth enamel to determine how long it had taken for the tooth to grow.

These markings are like tree rings, and very accurately measure the age of an individual.

It appears that early human ancestors grew up very much like today's great apes - taking about 12 years to reach adulthood.

Modern humans on the other hand take much longer - up to 20 years.

Small brain

The difference seems to allow us to learn how to use our bigger brains.

The research carried out on the fossilised teeth suggests that the extended period of adolescence, as we know it, only developed about half a million years ago.

The scientists behind the work say that if Homo erectus did not go through adolescence, then he did not need an extended learning time.

This, they say, is because he still had a small ape-like brain.

See also:

22 Feb 00 | Sci/Tech
Ape-man: Origin of sophistication
09 Jun 99 | Europe
Stepping back 30,000 years
16 Oct 00 | Sci/Tech
Oldest lunar calendar identified
09 Aug 00 | Sci/Tech
Ice Age star map discovered
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