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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 September, 2003, 18:07 GMT 19:07 UK
Digging into the brain
By Kristine Krug, in Salford

When and how did the human mind evolve?

A televisual representation of Australopithecus afarensis, BBC
Fossil remains of A. afarensis ("Lucy"), a possible human ancestor, were found at Hadar, Ethiopia
These are two of the big questions researchers from the UK universities of Liverpool and Southampton will tackle from October.

They will undertake a project called Lucy To Language: The Archaeology Of The Social Brain.

It is being funding to the tune of one million pounds by the British Academy, the largest single research grant the organisation has ever handed out.

The project will bring together archaeologists, evolutionary psychologists, social anthropologists, sociologists and linguists.

They will attempt to reconstruct the social lives of our ancestors - to work out precisely how they behaved using archaeological evidence of their bones and tools and making comparisons with modern humans and other primates.

Mind over body

New models developed for understanding primate behaviour can now be applied to the hard evidence of our ancestors.

This should help us better understand how our brains have developed since the famous early hominid called Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis), who lived in Africa about four million years ago.

Tool, BBC
Early tools have survived but what were we thinking when we used them?
It is not just that our brains are three times bigger than Lucy's - it is the way we use them that stands us apart form her.

"Thirty years ago, evolution was mainly a question for archaeologists," explained Professor John Gowlett, from Liverpool University.

Now, he said, the focus was shifting from bones and stones to the social brains of humans.

The multi-disciplinary team will seek the origins of speech, music and worship.

"It is our minds not our bodies that make us human and enabled us to achieve what we have achieved," said Professor Robin Dunbar, also from Liverpool, who leads the project.

Higher beings

Professor Gowlett will investigate the social interactions of our ancestors from traces of ancient fires. The size and distribution of ancient hearths and the artefacts found around them provide clues about the activities of early humans.

A main focus of the research will also be the creation and communal practice of religion.

Professor Dunbar said: "Social religion is one of the most complex activities we engage in. Religion was born with Homo sapiens."

He believes religion probably first emerged between 200,000 and 50,000 years ago.

The BA is the UK's national academy for the humanities and the social sciences, the counterpart to the Royal Society which exists to serve the natural sciences.

Its funding for the Lucy project will run over the next seven years

The researchers explained what they would be doing in the project at the British Association's annual science festival, held this year at the University of Salford, Greater Manchester.

Oldest human skulls found
11 Jun 03  |  Science/Nature
Evidence of earliest human burial
26 Mar 03  |  Science/Nature


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