Dramatic changes in cranial capacity have characterized human evolution. Important evolutionary hypotheses, such as the spatial packing hypothesis, assert that increases in relative brain size (encephalization) have caused alterations to the modern human skull, resulting in a suite of traits unique among extant primates, including a domed cranial vault, highly flexed cranial base, and retracted facial skeleton. Most prior studies have used fossil or comparative primate data to establish correlations between brain size and cranial form, but the mechanistic basis for how changes in brain size impact the overall shape of the skull resulting in these cranial traits remains obscure and has only rarely been investigated critically. We argue that understanding how changes in human skull morphology could have resulted from increased encephalization requires the direct testing of hypotheses relating to interaction of embryonic development of the bones of the skull and the brain. Fossil and comparative primate data have thoroughly described the patterns of association between brain size and skull morphology. Here we suggest complementing such existing datasets with experiments focused on mechanisms responsible for producing the observed patterns to more thoroughly understand the role of encephalization in shaping the modern human skull.
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