The evolutionary history of the human face


The face is the most distinctive feature used to identify others. Modern humans have a short, retracted face beneath a large globular braincase that is distinctively different from that of our closest living relatives. The face is a skeletal complex formed by 14 individual bones that houses parts of the digestive, respiratory, visual and olfactory systems. A key to understanding the origin and evolution of the human face is analysis of the faces of extinct taxa in the hominin clade over the last 6 million years. Yet, as new fossils are recovered and the number of hominin species grows, the question of how and when the modern human face originated remains unclear. By examining key features of the facial skeleton, here we evaluate the evolutionary history of the modern human face in the context of its development, morphology and function, and suggest that its appearance is the result of a combination of biomechanical, physiological and social influences.

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Fig. 1: Comparison of facial morphology of early hominins and temporal placing of discussed taxa.

Image from ref. 91, Wiley

Fig. 2: Summary of growth remodelling maps in fossil hominins compared to H. sapiens.
Fig. 3: Middle–Late Pleistocene hominin crania compared to H. sapiens.

From ref. 92, SNL. From ref. 93, Wiley. From ref. 94, SNL. From ref. 94,SNL

Fig. 4: Sima de los Huesos fossils show facial differences from Neanderthals.
Fig. 5: Morphometric analysis of the face discriminates Pleistocene fossils.

Skulls reprinted by permission from ref. 96, Springer. Plot produced using data collected by KH, previously analyzed in ref. 96, where additional details can be found


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We thank the Fundación Ramón Areces, Spain, for funding a symposium organized by R.S.L. and J.L.A., entitled the Evolutionary History of the Human Face. C.S. is supported by the Calleva Foundation and the Human Origins Research Fund of the Natural History Museum, London (UK). K.H. is supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG FOR 2237) and the European Research Council (ERC CoG 724703). B.W. acknowledges the support of the GW Provost’s Signature Program. J.L.A. is supported by the Ministerio de Economia y Competitividad of the Government of Spain, project No CGL2015-65387-C3-2-P (MINECO/FEDER). We also thank P. Wynne for the drawings shown in Figs. 1 and 3, and J. Warshaw for help with Fig. 2. Drawing shown in Fig. 4 is by E. Saiz. Finally, to all of our colleagues whose important work may not be have been included here due to space limitations, we apologise.

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Author order reflects the relative size of the contributions made. All authors included contributed to the development of the study and wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to Rodrigo S. Lacruz.

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Lacruz, R.S., Stringer, C.B., Kimbel, W.H. et al. The evolutionary history of the human face. Nat Ecol Evol 3, 726–736 (2019).

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