October 21, 2007

From Michael A. Crawford:

Re: Trip to beach a milestone in human evolution: study (Oct. 17): my colleagues and I welcome this paper which happily quotes our work. In 1972 we published data which for the first time perhaps identified arachidonic and docosahexaenoic acids as determinants of brain growth and function. From comparative studies we drew conclusions linking these brain specific fatty acids with the evolution of the mammalian brain.1 Later, I recognised the implications for human evolution.2

This recognition led to several other papers,3-6 including a book7 proposing the coastal origins of humans as essential for cerebral advancement and a competitive advantage in the development of cognition. A crunch paper was on Dolphins8 in which we made the comparison with a similar body weight land based mammal, the zebra, which has 350g brain and the dolphin with 1.8 Kg.

As far as we were concerned there was no parallel example of cerebral advancement on land as all land based species lost brain weight in relation to body size as they evolved larger and larger bodies (chimps 0.45% rhinos <0.02%). Only H. Sapiens (2% 1.4 Kg) has the similar brain body weight ratio compared to small mammals like squirrels and Sykes monkeys. The only evidence of sizeable brain evolution apart from H. Sapiens is with the marine mammals, dolphins in particular but up at the top you have the sperm whale with 8 Kg brain!

Our many papers on food composition described the paucity of DHA in the land food web. And of course the richest source is the marine food web which is where the brain evolved using DHA 600-500 million years ago and still uses it today for its neurones and synapses.

That is the primate leading to H sapiens must have found an ecological niche which would have provided the limiting docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) in abundance and so maintained a harmony of brain and body growth.

The paleoanthropologists have consistently ignored or found spurious arguments against the biochemistry based coastal hypothesis. So this new evidence, not unlike the Klasies estuary shell middens in South Africa described by Parkington and others of 125 kya. Add strength to the coastal origins of humans. 9, 10

Philip Tobias (with John Parkington et al) is the only one I know who accepted the coastal/lacustrine hypothesis when he said at the Dual Congress in South Africa 1998 "We can throw the savannah hypothesis out of the window" and then in his special way crystallised the whole idea and tons of research by saying "wherever man was evolving he had to have water to drink!"

Michael A. Crawford, PhD, CBiol, FIBiol, FRCPath
Institute of Brain Chemistry and Human Nutrition.
North Campus, London Metropolitan University
166-229 Holloway Rd.


1. Crawford, M. A. and Sinclair, A. J. (1972) Nutritional influences in the evolution of the mammalian brain. In Lipids, malnutrition and the developing brain: 267-292. Elliot, K. and Knight, J. (Eds. ). A Ciba Foundation Symposium (19 21 October, 1971). Amsterdam, Elsevier.

2. Crawford, M. A. (1992) The role of dietary fatty acids in biology: their place in the evolution of the human brain. Nutr. Rev. 50: 3-11.

3. Crawford, M. A. , Cunnane, S. C. and Harbige, L. S. (1993) A new theory of evolution: quantum theory. IIIrd International Congress on essential fatty acids and eicosanoids, Am. Oil Chem. Soc. ed A. J. Sinclair, R. Gibson, Adelaide, 87-95.

4. Leigh Broadhurst C. , Cunnane. S. C. and Crawford M. A. (1998) Rift Valley lake fish and shellfish provided brain specific nutrition for early Homo. Br J. Nutr. 79: 3-21.

5. Crawford MA, Bloom M, Broadhurst CL, Schmidt WF, Cunnane SC, Galli C, Ghebremeskel K, Linseisen F, Lloyd-Smith J and Parkington J (1999) Evidence for the unique function of DHA during the evolution of the modern hominid brain. Lipids 34, S39-S47

6. Leigh Broadhurst C, Wang Y, Crawford MA, Cunnane SC, Parkington JE, Schmid WE. (2002) Brain-specific lipids from marine, lacustrine, or terrestrial food resources: potential impact on early African Homo sapiens.comparative Biochemistry and Physiology Part B: Biochemistry and Molecular Biology; 131 (4), 653-673.

7. The driving force: food evolution and the future by M. A. Crawford with D. Marsh. W. Heinemann (UK), 1989. Harper and Rowe (USA), 1989. Paperback edition: Mandarin 1991. Nutrition and Evolution: American edition: Keats Publ. Inc. New Canaan, CT, 1995

8. Williams, G. and Crawford, M. A. (1987) Comparison of the fatty acid component in structural lipids from dolphins, zebra and giraffe: possible evolutionary implications. J. Zool. Lond. 213: 673-684.

9. Klein RG, Avery G, Cruz-Uribe K, Halkett D, Parkington JE, Steele T, Volman TP, Yates R. (2004) The Ysterfontein 1 Middle Stone Age site, South Africa, and early human exploitation of coastal resources. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A;101(16):5708-15.

10. Parkington, J.E., 1990. A view from the south: Southern Africa before, during and after the Last Glacial Maximum. In: Gamble, C., Soffer, O. (Eds.), The World at 18,000 BP: The Low Latitudes, Vol. 2. Unwin Hyman, London pp. 214–228.

Following are additional com­ments on this ent­ry. Type your own in­to the space right of the first one.


Anonymous Michael Colgan said...

Dear Dr Crawford,

Delighted to see your work vindicated yet again. I will be using it to link the essentiality of DHA in brain evolution to current human brain function and maintenance to support the conservation of specific DHA expressed nucleotide sequences across mammals which justify the application of hybrization data on gene expression in mouse and rat models to posit inhibition of cognitive decline with aging by DHA at two international congresses on aging in 2008.

Michael Colgan

October 29, 2007 5:03 PM  

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