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Expressive eyebrows evolved to communicate emotion, say scientists

Eyebrow-raising new research challenges widely held theories of evolutionary biology.

Sir Roger Moore’s famously mobile eyebrows were the result of thousands of years of evolution that may have contributed to early human survival, scientists believe.

The quizzically raised eyebrow was a trademark of the former Bond actor, who died last year.

Known for his self-deprecating wit, Sir Roger once described the two extremes of his acting range as “raises left eyebrow” and “raises right eyebrow”.

Now scientists have come up with a new explanation for the kind of eyebrow activity at which Sir Roger excelled.

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The theory is that it evolved to transmit subtle semaphore signals of emotional states and empathy. This in turn is said to have helped prehistoric humans establish the large social networks needed for survival during the harsh last Ice Age.

Dr Penny Spikins, one of the researchers from the University of York, said: “While our sister species the Neanderthals were dying out, we were rapidly colonising the globe and surviving in extreme environments.

“This had a lot to do with our ability to create large social networks – we know, for example, that prehistoric modern humans avoided inbreeding and went to stay with friends in distant locations during hard times.

“Eyebrows are the missing part of the puzzle of how modern humans managed to get on so much better with each other than other now-extinct hominins.”

Modern mobile eyebrows inherited their social function from the prominent thick brow ridges that were a key feature of primitive human ancestors, the scientists believe.

Eyebrow movements allow us to express complex emotions as well as perceive the emotions of others Dr Penny Spikins

After conducting a new study of the skull of Homo heidelbergensis, an ancient African hominin dating back 124,000 – 300,000 years, the researchers discounted previous theories about the origin of brow ridges.

Earlier research had suggested the heavy brows may have been needed to protect the skull when chewing, or were a structural feature arising from the conjunction of a flat brain case and large eye sockets.

  • Alistair Darling, former Labour chancellor
  • Groucho Marx
  • Audrey Hepburn
  • The Swedish Chef (from the Muppets)
  • Lauren Bacall
  • Mr Spock (from Star Trek)
  • Denis Healey, (another) former Labour chancellor

Instead it was much more likely that the purpose of brow ridges was social, said the scientists, who created a 3D computer simulation of a skull from Zambia known as Kabwe 1 housed at London’s Natural History Museum.

Huge, jutting brow ridges may have signalled dominance and aggression, according to the findings reported in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

In a similar way, dominant male mandrills, the world’s largest monkey, sport brightly coloured muzzle swellings to display their status.

The bones underlying mandrill swellings are pitted in the same way as the brow ridges of ancient hominins, the researchers point out.

As human faces became smaller and smoother over the course of 100,000 years, jutting brow ridges gave way to eye brows capable of more subtle emotional displays, it is claimed.

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A 3D computer simulation of a skull from Zambia known as Kabwe 1 housed at London's Natural History Museum (University of York/PA)

Dr Spikins added: “Eyebrow movements allow us to express complex emotions as well as perceive the emotions of others.

“A rapid ‘eyebrow flash’ is a cross-cultural sign of recognition and openness to social interaction, and pulling our eyebrows up at the middle is an expression of sympathy.

“Tiny movements of the eyebrows are also a key component to identifying trustworthiness and deception.

“On the flip side it has been shown that people who have had botox which limits eyebrow movement are less able to empathise and identify with the emotions of others.”

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