If you look at a pictures of some of the earlier branches of humanity's family tree, like Neanderthals or Homo erectus, you might notice that Homo sapiens got off relatively lightly, eyebrow-wise. Most early hominins had thick, bony brow ridges rather than the smooth brows of modern humans. For years, researchers have been arguing over why those thick ridges existed—and why modern humans evolved tinier brows. A new study suggests that heavy brow ridges had social usefulness that was more important than their physiological function.

Previous research has suggested that thick brow ridges helped connect early hominins' eye sockets with their brain cavities, or protected the skull from the physical stress put on it by chewing jaws, or even helped early hominins take punches to the face.

The new study by University of York researchers, published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, used a digital model of a fossil skull, thought to be between 125,000 and 300,000 years old, of an extinct species called Homo heidelbergensis that evolved sometime between 300,000 and 600,000 years ago in what is now Zambia. The researchers manipulated the model, changing the size of the brow ridge and seeing what happened when they applied different bite pressures. They found that the brow ridge was much bigger than it needed to be if its purpose was just to connect the eye sockets with the brain case, and that it didn't seem to protect the skull from the force of biting.

Instead, the researchers suggest that the brow ridge played a social role. Other primates have similar brow ridges that serve a social purpose rather than a mechanical one, like male mandrills, whose colorful, heavy-browed muzzles serve as dominance displays. Heavy brow ridges may have played a similar role in early human species.

As Homo sapiens evolved, more subtle communication may have taken precedence over the permanent social signal of a giant brow ridge. As foreheads became more vertical, eyebrows could move more freely and subtly, leading to important social signals in modern humans, like expressions of surprise or indignation.

An accompanying analysis in the same journal, by Spanish paleontologist Markus Bastir, cautions that the results of the new study are appealing, but should be taken with a grain of salt. The specimen used for the digital model was missing a mandible, and the researchers subbed in a mandible from a Neanderthal, a related species but still a distinct one from Homo heidelbergensis. This may have altered the analysis of the model and bite stresses. Still, the study provides "exciting prospects for future research," he writes.