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For the microcephalin gene, the variation arose about 37,000 years ago, about the time period when art, music and tool-making were emerging, Lahn said.

For ASPM, the variation arose about 5,800 years ago, roughly correlating with the development of written language, spread of agriculture and development of cities, he said.

Aside from not knowing what the gene variants actually do, no one knows how precise the model Lahn used to date them is, Collins added.

Lahn's own calculations acknowledge that the microcephalin variant could have arisen anywhere from 14,000 to 60,000 years ago, and that the uncertainty about the ASPM variant ranged from 500 to 14,000 years ago.

Those criticisms are particularly important, Collins said, because Lahn's testing did find geographic differences in populations harboring the gene variants today.

They were less common in sub-Saharan African populations, for example.

"A different way to look at is it's almost impossible for evolution not to happen." Still, the findings also are controversial, because it's far from clear what effect the genetic changes had or if they arose when Lahn's "molecular clock" suggests — at roughly the same time period as some cultural achievements, including written language and the development of cities.

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"There's a sense we as humans have kind of peaked," agreed Greg Wray, director of Duke University's Center for Evolutionary Genomics.

If those genes don't work, babies are born with severely small brains, called microcephaly.

Using DNA samples from ethnically diverse populations, they identified a collection of variations in each gene that occurred with unusually high frequency.

So suggests new research that tracked changes in two genes thought to help regulate brain growth, changes that appeared well after the rise of modern humans 200,000 years ago.

That the defining feature of humans — our large brains — continued to evolve as recently as 5,800 years ago, and may be doing so today, promises to surprise the average person, if not biologists.

"The genetic evolution of humans in the very recent past might in some ways be linked to the cultural evolution," he said.

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