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Pierre Paul Broca

French medical doctor and anthropologist known for his role in the discovery of specialized functions in different areas of the brain.

Pierre Paul Broca, the son of a Huguenot doctor, was born near Bordeaux, France, in 1824. After studying mathematics and physical science at the local university, he entered medical school at the University of Paris in 1841. He received his M.D. in 1849. Though trained as a pathologist, anatomist, and surgeon, Broca's interests were not limited to the medical profession. His versatility and tireless dedication to science permitted him to make significant contributions to other fields, most notably to anthropology.

The application of his expertise in anatomy outside the field of medicine began in 1847 as a member of a commission charged with reporting on archaeological excavations of a cemetery. The project permitted Broca to combine his anatomical and mathematical skills with his interests in anthropology.

The discovery in 1856 of Neanderthal Man once again drew Broca into anthropology. Controversy surrounded the interpretation of Neanderthal. It was clearly a human skull, but more primitive and apelike than a modern skull and the soil stratum in which it was found indicated a very early date. Neanderthal's implications for evolutionary theory demanded thorough examination of the evidence to determine decisively whether it was simply a congenitally deformed Homo sapiens or a primitive human form. Both as an early supporter of Charles Darwin and as an expert in human anatomy, Broca supported the latter view. Broca's view eventually prevailed, though not until the discovery of the much more primitive Java Man (then known as Pithecanthropus, but later Homo erectus).

Broca is best known for his role in the discovery of specialized functions in different areas of the brain. In 1861, he was able to show, using post-mortem analysis of patients who had lost the ability to speak, that such loss was associated with damage to a specific area of the brain. The area, located toward the front of the brain's left hemisphere, became known as Broca's convolution. Aside from its importance to the understanding of human physiology, Broca's findings addressed questions concerning the evolution of language.

All animals living in groups communicate with one another. Non-human primates have the most complex communication system other than human language. They use a wide range of gestures, facial expressions, postures, and vocalizations, but are limited in the variety of expressions and are unable to generate new signals under changing circumstances. Humans alone possess the capacity for language rather than relying on a body language vocabulary. Language permits humans to generate an infinite number of messages and ultimately allows the transmission of information—the learned and shared patterns of behavior characteristic of human social groups, which anthropologists call culture—from generation to generation. The development of language spurred human evolution by permitting new ways of social interaction, organization, and thought.

Given the importance assigned to human speech in human evolution, scientists began to look for the physical preconditions of speech. The fact that apes have the minimal parts necessary for speech indicated that the shape and arrangement of the vocal apparatus was insufficient for the development of speech. The vocalizations produced by other animals are involuntary and incapable of conscious alteration. However, human speech requires codifying thought and transmitting it in patterned strings of sound. The area of the brain isolated by Broca sends the code to another part of the brain that controls the muscles of the face, jaw, tongue, palate, and larynx, setting the speech apparatus in motion. This area and a companion area that controls the understanding of language, known as Wernicke's area, are detectable in early fossil skulls of the genus Homo. The brain of Homo was evolving toward the use of language, although the vocal chamber was still inadequate to articulate speech. Broca discovered one piece in the puzzle of human communication and speech, which permits the transmission of culture.

Equally important, Broca contributed to the development of physical anthropology, one of the four sub-fields of anthropology. Craniology, the scientific measurement of the skull, was a major focus of physical anthropology during this period. Mistakenly considering contemporary human groups as if they were living fossils, anthropologists became interested in the nature of human variability and attempted to explain the varying levels of technological development observed worldwide by looking for a correspondence between cultural level and physical characteristics. Broca furthered these studies by inventing at least twenty-seven instruments for making measurements of the human body, and by developing standardized techniques of measurement.

Broca's many contributions to anthropology helped to establish its firm scientific foundation at a time when the study of nature was considered a somewhat sinister science.

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