This article owes a great debt to commenter Melo/Ericthonius for doing preliminary research on these brain size trends.

The above chart shows seven points in time.

Point one: The ancestors of modern humans split off from the apes about eight million years ago (the late Miocene epoch) in Sub-Saharan Africa and probably had brains around 400 cc, similar to those of the chimpanzees today with whom we share 99.8% of our matching DNA.

Point two: By the mid Paleolitihic, the first indisputable Homo Sapiens had evolved around 195,000 years ago in Sub-Saharan Africa. and during the Middle Paleolithic, these averaged brains of around 1452 cc. What caused the explosion in brain size since the late Miocene is unclear but scientists have proposed many ideas:

Leaving the trees played a major role, as any time an animal must adapt to a new environment, brain size tends to increase, especially in an environment as dangerous as the African Savannah. Further, the adoption of bipedalism freed the hands to create tools which made intelligence more useful and perhaps thus selected for. In addition, the earth was cooling so even in the tropics, brains needed to be bigger, either because of thermoregulation, or to be smart enough to survive the cold. Finally, a constantly changing climate may have selected for adaptability according to Rick Potts. None of these ideas are mutually exclusive and I highly suspect all were involved, in addition to other selection factors I have not mentioned.

Point three: By the early Upper Paleolithic the brain appears to have increased to 1494 cc. This corresponds to the great Out of Africa migration. But was this great migration the product or the cause of this brain size increase. My guess is it was the product, because expanding to new environments, requires novel problem solving and thus more brain mass. In addition, colder climates may select for bigger brains independently of intelligence because a big brain is more spherical (Allen’s rule) and as commenter Mug of Pee has noted, cold climates select for large bodies in general. Consistent with an increase in intelligence, this was also the time when behavioral modernity is thought to have emerged, as evidenced by more advanced tools and the first true art:

Point four: By the late Upper Paleolithic, the average brain size of our species mysteriously collapses to 1441 cc. Of course one shouldn’t over-interpret this as the DeSilva brain size database is not huge so sampling error is always possible. But taking the data at face value, one possibility is selection pressures relaxed after the Neanderthals went extinct 40,000 years ago, leaving our species with less competition.

A more provocative explanation suggested by sites like Göbekli Tepe and scholars like Graham Hancock is that civilization may have started much earlier than thought, perhaps even as early as the late Paleolithic. If so this might explain the declining brain size because civilization selects for smaller bodies (and thus smaller brains) since civilized people are less physically violent, and also may domesticate people which shrinks the brain by decreasing the part of the brain that feels fear. It’s unclear if this affects intelligence since part of fear is also caused by being smart enough to recognize danger. It’s also possible civilization decreases intelligence by creating a welfare state for the least intelligent to reproduce. Not only that, but civilization brings many humans and domesticated animals in close contact, thus causing pandemics which shrink the brain below its genetic potential.

Point Five: By the early Holocene brain size bounces back, bigger than ever at 1506 cc. It seems that if there was an early civilization, it was washed away by the rising sea levels caused by the ending ice age melting the polar ice caps (giving rise to fairy tales like Noah’s Ark). Only the smartest would have been able to survive and make the transition from civilized back to hunter-gatherer. In addition, shortly before the ice age ended, humans experienced the last glacial maximum and these freakishly cold temperatures would have selected for more brain size, either directly, via Allen’s/Bergmann’s rule, or indirectly, via intelligence required.

Point Six: By classical antiquity, the first indisputable civilizations have emerged causing brain size to crash again to 1372 cc for all the reasons stated above.

Point Seven: By modern times the process of brain size decline continues, hitting a species low of 1297 cc, however the developed World sees an exception to this trend where better nutrition, sanitation and pandemic mitigating vaccines causes brain size to bounce back up to 1418 cc in America. The recovery of our Paleolithic potential combined with the accumulation of culture causes the greatest renaissance in human history: the space age, the computer revolution, the genetic revolution, and soon artificial intelligence. IQ scores rise by at least 1 point a decade from before WWII to the early 21st century.