Culture Magazine

Environmental Change Forced Humans to Become More Adaptable 320,000 Years Ago

By Bbenzon @bbenzon

Smithsonian Magazine, "Turbulent era sparked leap in human behavior, adaptability 320,000 years ago", October 21, 2020:

For hundreds of thousands of years, early humans in the East African Rift Valley could expect certain things of their environment. Freshwater lakes in the region ensured a reliable source of water, and large grazing herbivores roamed the grasslands. Then, around 400,000 years ago, things changed. The environment became less predictable, and human ancestors faced new sources of instability and uncertainty that challenged their previous long-standing way of life.

The first analysis of a new sedimentary drill core representing 1 million years of environmental history in the East African Rift Valley shows that at the same time early humans were abandoning old tools in favor of more sophisticated technology and broadening their trade networks, their landscape was experiencing frequent fluctuations in vegetation and water supply that made resources less reliably available. The findings suggest that instability in their surrounding climate, land and ecosystem was a key driver in the development of new traits and behaviors underpinning human adaptability.

H/t Tyler Cowen.

The underlying research, Richard Potts et al. Increased ecological resource variability during a critical transition in hominin evolution, Science Advances 21 Oct 2020: Vol. 6, no. 43, eabc8975, DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abc8975

Abstract: Although climate change is considered to have been a large-scale driver of African human evolution, landscape-scale shifts in ecological resources that may have shaped novel hominin adaptations are rarely investigated. We use well-dated, high-resolution, drill-core datasets to understand ecological dynamics associated with a major adaptive transition in the archeological record ~24 km from the coring site. Outcrops preserve evidence of the replacement of Acheulean by Middle Stone Age (MSA) technological, cognitive, and social innovations between 500 and 300 thousand years (ka) ago, contemporaneous with large-scale taxonomic and adaptive turnover in mammal herbivores. Beginning ~400 ka ago, tectonic, hydrological, and ecological changes combined to disrupt a relatively stable resource base, prompting fluctuations of increasing magnitude in freshwater availability, grassland communities, and woody plant cover. Interaction of these factors offers a resource-oriented hypothesis for the evolutionary success of MSA adaptations, which likely contributed to the ecological flexibility typical of Homo sapiens foragers.

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog