Increased ecological resource variability during a critical transition in hominin evolution

Sci Adv. 2020 Oct 21;6(43):eabc8975. doi: 10.1126/sciadv.abc8975. Print 2020 Oct.

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.