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9.2: Paleoenvironment and Hominin Evolution

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    There is no doubt that one of the major selective pressures in hominin evolution is the environment. Large-scale changes in global and regional climate, as well as alterations to the environment, are all linked to hominin diversification, dispersal, and extinction (Maslin et al. 2014). Environmental reconstructions often use modern analogues. Let us take, for instance, the hippopotamus. It is an animal that thrives in environments that have abundant water to keep its skin cool and moist. If the environment for some reason becomes drier, it is expected that hippopotamus populations will reduce. If a drier environment becomes wetter, it is possible that hippopotamus populations may be attracted to the new environment and thrive. Such instances have occurred multiple times in the past, and the bones of some fauna (i.e., animals, like the hippopotamus) that are sensitive to these changes give us insights into these events.

    Yet reconstructing a paleoenvironment relies on a range of techniques, which vary depending on whether research interests focus on local changes or more global environmental changes/reconstructions. For local environments (such as a single site or region), comparing the faunal assemblages (collections of fossils of animals found at a site) with animals found in certain modern environments allows us to determine if past environments mirror current ones in the region. Changes in the faunal assemblages, as well as when they occur and how they occur, tell us about past environmental changes. Other techniques are also useful in this regard. Chemical analyses, for instance, can reveal the diets of individual fauna, providing clues as to the relative wetness or dryness of their environment (e.g., nitrogen isotopes; Kingston and Harrison 2007).

    Global climatic changes in the distant past, which fluctuated between being colder and drier and warmer and wetter on average, would have global implications for environmental change (Figure 9.4). These can be studied by comparing marine core and terrestrial soil data across multiple sites. These techniques are based on chemical analysis, such as examination of the nitrogen and oxygen isotopes in shells and sediments. Similarly, analyzing pollen grains shows which kinds of flora survived in an environment at a specific time period. There are multiple lines of evidence that allow us to visualize global climate trends over millions of years (although it should be noted that the direction and extent of these changes could differ by geographic region).

    Chart shows cyclical carbon dioxide levels from 800,000 years ago until today.
    Figure 9.4: This graph, based on the comparison of atmospheric samples contained in ice cores and more recent direct measurements, illustrates how atmospheric CO₂ has fluctuated over time and increased sharply since the Industrial Revolution. The graph also shows that since 800,000ya (and before) atmospheric CO₂ has never exceeded 300 parts per million (ppm). In 1950 it was 310ppm. Today atmospheric CO₂ has spiked to over 410 ppm. Credit: CO₂ increase since the Industrial Revolution by NASA is in the public domain and is used within NASA guidelines on re-use. Original from Luthi, D., et al.. 2008; Etheridge, D.M., et al. 2010; Vostok ice core data/J.R. Petit et al.; NOAA Mauna Loa CO record..

    Both local and global climatic/environmental changes have been used to understand factors affecting our evolution (DeHeinzelin et al. 1999; Kingston 2007). Environmental change acts as an important factor regarding the onset of several important hominin traits seen in early hominins and discussed in this chapter. Namely, the environment has been interpreted as the following:

    • the driving force behind the evolution of bipedalism,
    • the reason for change and variation in early hominin diets, and
    • the diversification of multiple early hominin species.

    There are numerous hypotheses regarding how climate has driven and continues to drive human evolution. Here, we will focus on just three popular hypotheses.

    Savannah Hypothesis (or Aridity Hypothesis)

    The hypothesis: This popular theory suggests that the expansion of the savannah (or less densely forested, drier environments) forced early hominins from an arboreal lifestyle (one living in trees) to a terrestrial one where bipedalism was a more efficient form of locomotion (Figure 9.5). It was first proposed by Darwin (1871) and supported by anthropologists like Raymond Dart (1925). However, this idea was supported by little fossil or paleoenvironmental evidence and was later refined as the Aridity Hypothesis. This hypothesis states that the long-term aridification and, thereby, expansion of savannah biomes were drivers in diversification in early hominin evolution (deMenocal 2004; deMenocal and Bloemendal 1995). It advocates for periods of accelerated aridification leading to early hominin speciation events.

    Photograph showing a dry, open savannah environment.
    Figure 9.5: The African savannah grew during early hominin evolution. This may have forced early hominins from an arboreal lifestyle to a terrestrial one, where bipedalism was a more efficient form of locomotion. Credit: African savannah @ Masai Mara (21308330314) by Leo Li is under a CC BY 2.0 License.

    The evidence: While early bipedal hominins are often associated with wetter, more closed environments (i.e., not the Savannah Hypothesis), both marine and terrestrial records seem to support general cooling, drying conditions, with isotopic records indicating an increase in grasslands (i.e., colder and wetter climatic conditions) between 8 mya and 6 mya across the African continent (Cerling et al. 2011). This can be contrasted with later climatic changes derived from aeolian dust records (sediments transported to the site of interest by wind), which demonstrate increases in seasonal rainfall between 3 mya and 2.6 mya, 1.8 mya and 1.6 mya, and 1.2 mya and 0.8 mya (deMenocal 2004; deMenocal and Bloemendal 1995).

    Interpretation(s): Despite a relatively scarce early hominin record, it is clear that two important factors occur around the time period in which we see increasing aridity. The first factor is the diversification of taxa, where high morphological variation between specimens has led to the naming of multiple hominin genera and species. The second factor is the observation that the earliest hominin fossils appear to have traits associated with bipedalism and are dated to around the drying period (as based on isotopic records). Some have argued that it is more accurately a combination of bipedalism and arboreal locomotion, which will be discussed later. However, the local environments in which these early specimens are found (as based on the faunal assemblages) do not appear to have been dry.

    Turnover Pulse Hypothesis

    The hypothesis: In 1985, paleontologist Elisabeth Vbra noticed that in periods of extreme and rapid climate change, ungulates (hoofed mammals of various kinds) that had generalized diets fared better than those with specialized diets (Vrba 1988, 1998). Specialist eaters (those who rely primarily on specific food types) faced extinction at greater rates than their generalist (those who can eat more varied and variable diets) counterparts because they were unable to adapt to new environments (Vrba 2000). Thus, periods with extreme climate change would be associated with high faunal turnover: that is, the extinction of many species and the speciation, diversification, and migration of many others to occupy various niches.

    The evidence: The onset of the Quaternary Ice Age, between 2.5 mya and 3 mya, brought extreme global, cyclical interglacial and glacial periods (warmer, wetter periods with less ice at the poles, and colder, drier periods with more ice near the poles). Faunal evidence from the Turkana basin in East Africa indicates multiple instances of faunal turnover and extinction events, in which global climatic change resulted in changes from closed/forested to open/grassier habitats at single sites (Behrensmeyer et al. 1997; Bobe and Behrensmeyer 2004). Similarly, work in the Cape Floristic Belt of South Africa shows that extreme changes in climate play a role in extinction and migration in ungulates. While this theory was originally developed for ungulates, its proponents have argued that it can be applied to hominins as well. However, the link between climate and speciation is only vaguely understood (Faith and Behrensmeyer 2013).

    Interpretation(s): While the evidence of rapid faunal turnover among ungulates during this time period appears clear, there is still some debate around its usefulness as applied to the paleoanthropological record. Specialist hominin species do appear to exist for long periods of time during this time period, yet it is also true that Homo, a generalist genus with a varied and adaptable diet, ultimately survives the majority of these fluctuations, and the specialists appear to go extinct.

    Variability Selection Hypothesis

    The hypothesis: This hypothesis was first articulated by paleoanthropologist Richard Potts (1998). It links the high amount of climatic variability over the last 7 million years to both behavioral and morphological changes. Unlike previous notions, this hypothesis states that hominin evolution does not respond to habitat-specific changes or to specific aridity or moisture trends. Instead, long-term environmental unpredictability over time and space influenced morphological and behavioral adaptations that would help hominins survive, regardless of environmental context (Potts 1998, 2013). The Variability Selection Hypothesis states that hominin groups would experience varying degrees of natural selection due to continually changing environments and potential group isolation. This would allow certain groups to develop genetic combinations that would increase their ability to survive in shifting environments. These populations would then have a genetic advantage over others that were forced into habitat-specific adaptations (Potts 2013).

    The evidence: The evidence for this theory is similar to that for the Turnover Pulse Hypothesis: large climatic variability and higher survivability of generalists versus specialists. However, this hypothesis accommodates for larger time-scales of extinction and survival events.

    Interpretation(s): In this way, the Variability Selection Hypothesis allows for a more flexible interpretation of the evolution of bipedalism in hominins and a more fluid interpretation of the Turnover Pulse Hypothesis, where species turnover is meant to be more rapid. In some ways, this hypothesis accommodates both environmental data and our interpretations of an evolution toward greater variability among species and the survivability of generalists.

    Paleoenvironment Summary

    Some hypotheses presented in this section pay specific attention to habitat (Savannah Hypothesis) while others point to large-scale climatic forces (Variability Selection Hypothesis). Some may be interpreted to describe the evolution of traits such as bipedalism (Savannah Hypothesis), and others generally explain the diversification of early hominins (Turnover Pulse and Variability Selection Hypotheses). While there is no consensus as to how the environment drove our evolution, it is clear that the environment shaped both habitat and resource availability in ways that would have influenced our early ancestors physically and behaviorally.

    This page titled 9.2: Paleoenvironment and Hominin Evolution is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Kerryn Warren, Lindsay Hunter, Navashni Naidoo, Silindokuhle Mavuso, & Silindokuhle Mavuso (Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.