Shifting adaptive landscapes: Progress and challenges in reconstructing early hominid environments



Since Darwin situated humans in an evolutionary framework, much discussion has focused on environmental factors that may have shaped or influenced the course of human evolution. Developing adaptive or causal perspectives on the morphological and behavioral variability documented in the human fossil record requires establishing a comprehensive paleoenvironmental context. Reconstructing environments in the past, however, is a complex undertaking, requiring assimilation of diverse datasets of varying quality, scale, and relevance. In response to these difficulties, human evolution has traditionally been interpreted in a somewhat generalized framework, characterized primarily by increasing aridity and seasonality periodically punctuated by pulses or intervals of environmental change, inferred largely from global climatic records. Although these broad paradigms provide useful heuristic approaches for interpreting human evolution, the spatiotemporal resolution remains far too coarse to develop unambiguous causal links. This challenge has become more acute as the emerging paleoenvironmental evidence from equatorial Africa is revealing a complex pattern of habitat heterogeneity and persistent ecological flux throughout the interval of human evolution. In addition, recent discoveries have revealed significant taxonomic diversity and substantially increased the geographic and temporal range of early hominids. These findings raise further questions regarding the role of the environment in mediating or directing the course of human evolution. As a consequence, it is imperative to critically assess the environmental criteria on which many theories and hypotheses of human evolution hinge. The goals here are to 1) compile, review, and evaluate relevant paleoecological datasets from equatorial Africa spanning the last 10 Ma, 2) develop a hierarchical perspective for developing and evaluating hypotheses linking paleoecology to patterns and processes in early hominid evolution, and 3) suggest a conceptual framework for modeling and interpreting environmental data relevant to human evolution in equatorial Africa. Yrbk Phys Anthropol 50:20–58, 2007. © 2007 Wiley-Liss, Inc.