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Keywords:

  • adaptation;
  • plasticity;
  • human evolution;
  • migration;
  • dispersal

Abstract

Hominin evolutionary history is characterized by regular dispersals, cycles of colonization, and entry into novel environments. This article considers the relationship between such colonizing capacity and hominin biology. In general, colonizing strategy favors rapid rates of reproduction and generalized rather than specialized biology. Physiological viability across diverse environments favors a high degree of phenotypic plasticity, which buffers the genome from selective pressures. Colonizing also favors the capacity to access and process information about environmental variability. We propose that early hominin adaptive radiations were based upon the development of such capacities as adaptations to unstable Pliocene environments. These components came together, along with fundamental changes in morphology, behavior, and cognition in the genus Homo, who exploited them in subsequent wider dispersals. Middle Pleistocene hominins and modern humans also show development of further traits, which correspond with successful probing of, and dispersals into, stressful environments. These traits have their precursors in primate or ape biology, but have become more pronounced during hominin evolution. First, short interbirth intervals and slow childhood growth allow human females to provision several offspring simultaneously, increasing the rate of reproduction in favorable conditions. This allows rapid recovery from population crashes, or rapid population growth in new habitats. Second, despite high geographical phenotypic variability, humans have high genetic unity. This is achieved by a variety of levels of plasticity, including physiology, behavior, and technology, which reduce the need to commit to genetic adaptation. Hominin behavior may increasingly have shaped both the ecological niches occupied and the selective pressures acting back on the genome. Such selective pressures may have been exacerbated by population dynamics, predicted to both derive from, and favor, the colonizing strategy. Exposure to ecological variability is likely to have generated particular selective pressures on female biology, favoring increasing steering of offspring ontogeny by maternal phenotype. We propose that the concept of hominins as “colonizing apes” offers a novel unified model for interpreting the suite of traits characteristic of our genus. Yrbk Phys Anthropol 50:191–222, 2007. © 2007 Wiley-Liss, Inc.