The environmental context of human evolutionary history in Eurasia and Africa


Dr Sarah Elton, Functional Morphology and Evolution Unit, Hull York Medical School, University of Hull, Cottingham Road, Hull HU6 7RX, UK. E:


This review has three main aims: (1) to make specific predictions about the habitat of the hypothetical last common ancestor of the chimpanzee/bonobo–human clade; (2) to outline the major trends in environments between 8–6 Ma and the late Pleistocene; and (3) to pinpoint when, and in some cases where, human ancestors evolved to cope with the wide range of habitats they presently tolerate. Several lines of evidence indicate that arboreal environments, particularly woodlands, were important habitats for late Miocene hominids and hominins, and therefore possibly for the last common ancestor of the chimpanzee/bonobo–human clade. However, as there is no clear candidate for this last common ancestor, and because the sampling of fossils and past environments is inevitably patchy, this prediction remains a working hypothesis at best. Nonetheless, as a primate, it is expected that the last common ancestor was ecologically dependent on trees in some form. Understanding past environments is important, as palaeoenvironmental reconstructions provide the context for human morphological and behavioural evolution. Indeed, the impact of climate on the evolutionary history of our species has long been debated. Since the mid-Miocene, the Earth has been experiencing a general cooling trend accompanied by aridification, which intensified during the later Pliocene and Pleistocene. Numerous climatic fluctuations, as well as local, regional and continental geography that influenced weather patterns and vegetation, created hominin environments that were dynamic in space and time. Behavioural flexibility and cultural complexity were crucial aspects of hominin expansion into diverse environments during the Pleistocene, but the ability to exploit varied and varying habitats was established much earlier in human evolutionary history. The development of increasingly complex tool technology facilitated re-expansion into tropical forests. These environments are difficult for obligate bipeds to negotiate, but their exploitation was accomplished by archaic and/or anatomically modern humans independently in Africa and south-east Asia. Complex social behaviour and material culture also allowed modern humans to reach some of the most hostile regions of the globe, above the Arctic Circle, by the late Pleistocene. This, with colonization of the Americas and Australasia, established Homo sapiens as a truly cosmopolitan species.