Anthropology, Weather & Climate Change

Climate change and the evolution of technology and palaeobiology in Homo from ~1.5 million years ago
Location British Museum - Sackler A
Date and Start Time 28 May, 2016 at 09:00
Sessions 2


  • Sarah Elton (Durham University) email
  • John Gowlett (University of Liverpool) email

Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

We will trace the Pleistocene 'hominin journey', discussing the extent to which (and at what point) hominins became more resilient to the pressures of climatic and environmental change, and considering biological, behavioural and cultural adaptations.

Long Abstract

Human populations are vulnerable to climate change in various ways, but are also able to deploy a multitude of responses to promote survival in the face of external climatic and environmental pressures. At some point in the evolution of our own genus, Homo, there has been a transformation compared to earlier hominins in relationships with climate change and environmental pressures. The abrupt climate fluctuations of the Pleistocene, in combination with dispersals out of Africa and beyond the tropics, exposed members of the genus Homo to climate shifts and novel environments. By the end of the Pleistocene, technology had allowed them to exploit all the major biomes of the world, and in the Holocene hominins themselves became major agents of climate change. The influence of climate change on human evolution through the last ~1.5 million years is currently the subject of intensive research that has generated new hypotheses and field explorations. This panel will trace the Pleistocene 'hominin journey' in the context of climate and associated environmental change, using a variety of theoretical and empirical models and approaches. Topics for discussion will include whether the speciosity that has become increasingly evident in Homo is linked in any way to climatic fluctuations, how hominin dispersals and ranges may have moved according to shifting climates and environments, and the extent to which (and at what point) hominins became more resilient to the pressures of climatic and environmental change, considering biological, behavioural and cultural adaptations.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Geological proxies (environmental magnetism and geochemistry) have been used in reconstructing environmental change at

Authors: John Gowlett (University of Liverpool)  email
Sally Hoare (University of Liverpool)  email
James Brink (National Museum, Bloemfontein)  email
Stephen Rucina (National Museums of Kenya)  email
Christine Ogola (National Museums of Kenya)  email

Short Abstract

Evolutionary changes in Homo, and their relationship with Pleistocene and environmental change, are of wide interest. We approach them via current theoretical perspectives, and local records in Africa, especially Kilombe and Cornelia

Long Abstract

Rapid evolutionary changes in Homo, and their relationship with Pleistocene climatic and environmental change, are of wide interest. We approach the topic in relation to current theoretical perspectives, and in terms of local records in East and South Africa, especially those of Kilombe and Cornelia. The core problems are to see whether the evolutionary changes have bene driven along as a direct result of environmental changes, as some authors would argue, or whether they include strong elements of internally driven or autonomous change, resulting in part from competition processes within species, perhaps as much as or in some cases more than external factors. Although resolution of data is limited, such processes can be studied usefully using the parallels of the records in East and South Africa - evident for example in Homo species and artefact traditions such as the Oldowan and Acheulean - and their differences, notable often in the diversification of climate and vegetational patterns, and in the evolution of non-hominin mammalian fauna. Explanations for fast driven changes need to be valid for these wider patterns, as well as for the specific evolution of Homo, which appears to be more rapid than that of most other lineages, but which can be studied in their context. In this paper we consider the relationship of the archaeological record to long and short term environmental changes in the two areas aiming to take into account biases in preservation, and aspects of stasis and of 'progression' in the records.

The paleoecological framework of early hominin dispersal into insular Southeast Asia

Authors: Christine Hertler (Senckenberg Research Institute)  email
Susanne Haupt (ROCEEH Research Centre)  email
Andreas Mulch  email
Tina Luedecke (Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre)  email
Angela Bruch (Senckenberg Research Institute)  email
Friedemann Schrenk (University of Frankfurt)  email

Short Abstract

At Sangiran, the endemic bovid Duboisia santeng co-occurs with hominids at the hominid locality of Sangiran. The paleoecology of D. santeng clarifies the ecospace of early hominins at Sangiran. We examined the paleoecology of D. santeng and compared the signal with independent proxy data.

Long Abstract

According to the fossil record, early hominins reached the Southeast Asian islands in the late Early Pleistocene. The Sangiran hominid site is among the important localities, because its deposits cover a stratigraphic sequence covering the first arrival of hominins in insular Southeast Asia. The paleoecological evaluation of material from Sangiran remains challenging for two reasons. Firstly, the stratigraphic background of a considerable portion of the early fossil sample is uncertain. Secondly, studies in the last decades let to the development of at least 3 competing age models. The paleoecological evaluation of large mammals from Sangiran in the Koenigswald collection is therefore unexplored.

In Sangiran, the endemic bovid Duboisia santeng is coextensive with the hominin fossil record. D. santeng is therefore a significant marker species for hominid paleoecology in Sangiran. Based on information available in the collection several specimens can be attributed to particular layers in the stratigraphy. We reconstructed the ecomorphological signal provided by the set of D. santeng specimens by reconstructing body mass and paleodiet by mesowear and stable carbon isotopes. We then compared it with paleoenvironmental signals from palynology and the signal derived from the mammal communities. The congruence of the signals taken from all 3 sources shows that the stratigraphic information on D. santeng is robust. Changes in the environment are associated with the MPT and illustrate the paleoecological and paleoenvironmental framework of the early hominin dispersal into insular Southeast Asia.

Modelling hominin dispersals during the Mid-Pleistocene Revolution (1.2 to 0.6 Ma) in Europe

Authors: Ericson Hölzchen  email
Ana Mateos (National Research Center on Human Evolution (CENIEH))  email
Iza Romanowska (University of Southampton)  email
Jesus Rodriguez  email
Alexia Wurster  email
Cristina Esteban (Interuniversity Graduate School of Human Evolution. University of Burgos (Spain).)  email
Christine Hertler (Senckenberg Research Institute)  email
Maria Rita Palombo (Sapienza University of Rome)  email

Short Abstract

The Mid-Pleistocene Revolution (MPR) affected the dispersal patterns of early European hominins. However, there is considerable discussion about how, when and why these dispersals took place. With agent-based modeling we provide a potential scenario for hominin dispersal patterns during the MPR.

Long Abstract

The Mid-Pleistocene Revolution (MPR) in Europe represented a period of drastic climatic changes promoting a faunal reconfiguration which took place between 1.2 to 0.6 Ma (Rodríguez et al., 2015). Moreover, these climatic changes affected the early hominins in Europe. It is commonly hypothesized that the early hominins dispersed from southern Europe into northern Europe during interglacial phases and retreated towards southern Europe during glacial phases. However, there is considerable debate about driving factors, timing, number and range of dispersal events involved (Kahlke et al., 2011; Madurell-Malapeira et al., 2015; Magri and Palombo, 2013; Palombo, 2014; Rodríguez et al., 2015).

The integration of diverse types of data and proxies is required to assess the dispersal capabilities of early hominin populations. In frame of the INQUA Modeling-MPR project 1403 we integrate environmental data in an agent-based modelling framework and simulate hominin dispersals performed by hominin agents interacting with a changing environment based on Europe during the MPR.

In spite of its simplicity, the agent-based model successfully reproduces the north-south dynamics of hominin dispersals during the MPR and therefore presents a potential dispersal scenario.

By explicitly simulating hominin dispersals we provide a multi-factorial picture of early hominin dispersals during the MPR. Our work has important implications for the development of future agent-based models which model early hominin dispersal. In general, it illustrates the effect of the selection of particular environmental factors, data quality and resolution on the simulation of early hominin dispersal patterns.

Palaeoenvironments surrounding the main Acheulean occurrences (ca. 1.0 Ma) at Kilombe revealed via a rock magnetic approach of particle size analysis

Authors: Sally Hoare (University of Liverpool)  email
Andy Herries (La Trobe University)  email
James Brink (National Museum, Bloemfontein)  email
Isaya Onjala (Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University of Science and Technology)  email
Stephen Rucina (National Museums of Kenya)  email
John Gowlett (University of Liverpool)  email

Short Abstract

Geological proxies (environmental magnetism and geochemistry) have been used in reconstructing environmental change at Kilombe, Kenya. Both have proven valuable for evaluating long term trends.

Long Abstract

The paucity of organic remains at Kilombe necessitates the use of geological proxies (environmental magnetism and geochemistry) in reconstructing environmental change. Both proxies have proven valuable for evaluating long-term trends in climate via in intensity of chemical weathering and pedogenesis Sediment dynamics in both terrestrial and marine environments can be assessed by rock-magnetic and granulometric approaches. While traditional grain size analysis by either sieving, use of settling tubes or coulter laser diffraction mainly provides information on composition and transport, the magnetic mineral assemblages can also reveal to a greater degree the weathering conditions in the sediment source area. Here, we combine both methods to investigate the Quaternary sediments surrounding the main Acheulean occurrences at Kilombe which are shown to have been affected by dissolution.

This paper presents the results of a novel approach in quantifying the effects of dissolution on specific particle size fractions of bulk sediment samples at Kilombe using magnetic measurements. Results reveal a significant reduction in concentration of magnetite and loss of the superparamagnetic component across the < 2 micron fraction, and the progressive formation of the iron sulphide greigite from coarser to finer particle size fractions. Overall, results suggest that an increase in sediment accumulation rates resulting in rapid burial conditions is responsible for the dissolution in the Kilombe sediments which in turn may be linked to increased rates of erosion under much wetter conditions. These very much localised conditions are coeval with much wetter but highly variable climates across the Central Rift ca. 1 Ma.

Archaeology of Kakapel Rock art site: preliminary results from recent research

Authors: Christine Ogola (National Museums of Kenya)  email
Emmanuel Ndiema (National Museums of Kenya)  email

Short Abstract

Kakapel rock art site is situated at Chelelemuk Hills, Busia County, in western Kenya. This paper gives preliminary results on ongoing analysis of cultural materials recovered from Kakapel, and assesses their contribution towards understanding human responses to environmental change in this region

Long Abstract

Rock art at Kakapel has been attributed to pastoralists and to hunter-gatherers by others, due to the unique geometric shaped components, similar to those of Nyero in eastern Uganda. Initial archaeological survey indicated that the site has archaeological deposits, making it a good candidate for interdisciplinary research in rock art and archaeology for understanding of intra-regional cultural connections especially with neighboring eastern Ugandan sites, which have similar rock art characteristics. This study was aimed at determining the authors, antiquity, cultural and environmental context of the rock art at Kakapel using material culture evidence associated with the site and similar sites in the region. The project involves excavation of the rockshelter deposits, documentation and analysis of rock art panels, new radiocarbon dating and an ethnographic survey of the local Iteso communities of Kenya and Uganda. Large collections of lithic artefacts, pottery and domestic and wild faunal species remains have so far been recovered from excavations at the Kakapel rock art site. Similar, but smaller rock art sites with little sediment and cultural material scatters are recorded in the region, indicating that the practice of rock art painting was widespread in the region but probably centered at Kakapel. This paper gives preliminary results on ongoing analysis of cultural materials recovered from Kakapel, and assesses their contribution towards understanding human responses to environmental change in this region through the Later Stone Age and subsequent periods.

Climatic variation, fire use, cooking, and complex technologies

Author: Tamas David-Barrett (Oxford)  email

Short Abstract

I argue that hairloss in hominins may have precipitated nocturnal fire use, which would also facilitate cooking. Due to the requirement for delayed gratification in cooking, this could have started gradual evolution of temporal inhibition, a pre-requisite for many culturally-inherited technologies.

Long Abstract

Hairloss boosts the ability to shed heat efficiently via sweating, allowing the occupation of high temperature areas and spread of hominins to low-altitude / semi-arid environments, plus greater speed of locomotion and daytime activity without overheating (and thus increased maximum day-range and better access to resources, facilitating larger groups and higher technological complexity). Despite the advantages of hairlessness, heat loss overnight would have been prohibitively costly. Fire use would have been one possible solution to this problem. Fire also facilitates cooking, reducing the cost of digestion and disease burden of food. However, cooking assumes bypassing the fear of fire and delayed gratification of food consumption during the cooking process (far from trivial, as many animals have a strong drive to eat food immediately to satisfy hunger). This offers a pathway towards the evolution of temporal inhibition that could provide a psychological basis for the ability to both handle food and wait while it cooks. Most culturally inherited human technologies share a similar temporal structure to cooking, tending to require some initial investment, followed by a lengthy wait that requires temporal inhibition. Cooking might have provided an evolutionary pathway towards the emergence of abilities that allow complicated economic technologies prevalent today. Increased climatic variation would have put a mid- to high-latitude living hominin under pressure that might have triggered the abandonment of inherited fear of fire, as well as starting a cycle of hairloss in hot periods, increased fire use during cold periods, and gradual evolution of temporal inhibition.

Smelling in the cold: Homo evolutionary ecology and genetics of olfaction

Authors: Kara Hoover (University of Alaska Fairbanks)  email
Nathaniel Dominy (Dartmouth College)  email
Elise Bruguera (Duke University)  email

Short Abstract

We explore what role the sense of smell plays in adapting to new environments and whether chemosensory repertoires are 'tuned' to specific ecologies. We present functional data gleaned from paleogenomes coupled with ecological parameters for sensory evolution in Eurasian circumpolar hominins.

Long Abstract

We seek to understand how members of the genus Homo adapted differentially to novel environments following migrations out of Africa. We propose the human sense of smell is a potentially overlooked agent in these adaptations. Humans are extraordinarily sensitive to odors and surprisingly proficient at navigating by smell alone. In addition, non-human primates rely on olfaction in finding foods. We know very little about the evolutionary ecology of smell—most data are of single odor percepts in lab settings rather than natural settings that contain olfactory noise. Understanding human odor-guided behavior in the context of hominin evolutionary ecology requires we define the ecological parameters of different environments, gain functional data on receptor activity, and explore the population genetics of olfactory receptors. We present integrated data on the circumpolar region from two lines of inquiry (set against a backdrop of genetic variation): ecological parameters of smell and experimentally validated functional data for smell detection in Denisova and Altai Neandertal. These datasets allow a direct understanding of the broader evolutionary context of the hominin olfactory biology and ecology and transform our understanding of the behavioral ecology of hominins by providing a window into the timing of evolutionary adaptations in the context of ecological and geographic change. We conclude by arguing there is a critical mismatch between our evolutionary past and present by pointing to a suite of recent studies finding linkages between smell and subsistence and between modern urban settings and olfactory impairment, the consequences of which range from depression to obesity.

Winter is coming: How to think a northern survival strategy?

Authors: James Cole (University of Brighton)  email
Robert Hosfield (University of Reading)  email

Short Abstract

There is now widespread agreement on the contrasting scale of the early Palaeolithic record pre/post-600kya in northern Eurasia. We explore two explanations for this change in archaeological density: a reduction in the scale of the environmental challenges; the role of hominin behaviour plasticity.

Long Abstract

The last twenty years have seen the sustained recognition of a marked pre- and post-600kya difference in the scale and distribution of the earliest Palaeolithic archaeology in northern Eurasia (e.g. Roebroeks & van Kolfschoten 1994; Dennell 2003; Parfitt et al. 2010). Over the same period there has been an enhanced understanding of Early and Middle Pleistocene environments (e.g. Agustí et al. 2009; Kahlke et al. 2011; Leroy et al. 2011; Ashton & Lewis 2012) and an increasing resolution in Pleistocene climate data. The latter are particularly relevant for understanding the first hominin dispersals into northern Eurasia (above 45°N) and the impacts of northern seasonality on the behaviour and survival of groups.

We will explore two different explanations for the apparent changes in the density of the archaeological signature. Firstly, were environmental challenges easier to navigate after c. 600kya than previously? Palaeoclimatic and palaeoenvironmental reconstructions will be reviewed in terms of their robustness and what they mean for the day-to-day hominin living experience. How did hominin groups respond to climate change at local and high-resolution scales - e.g. through extirpation or re-location?

Secondly, we assess the potential role of behavioural plasticity as a means by which hominins (H. antecessor, H. heidelbergensis or some other archaic hominin) met the challenges of the north. This is explored with reference to technological and dietary behaviours in two sections: how hominins overcame environmental/climatic differences during initial range expansion; and how those difficulties were overcome in the sustained manner suggested by the post-600kya archaeological record.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.