Was human evolution caused by climate change?

March 15, 2012

(PhysOrg.com) -- Research published in Science applies knowledge gained from studying plants & animals to better understand significant events in human evolution.

According to a paper published in Science, models of how animal and plant distributions are affected by may also explain aspects of evolution.

The approach takes existing knowledge of the geographical spread of other through the warming and cooling of the ice ages to provide a model that can be applied to human origins.

“No one has applied this knowledge to humans before,” said Dr John Stewart, lead author on the paper and researcher at Bournemouth University.

“We have tried to explain much of what we know about humans, including the evolution and extinction of Neanderthals and the Denisovans (a newly discovered group from Siberia), as well as how they interbred with the earliest modern populations who had just left Africa. All these phenomena have been put into the context of how animals and react to climate change. We’re thinking about humans from the perspective of what we know about other species.”

Climate is believed to be the driving force behind most of these evolutionary processes, including geographical range change. It dictates which species are where at what time, driving their geographical spread or contraction.

Dr Stewart continued: “Ultimately, this model explains why Homo sapiens as a species are here and the archaic humans are not.”

The research also leads to interesting conclusions as to how and why Neanderthals, and indeed the Denisovans, evolved in the first place.

“One of the models we’ve formulated is that the adoption of a new refugium (an area of refuge from the harsh climatic conditions of the Ice Age) by a subgroup of a species may lead to important evolutionary changes, ultimately leading to the origins of a new species. In fact this could apply to all continental species, whether animals or plants” said Dr Stewart.

Co-author Professor Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum, London, said “these ideas may well explain how new human species such as Homo antecessor and Homo neanderthalensis evolved in Eurasia. The concept of refugia may also explain why the hypothesised interbreeding events between modern humans and Neanderthals and Denisovans occurred in the south of Eurasia rather than further north.”

Explore further: 3D Neanderthal comes to a screen near you

More information: The paper, entitled “Human Evolution Out-of-Africa: The Role of Refugia and Climate”, by Dr John Stewart of Bournemouth University and Professor Chris Stringer from the Natural History Museum, is published in Science on Friday 16 March 2012. DOI: 10.1126/science.1215627

Related Stories

3D Neanderthal comes to a screen near you

March 1, 2011

Ever wondered what Neanderthals looked like? Or how they walked? Well wonder no more with the Natural History Museum website’s new augmented reality (AR) Neanderthal.

British butterfly is evolving to respond to climate change

November 30, 2011

As global temperatures rise and climatic zones move polewards, species will need to find different environments to prevent extinction. New research, published today in the journal Molecular Ecology, has revealed that climate ...

Archaeologists find clues to Neanderthal extinction

January 16, 2012

(PhysOrg.com) -- Computational modeling that examines evidence of how hominin groups evolved culturally and biologically in response to climate change during the last Ice Age also bears new insights into the extinction of ...

Linking human evolution and climate change

February 17, 2012

It’s not a take on climate change we often hear about. But Mark Collard, a Simon Fraser University Canada Research Chair and professor of archaeology, will talk about how climate change impacts human evolution at the ...

Recommended for you

Four pre-Inca tombs found in Peru's Lima

November 27, 2015

Archaeologists in Peru have found four tombs that are more than 1,000 years old in a pyramid-shaped cemetery that now sits in the middle of a residential neighborhood in Lima, experts said.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.