Erratic Environment May Be Key to Human Evolution
by Charles Choi
At Olduvai Gorge, where excavations helped to confirm Africa was the cradle of humanity, scientists now find the landscape once fluctuated rapidly, likely guiding early human evolution.These findings suggest that key mental developments within the human lineage may have been linked with a highly variable environment, researchers added.
Olduvai Gorge is a ravine cut into the eastern margin of the Serengeti Plain in northern Tanzania that holds fossils of hominins — members of the human lineage. Excavations at Olduvai Gorge by Louis and Mary Leakey in the mid-1950s helped to establish the African origin of humanity.
To learn more about the roots of humanity, scientists analyzed samples of leaf waxes preserved in lake sediments at Olduvai Gorge, identifying which plants dominated the local environment around 2 million years ago. This was about when Homo erectus, a direct ancestor of modern humans who used relatively advanced stone tools, appeared.
“We looked at leaf waxes, because they’re tough, they survive well in the sediment,” researcher Katherine Freeman, a biogeochemist at Pennsylvania State University, said in a statement.
After four years of work, the researchers focused on carbon isotopes — atoms of the same element with different numbers of neutrons — in the samples, which can reveal what plants reigned over an area. The grasses that dominate savannas engage in a kind of photosynthesis that involves both normal carbon-12 and heavier carbon-13, while trees and shrubs rely on a kind of photosynthesis that prefers carbon-12. (Atoms of carbon-12 each possess six neutrons, while atoms of carbon-13 have seven.)…
(read more: Live Science) (image: NIcole Rager Fuller, NSF)