Oct 22, 2020 - Science

How ancient humans confronted climate change

The drill site at the Koora Basin in Kenya.
The drill site at the Koora Basin in Kenya. Photo: Human Origins Program, Smithsonian

Environmental and climatic change in Africa hundreds of thousands of years ago drove human beings to adopt more sophisticated tools and broaden their trade networks, according to a new study.

Why it matters: Human beings possess no more important trait than our adaptability, which has enabled us to thrive in nearly every corner of the globe. With environmental and other changes coming at us swiftly, we'll need that adaptability even more in the future.

What's happening: In a study published Wednesday in Science Advances, researchers analyzed the results of a sedimentary drill core that represented 1 million years of environmental history in the East African Rift Valley.

  • Previous archaeological research found early humans in the area had used the same rudimentary stone axes for hundreds of thousands of years.
  • The drill core results showed the region began experiencing serious environmental and tectonic change about 400,000 years ago.
  • Beginning around 320,000 years ago — and likely prompted at least in part by those changes — humans in the region upgraded to more sophisticated tools and weapons and began employing early symbolic communication.

What they're saying: "We conclude that the roots of Homo sapiens‘ evolutionary adaptations stem from our ability to adjust to environmental change," writes lead author Richard Potts, director of the Human Origins Program at the Smithsonian Institution, in The Conversation.

What's next: Climate change, and lots of it, which will put our adaptiveness to the ultimate test.

"As humanity now confronts an era of environmental uncertainty on a global scale, is our species sufficiently nimble to engage social networks, new technologies, and reliable sources of information to adjust to the environmental disruptions ahead?"
— Richard Potts
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