Alternating high and low climate variability: The context of natural selection and speciation in Plio-Pleistocene hominin evolution.

Journal of human evolution

PubMedID: 26315724

Potts R, Faith JT. Alternating high and low climate variability: The context of natural selection and speciation in Plio-Pleistocene hominin evolution. J Hum Evol. 2015;.
Interaction of orbital insolation cycles defines a predictive model of alternating phases of high- and low-climate variability for tropical East Africa over the past 5 million years. This model, which is described in terms of climate variability stages, implies repeated increases in landscape/resource instability and intervening periods of stability in East Africa. It predicts eight prolonged (>192 kyr) eras of intensified habitat instability (high variability stages) in which hominin evolutionary innovations are likely to have occurred, potentially by variability selection. The prediction that repeated shifts toward high climate variability affected paleoenvironments and evolution is tested in three ways. In the first test, deep-sea records of northeast African terrigenous dust flux (Sites 721/722) and eastern Mediterranean sapropels (Site 967A) show increased and decreased variability in concert with predicted shifts in climate variability. These regional measurements of climate dynamics are complemented by stratigraphic observations in five basins with lengthy stratigraphic and paleoenvironmental records: the mid-Pleistocene Olorgesailie Basin, the Plio-Pleistocene Turkana and Olduvai Basins, and the Pliocene Tugen Hills sequence and Hadar Basin-all of which show that highly variable landscapes inhabited by hominin populations were indeed concentrated in predicted stages of prolonged high climate variability. Second, stringent null-model tests demonstrate a significant association of currently known first and last appearance datums (FADs and LADs) of the major hominin lineages, suites of technological behaviors, and dispersal events with the predicted intervals of prolonged high climate variability. Palynological study in the Nihewan Basin, China, provides a third test, which shows the occupation of highly diverse habitats in eastern Asia, consistent with the predicted increase in adaptability in dispersing Oldowan hominins. Integration of fossil, archeological, sedimentary, and paleolandscape evidence illustrates the potential influence of prolonged high variability on the origin and spread of critical adaptations and lineages in the evolution of Homo. The growing body of data concerning environmental dynamics supports the idea that the evolution of adaptability in response to climate and overall ecological instability represents a unifying theme in hominin evolutionary history.