Did Homo Sapiens Develop An Ecological Niche that Outlasted Other

Mounting archaeological and palaeoenvironmental datasets of the Middle and Late Pleistocene have recently critical reviews and now determine that the dispersal of hominins both within and beyond Africa actually demonstrate unique environmental settings and adaptations for Home Sapiens in relation to previous and coexisting hominins (including Homo neanderthalensis and Homo erectus).

Published on Monday in the journal Nature Human Behaviour the ability of our species, during this epoch (which would have been between 300 and 12 thousand years ago) to occupy diverse and even extreme settings all over the planet actually stands in glaring contrast to the ecological adaptations that have been observed in other hominin taxa over the years.

Conducted by scientists with the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History (and the University of Michigan) this study suggests that all investigations into what makes us human (divergent from other hominin creatures) needs to shift away from uncovering our earliest traces of “art,” “technology,” or “language.”  Instead, the paper says, we should focus on understanding how we are, in fact, ecologically unique.  Indeed, we are quite different from ancestors and our contemporary hominin relatives, ours is a species which has been able to colonize vastly diverse environments:  deserts, tropical rainforests, palaeoarctic, high altitudes, etc. Most importantly, perhaps, it seems that our species specializes in adapting to extremely different environments.

Of course, the origins of “ecological plasticity” (the ability to occupy very different environments) are elusive. As such, the report authors hypothesize the drivers of these ecological shifts will become quite more apparent as they continue to investigate, particularly as we continue to develop more intimate integrations of archaeological evidence and more thoroughly resolved local palaeoecological data.

Lead author, Dr. Patrick Roberts, offers as an example: “although a focus on finding new fossils or genetic characterization of our species and its ancestors has helped rough out the broad timing and location of hominin specifications, such efforts are largely silent on the various environmental contexts of biocultural selection.”

Roberts adds: “A traditional ecological dichotomy exists between ‘generalists’, who can make use of a variety of different resources and inhabit a variety of environmental conditions, and ‘specialists’, who have a limited diet and narrow environmental tolerance. However, Homo sapiens furnish evidence for ‘specialist’ populations, such as mountain rainforest foragers or palaeoarctic mammoth hunters, existing within what is traditionally defined as a ‘generalist’ species.”



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