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Am J Phys Anthropol. 1998;Suppl 27:93-136.

Environmental hypotheses of hominin evolution.

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  • 1Human Origins Program, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC 20560-0112, USA.


The study of human evolution has long sought to explain major adaptations and trends that led to the origin of Homo sapiens. Environmental scenarios have played a pivotal role in this endeavor. They represent statements or, more commonly, assumptions concerning the adaptive context in which key hominin traits emerged. In many cases, however, these scenarios are based on very little if any data about the past settings in which early hominins lived. Several environmental hypotheses of human evolution are presented in this paper. Explicit test expectations are laid out, and a preliminary assessment of the hypotheses is made by examining the environmental records of Olduvai, Turkana, Olorgesailie, Zhoukoudian, Combe Grenal, and other hominin localities. Habitat-specific hypotheses have prevailed in almost all previous accounts of human adaptive history. The rise of African dry savanna is often cited as the critical event behind the development of terrestrial bipedality, stone toolmaking, and encephalized brains, among other traits. This savanna hypothesis has been countered recently by the woodland/forest hypothesis, which claims that Pliocene hominins had evolved in and were primarily attracted to closed habitats. The ideas that human evolution was fostered by cold habitats in higher latitudes or by seasonal variations in tropical and temperate zones also have their proponents. An alternative view, the variability selection hypothesis, states that large disparities in environmental conditions were responsible for important episodes of adaptive evolution. The resulting adaptations enhanced behavioral versatility and ultimately ecological diversity in the human lineage. Global environmental records for the late Cenozoic and specific records at hominin sites show the following: 1) early human habitats were subject to large-scale remodeling over time; 2) the evidence for environmental instability does not support habitat-specific explanations of key adaptive changes; 3) the range of environmental change over time was more extensive and the tempo far more prolonged than allowed by the seasonality hypothesis; and 4) the variability selection hypothesis is strongly supported by the persistence of hominins through long sequences of environmental remodeling and the origin of important adaptations in periods of wide habitat diversity. Early bipedality, stone transport, diversification of artifact contexts, encephalization, and enhanced cognitive and social functioning all may reflect adaptations to environmental novelty and highly varying selective contexts.

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