The environmental context for the origins of modern human diversity: A synthesis of regional variability in African climate 150,000-30,000 years ago

Margaret Whiting Blome, Andrew S. Cohen, Christian A. Tryon, Alison S. Brooks, Joellen Russell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

162 Scopus citations

Abstract

We synthesize African paleoclimate from 150 to 30 ka (thousand years ago) using 85 diverse datasets at a regional scale, testing for coherence with North Atlantic glacial/interglacial phases and northern and southern hemisphere insolation cycles. Two major determinants of circum-African climate variability over this time period are supported by principal components analysis: North Atlantic sea surface temperature (SST) variations and local insolation maxima. North Atlantic SSTs correlated with the variability found in most circum-African SST records, whereas the variability of the majority of terrestrial temperature and precipitation records is explained by local insolation maxima, particularly at times when solar radiation was intense and highly variable (e.g., 150-75 ka). We demonstrate that climates varied with latitude, such that periods of relatively increased aridity or humidity were asynchronous across the northern, eastern, tropical and southern portions of Africa. Comparisons of the archaeological, fossil, or genetic records with generalized patterns of environmental change based solely on northern hemisphere glacial/interglacial cycles are therefore imprecise.We compare our refined climatic framework to a database of 64 radiometrically-dated paleoanthropological sites to test hypotheses of demographic response to climatic change among African hominin populations during the 150-30 ka interval. We argue that at a continental scale, population and climate changes were asynchronous and likely occurred under different regimes of climate forcing, creating alternating opportunities for migration into adjacent regions. Our results suggest little relation between large scale demographic and climate change in southern Africa during this time span, but strongly support the hypothesis of hominin occupation of the Sahara during discrete humid intervals ~135-115 ka and 105-75 ka. Hominin populations in equatorial and eastern Africa may have been buffered from the extremes of climate change by locally steep altitudinal and rainfall gradients and the complex and variable effects of increased aridity on human habitat suitability in the tropics. Our data are consistent with hominin migrations out of Africa through varying exit points from ~140-80 ka.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)563-592
Number of pages30
JournalJournal of human evolution
Volume62
Issue number5
DOIs
StatePublished - May 2012

Keywords

  • Demography
  • Homo sapiens
  • Paleoclimate
  • Pleistocene
  • Population dispersal

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Anthropology

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