From Live Science:
At Olduvai Gorge, where excavations helped to confirm Africa was the cradle of humanity, scientists now find the landscape once fluctuated rapidly, likely guiding early human evolution.These findings suggest that key mental developments within the human lineage may have been linked with a highly variable environment, researchers added.
Scientists had long thought Africa went through a period of gradually increasing dryness — called the Great Drying — over 3 million years, or perhaps one big change in climate that favored the expansion of grasslands across the continent, influencing human evolution. However, the new research instead revealed “strong evidence for dramatic ecosystem changes across the African savanna, in which open grassland landscapes transitioned to closed forests over just hundreds to several thousands of years,” researcher Clayton Magill, a biogeochemist at Pennsylvania State University, told LiveScience.
The researchers discovered that Olduvai Gorge abruptly and routinely fluctuated between dry grasslands and damp forests about five or six times during a period of 200,000 years.
“I was surprised by the magnitude of changes and the rapid pace of the changes we found,” Freeman told LiveScience. “There was a complete restructuring of the ecosystem from grassland to forest and back again, at least based on how we interpret the data. I’ve worked on carbon isotopes my whole career, and I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
The research team’s statistical and mathematical models link the changes they see with other events at the time, such as alterations in the planet’s movement.
“The orbit of the Earth around the sun slowly changes with time,” Freeman said in statement. “These changes were tied to the local climate at Olduvai Gorge through changes in the monsoon system in Africa.”
Earth’s orbit around the sun can vary over time in a number of ways — for instance, Earth’s orbit around the sun can grow more or less circular over time, and Earth’s axis of spin relative to the sun’s equatorial plane can also tilt back and forth. This alters the amount of sunlight Earth receives, energy that drives Earth’s atmosphere. “Slight changes in the amount of sunshine changed the intensity of atmospheric circulation and the supply of water. The rain patterns that drive the plant patterns follow this monsoon circulation. We found a correlation between changes in the environment and planetary movement.”
The team also found links between changes at Olduvai Gorge and sea-surface temperatures in the tropics.
Here’s the paper abstract
The role of savannas during the course of early human evolution has been debated for nearly a century, in part because of difficulties in characterizing local ecosystems from fossil and sediment records. Here, we present high-resolution lipid biomarker and isotopic signatures for organic matter preserved in lake sediments at Olduvai Gorge during a key juncture in human evolution about 2.0 Ma—the emergence and dispersal of Homo erectus (sensu lato). Using published data for modern plants and soils, we construct a framework for ecological interpretations of stable carbon-isotope compositions (expressed as δ13C values) of lipid biomarkers from ancient plants. Within this framework, δ13C values for sedimentary leaf lipids and total organic carbon from Olduvai Gorge indicate recurrent ecosystem variations, where open C4 grasslands abruptly transitioned to closed C3 forests within several hundreds to thousands of years. Carbon-isotopic signatures correlate most strongly with Earth’s orbital geometry (precession), and tropical sea-surface temperatures are significant secondary predictors in partial regression analyses. The scale and pace of repeated ecosystem variations at Olduvai Gorge contrast with long-held views of directional or stepwise aridification and grassland expansion in eastern Africa during the early Pleistocene and provide a local perspective on environmental hypotheses of human evolution.
So research finds that climate change influences human development versus the inverse, Live Science appears to be an objective and informative information source, and Penn St. has honest and credible researchers, amazing stuff. I can end 2012 with a smile, I hope you all do so as well. 🙂 Just The Facts