Evolution of Human Innovation
Pushing Back Evolutionary Timeline
Evidence of Innovation Dates to a Period When Humans Faced an Unpredictable and Uncertain Environment, According to Three New Studies
The early roots of stone tool innovation, exchange between distant hominin groups, and the use of coloring material are reported in three papers in the journal Science on March 15, 2018. These milestones in the technological, ecological, and social evolution of the human species date back to 320,000 years ago, roughly coinciding with the oldest ages for fossils attributed to Homo sapiens, and 120,000 years earlier than the oldest fossils of our species in eastern Africa. The discoveries include clues to environmental change at the time of these milestones and to the possible factors behind these key developments in human evolution. The publications stem from research in the Olorgesailie Basin, southern Kenya, a multi-decade project of the Smithsonian Institution’s Human Origins Program in collaboration with the National Museums of Kenya.
The Olorgesailie project is led by Dr. Rick Potts, director of the Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program, National Museum of Natural History, Washington, DC. Potts co-authored the three papers with long-term collaborators Dr. Alison Brooks (George Washington University and the NMNH Human Origins Program), Dr. Alan Deino (Berkeley Geochronology Center), Dr. Kay Behrensmeyer (NMNH), Dr. John Yellen (National Science Foundation and the Human Origins Program) and 19 additional researchers.
The research teams for the three studies published in Science include collaborators from the following institutions: the Smithsonian Institution, the National Museums of Kenya, George Washington University, the Berkeley Geochronology Center, the National Science Foundation, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Missouri, the University of Bordeaux (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique), the University of Utah, Harvard University, Santa Monica College, the University of Michigan, the University of Connecticut, Emory University, the University of Bergen, Hong Kong Baptist University and the University of Saskatchewan.
Funding for this research was provided by the Smithsonian, the National Science Foundation, and George Washington University.
Summary of the papers:
The paper by Alison S. Brooks, John E. Yellen, Richard Potts, and 12 coauthors announces the oldest known evidence of the technology and behaviors linked to the emergence of the human species. The article focuses on early evidence of resource exchange, or trade, between distant groups of ancestral humans, and the use of coloring materials, which is a form of symbolic behavior typical of our species.
Brooks, A.S., Yellen, J.E., Potts, R., Behrensmeyer, A.K., Deino, A.L., Leslie, D.E., Ambrose, S.H., Ferguson, J., d’Errico, F. Zipkin, A.M., Whittaker, S., Post, J., Veatch, E.G., Foecke, K., Clark, J.B., 2018. Long-distance stone transport and pigment use in the earliest Middle Stone Age, Science. http://science.sciencemag.org/cgi/doi/10.1126/science.aao2646
The paper by Richard Potts, Anna K. Behrensmeyer, and 13 coauthors identifies the adaptive challenges during this critical phase in African human evolution. Integrating diverse sources of environmental data, the article advances the idea that changing landscapes and climate throughout the region prompted the evolutionary shift by favoring technological innovation, longer distance movements, and greater connectivity among social groups as a means of adjusting to scarce and unpredictable resources.
Potts, R., Behrensmeyer, A.K., Faith, J.T., Tryon, C.A., Brooks, A.S., Yellen, J.E., Deino, A.L., Kinyanjui, R., Clark, J.B., Haradon, C., Levin, N.E., Meijer, H.J.M., Veatch, E.G., Owen, R.B., Renaut, R.W., 2018. Environmental dynamics during the onset of the Middle Stone Age in eastern Africa, Science. http://science.sciencemag.org/cgi/doi/10.1126/science.aao2200
The paper by Anna K. Behrensmeyer, Alan Deino and Richard Potts presents the results of more than 15 years of field research on the last 500 thousand years of geological history in the southern Kenya rift system. The team worked together to integrate the geology, the absolute ages, and the archeological sites to synthesize a detailed history of rapid environmental changes that affected the landscape inhabited by early populations of our genus, Homo."
Behrensmeyer, A.K., Potts, R., Deino, A., The Oltulelei Formation of the southern Kenyan Rift Valley: A chronicle of rapid landscape transformation over the last 500 k.y., 2018. Geological Society of America Bulletin. https://pubs.geoscienceworld.org/gsa/gsabulletin/article/529628/the-oltulelei-formation-of-the-southern-kenyan
The paper by Alan Deino and 5 coauthors provides the chronology for the discoveries described in the accompanying papers, and documents one of the oldest known and most securely-dated sequences for the African Middle Stone Age, between 320,000 and 295,000 years ago. The article relies on the latest developments in 40Ar/39Ar dating, integrates U-series analyses carried out at the Berkeley Geochronology Center, and offers a synthesis of dates for late Acheulean and early Middle Stone Age archeological sites throughout Africa.
Deino, A.L., Behrensmeyer, A.K., Brooks, A.S., Yellen, J.E., Sharp, W.D., Potts, R., 2018. Chronology of the Acheulean to Middle Stone Age Transition in Eastern Africa, Science. http://science.sciencemag.org/content/early/2018/03/14/science.aao2216
"A Cultural Leap at the Dawn of Humanity - New finds from Kenya suggest that humans used long-distance trade networks, sophisticated tools, and symbolic pigments right from the dawn of our species" https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/03/a-deeper-origin-of-complex-human-cultures/555674/
"Signs of symbolic behavior emerged at the dawn of our species in Africa" (great video on this page) http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/03/signs-symbolic-behavior-emerged-dawn-our-species-africa
"Ancient climate shifts may have sparked human ingenuity and networking" https://www.sciencenews.org/article/ancient-climate-shifts-may-have-sparked-human-ingenuity-and-networking
"Colored Pigments and Complex Tools Suggest Humans Were Trading 100,000 Years Earlier Than Previously Believed - Transformations in climate and landscape may have spurred these key technological innovations" https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/colored-pigments-and-complex-tools-suggest-human-trade-100000-years-earlier-previously-believed-180968499/
“New Understanding of Kenyan Paleoenvironments Opens Window on Human Evolution in the Area" http://www.geosociety.org/GSA/News/pr/2018/18-10.aspx
“Changing environment influenced human evolution” http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-43401157
“Unstable climate forced early humans to be more social and creative - when times got tough, early humans got craftier, more social, and eventually brainier“