Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Human Ancestors Lived in Hot Environments

High-temperature environments of human evolution in East Africa based on bond ordering in paleosol carbonates. 2010. B. Passey, et al. PNAS, pub. 0n-line June 8.

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East Africa's Turkana Basin has been a hot savanna region for at least the past 4 million years—including the period of time during which early hominids evolved in this area. The findings are based on measurements of the spatial distribution and concentrations of isotopes in carbonate ions in the ancient soils.

The findings also shed some light—and heat—on a longstanding debate over the origin of bipedalism in early humans.

"For a long time, anthropologists have hypothesized that bipedalism and other unique human traits would be advantageous to life in hot savanna environments," says Passey. "For example, by standing upright, we intercept less direct sunlight than if we were on all fours, and in hot, open environments, the ground and near-surface air can be appreciably hotter than the air a few feet above the ground. So, by standing upright, we are avoiding a high-temperature environment."

Of course, Passey adds, this strategy would only be of significant use if the environment in question is indeed a high-temperature one. "In cooler environments, these traits do not really have a thermal advantage," he notes. These considerations led to the team's interest in figuring out just how hot it was in the part of the world where bipedalism is most likely to have first gained a toehold. link