Newly Unearthed Site Shows How Early Humans Adapted to Environmental Changes

A view of an archeological site in Tanzania where researchers say they discovered clues to how early humans lived 2 million years ago. (Michael Petraglia)

(CN) — In a region of eastern Africa known as the Cradle of Humankind, archeologists have unearthed an ancient site that they say points to early humans’ ability to adapt to sudden environmental shifts and longer-term climate change.

The Oldupai Gorge in Tanzania, part of a broader UNESCO World Heritage site, is well-known among archeologists for its rich evidence of ancient history. For decades, researchers have combed the gorge for fossils and tools from the long-ago presence of hominins, the small-brained ancestors of humans.

In a paper published Thursday in Nature Communications, archeologists said they had unearthed the oldest-known signs of the early humans that once lived in and around the gorge.

The area has more commonly been known as the Olduvai Gorge, though the researchers involved in the new study have led a push to instead call the area Oldupai, describing the former version as westerners’ misspelling of a word for a wild plant that grows in the area.

The newly excavated Ewass Oldupa site within the broader gorge – meaning “on the way to the gorge” in the local Maa language – includes primitive stone tools dating back to 2 million years ago, the oldest such artifacts ever discovered in the area.

From studying the site’s more subtle historical clues found in layers of sediment, the researchers were able to piece together a story of early humans moving in and out of the area over a period of 200,000 years, as the landscape was altered by periodic eruptions from nearby volcanoes and longer-term shifts in the climate.

For Michael Petraglia, a researcher at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and co-author on the study, that story speaks to the ability of humans to adapt to environmental challenges throughout history.

“We see that we have a lot of flexibility and versatility even though ecosystems were changing,” Petraglia said in an interview. “I think in part, this is the beginning of our own genus, and in part, that is our legacy.”

Fossils at the site from ancient mammals like hippos, panthers and pigs told researchers of habitats that varied at different times over 200,000 years from fern meadows to woodland areas and palm groves to burned-out landscapes and dry, unforested flatlands.

The researchers have not yet found any fossils of the early humans who occupied the area at the newly uncovered site, though their fossils have been found at another site less than half a mile away.

Throughout it all, Petraglia said, the local hominins returned again and again to the area, using the same primitive tools for generations but adapting to the changes in the environment in various ways. The findings also showed early humans beginning to transition into a more meat-centric diet.

“This is a very important time because it’s the beginning of our own genus,” Petraglia said. “This is the very beginning of our own evolution.”

Petraglia cautioned that the ability of the region’s early humans to survive and adapt through tens of thousands of years in spite of a changing climate does not mean that modern climate change is not still an existential threat to humans.

“Societies have collapsed, of course, because of environmental changes, so it’s not all hunky-dory,” he said.

Rather, he said studying the ways in which our early ancestors were able to adapt could help inform the ever-more-urgent need to address climate change in the 21st century.

“What we’re interested in as archeologists is to see not only how humans and early humans coped with it, but also how they were severely impacted by it as well,” Petraglia said. “People have the ability to change their ways in order to do something positive, in terms of all the things we’re doing to the earth today.”

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