Early hominid evolution and ecological change through the African Plio-Pleistocene

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The habitats in which extinct hominids existed has been a key issue in addressing the origin and extinction of early hominids, as well as in understanding various morphological and behavioral adaptations. Many researchers postulated that early hominids lived in an open savanna (Dart, 1925; Robinson, 3963; Howell, 3978). However, Vrba (3985, 3988) has noted that a major global climatic and environmental shift from mesic, closed to xeric, open habitats occurred in the late African Pliocene (approximately 2·5 m.y.a.), thus implying that the earliest hominids existed in these mesic, wooded environs. This climatic shift is also suggested to have contributed to a pulse in speciation events with turnovers of many bovid and possibly hominid species. Previous environmental reconstructions of hominid localities have concentrated on taxonomic identities and taxonomic uniformitarianism to provide habitat reconstructions (e.g., Vrba, 1975; Shipman & Harris, 1988). In addition, relative abundances of species are often used to reconstruct a particular environment, when in fact taphonomic factors could be affecting the proportions of taxa. This study uses the morphological adaptations of mammalian assemblages found with early hominids to reconstruct the habitat based on each species' ecological adaptations, thus minimizing problems introduced by taxonomy and taphonomy. Research presented here compares east and south African Plio-Pleistocene mammalian fossil assemblages with 31 extant mammalian communities from eight different habitat types. All communities are analyzed through ecological diversity methods, that is, each species trophic and locomotor adaptations are used to reconstruct an ecological community and derive its vegetative habitat. Reconstructed habitats show that Australopithecus species existed in fairly wooded, well-watered regions. Paranthropus species lived in similar environs and also in more open regions, but always in habitats that include wetlands. Homo is the first hominid to exist in areas of fairly open, arid grassland. This change from closed to open habitats occurs gradually from about 4 m.y.a. until about 2 m.y.a. when there is a major increase in arid and grazing adapted mammals. Therefore, the appearance of open savannas do not appear to have influenced the origination or adaptations of the earliest hominids, but could have contributed to their demise. As Stanley (1992) hypothesized, Homo species appear the first to be adapted to open, arid environments.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)289-322
Number of pages34
JournalJournal of human evolution
Issue number2-3
StatePublished - Feb 1997


  • Australopithecus
  • Ecological diversity
  • Paleoecology
  • Paranthropus

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Anthropology


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