Prehistoric teeth show what Africa's climate once was

New research suggests that human ancestors lived in much wetter environments than the open arid grasslands of today's African savanna.
By Brooke Baitinger  |  May 31, 2018 at 11:53 AM
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May 31 (UPI) -- Almost two million years ago, southern Africa's interior climate was far from the desert it is today -- new research shows it was much wetter.

In a paper published this week in Nature Ecology and Evolution, lead author Michaela Ecker, along with an international team of scientists, recreated the environmental change in the interior of southern Africa that occurred over a span of almost two million years.

Ecker is a postdoctoral researcher in the University of Toronto's department of anthropology. Her team studied Africa's Wonderwerk Cave, which preserves a record of human activity spanning almost two million years.

East African research shows increasing aridity and the spread of grasslands. But Ecker's study showed that during that same period, southern Africa was considerably wetter and hosted a plant community unlike any other in the modern African savanna. That means human ancestors lived in environments other than the open, arid grasslands of today.

Ecker's team discovered the evidence from the teeth of herbivores from the cave. Using carbon and oxygen stable isotope analysis, the team reconstructed the vegetation from the time the animal was alive.

The research provides valuable insight into the environmental conditions our human ancestors lived in, Ecker said.

"Understanding the environment humans evolved in is key to improving our knowledge of our species and its development," Ecker said in a press release. "Our work at Wonderwerk Cave demonstrates how humankind existed in multiple environmental contexts in the past - contexts which are substantially different from the environments of today."

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