To understand the environmental pressures that shaped human evolution, scientists must first piece together the details of the ancient plant and animal communities that our fossil ancestors lived in over the past 7 million years. Because putting together the puzzle of millions-of-years-old ecosystems is a difficult task, many studies have reconstructed the environments by drawing analogies with present-day African ecosystems, such as the Serengeti. A study led by a University of Utah scientist calls into question such approaches and suggests that the vast majority of human evolution occurred in ecosystems unlike any found today. The paper was published online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

To test for differences between modern and ancient environments, the researchers analyzed a dataset of more than 200 present-day African mammal communities and more than 100 fossil communities spanning the past 7 million years in eastern Africa, a time period encompassing all of human evolution. They found that prior to 700,000 years ago, mammal communities looked far different from those today. For example, fossil communities supported a greater diversity of megaherbivores, species over 2,000 pounds, such as elephants. Likewise, the dietary structure of fossil communities frequently departed from those seen today, with patterns of grass- and leaf-eating species fluctuating in abundance. Around 1 million years ago, fossil communities began transitioning to a more modern makeup, which the authors suggest is the likely the outcome of long-term grassland expansion coupled with arid climate pulses. The new paper adds to growing evidence that scientists need to critically re-evaluate our understanding of the ancient ecosystems in which early humans evolved.

J. Tyler Faith el al., "Early hominins evolved within non-analog ecosystems," PNAS (2019).


Significance: Testing ecological hypotheses of human evolution requires an understanding of the ancient plant and animal communities within which our ancestors lived. Though present-day ecosystems provide the baseline for reconstructing the ecological context of human evolution, the extent to which modern ecosystems are representative of past ones is unknown. Through analyses of a fossil dataset spanning the last 7 Myr, we show that eastern African communities of large-bodied mammalian herbivores differed markedly from those today until ∼700,000 y ago. Because large herbivores are ecosystem engineers and shape biotic communities in ways that impact a wide variety of species, this implies that the vast majority of early human evolution transpired in the context of ecosystems that functioned unlike any known today.

Abstract: Present-day African ecosystems serve as referential models for conceptualizing the environmental context of early hominin evolution, but the degree to which modern ecosystems are representative of those in the past is unclear. A growing body of evidence from eastern Africa’s rich and well-dated late Cenozoic fossil record documents communities of large-bodied mammalian herbivores with ecological structures differing dramatically from those of the present day, implying that modern communities may not be suitable analogs for the ancient ecosystems of hominin evolution. To determine when and why the ecological structure of eastern Africa’s herbivore faunas came to resemble those of the present, here we analyze functional trait changes in a comprehensive dataset of 305 modern and fossil herbivore communities spanning the last ∼7 Myr. We show that nearly all communities prior to ∼700 ka were functionally non-analog, largely due to a greater richness of non-ruminants and megaherbivores (species >1,000 kg). The emergence of functionally modern communities precedes that of taxonomically modern communities by 100,000s of years, and can be attributed to the combined influence of Plio-Pleistocene C4grassland expansion and pulses of aridity after ∼1 Ma. Given the disproportionate ecological impacts of large-bodied herbivores on factors such as vegetation structure, hydrology, and fire regimes, it follows that the vast majority of early hominin evolution transpired in the context of ecosystems that functioned unlike any today. Identifying how past ecosystems differed compositionally and functionally from those today is key to conceptualizing ancient African environments and testing ecological hypotheses of hominin evolution.