Turbulent environment set the stage for leaps in human evolution 320,000 years ago

People thrive all across the globe, at every temperature, altitude and landscape. How did human beings become so successful at adapting to whatever environment we wind up in? Human origins researchers like me are interested in how this quintessential human trait, adaptability, evolved.

At a site in Kenya, my colleagues and I have been working on this puzzle for decades. It’s a place where we see big changes happening in the archaeological and fossil records hundreds of thousands of years ago. But what external factors drove the emergence of behaviors that typify how our species, Homo sapiens, interacts with its surroundings?

We wanted to know if we could connect what was happening in the environment at the time to these shifts in technology and the human species that lived there. Based on our analysis, published in the journal Science Advances, we conclude that the roots of Homo sapiens‘ evolutionary adaptations stem from our ability to adjust to environmental change.

Aerial view of the Olorgesailie region today.

Aerial view of the Olorgesailie region today.. (Image credit: Human Origins Program, Smithsonian)

Missing time in the archaeological record

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