Drilling for Human Origins: Understanding Climate's Influence On Human Evolution

Rick Potts
Curator of Anthropology, National Museum of Natural History and Director, Smithsonian Human Origins Program

Videography by Nerine & Robert Clemenzi, Edited by Nerine Clemenzi
Copyright © Philosophical Society of Washington.  All rights reserved.


How environmental dynamics may have shaped the adaptations of early human ancestors is one of the profound questions in the study of human evolution. A synthesis of African paleoclimate data suggests that significant events in human origins tended to occur during lengthy eras of strong climate fluctuation. For example, key events such as the appearance of Middle Stone Age technologies and Homo sapiens in tropical East Africa between 350,000 and 200,000 years ago, coincided with a prolonged era of climate instability. The complexity of climate dynamics and resource uncertainty likely influenced the evolution of adaptive versatility in our species, expressed by the expansion of mobile technologies, symbolic behavior, social networks, and behavioral diversity. In general, the evolution of adaptability in the face of climate uncertainty has become the new theme in the environmental story of human origins.

In 2012, our team's research at the Olorgesailie prehistoric site, located in the Rift Valley of southern Kenya, began a new approach to studying the environmental context of human evolution by obtaining the first long sediment core drilled from an early human fossil site. The drilling operation recovered a total of 216 meters of sediment reaching the volcanic floor of the Rift Valley. The core is expected to provide the most detailed climate record available for the past 500,000 years. This talk will summarize the first findings from the analysis of the core, and will explain how this study and others, which range from paleontology to experimental biology, are providing novel insights into the processes of human evolution.

About the Author:

Rick Potts

Rick Potts is a paleoanthropologist who directs the Human Origins Program at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, where he also holds the Peter Buck Chair in Human Origins. After receiving his PhD in biological anthropology at Harvard University in 1982, he taught at Yale before joining the Smithsonian in 1985. Rick's research investigates Earth's environmental dynamics and the processes that have led to human evolutionary adaptations. His ideas about the significant effect of environmental instability on human evolution have stimulated wide attention and new studies in the Earth sciences, paleontology, and experimental and computational biology.

Bridging across many research disciplines, Rick's field projects are located in the East African Rift and in southern and northern China. His latest work in the Rift Valley of Kenya has gained international attention as the first project to obtain a long drill core from an early human site in Africa, which will provide a detailed climate record spanning the past 500,000 years. Rick is curator of the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins at the Smithsonian and is author of the companion book What Does It Mean To Be Human?

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