Humans don’t seem particularly tough compared to other animals, but looks can be deceiving. A new study highlights one of humanity’s strongest qualities: that the species is “ecologically unique in its ability to occupy, and specialize in, a variety of different environments.”
Other animals are stronger, more resilient, and faster than humans, who cannot fly, can only inhabit water for a limited amount of time, and who are lacking in natural weapons. Yet, if humanity was threatened by animals, poor crops, natural disaster, or some other problem in an area, it could leave and leave easily. Not just from one green field to another, but to extreme conditions like mountains and deserts.
“A traditional ecological dichotomy exists between ‘generalists’, who can make use of a variety of different resources and inhabit a variety of environmental conditions, and ‘specialists’, who have a limited diet and narrow environmental tolerance,” says Dr. Patrick Roberts of the Max Planck Institute, lead author of the study.
“However, Homo sapiens furnish evidence for ‘specialist’ populations, such as mountain rainforest foragers or palaeoarctic mammoth hunters, existing within what is traditionally defined as a ‘generalist’ species.”
Roberts and his team analyzed archaeological and palaeoenvironmental datasets relating to the Middle and Late Pleistocene era, between 300 and 12 thousand years ago. The environmental conditions faced by early man, just like early’s man’s ancestors Homo neanderthalensis and Homo erectus, were extreme. While Neanderthals were able to handle some level of diversity of climate, there’s a reason H. sapiens were the next stage in evolution.
At least 45,000 years ago, ancient man was quickly learning to inhabit a range of palaeoarctic settings and tropical rainforest conditions across a variety of land masses. These included Asia, the Fiji Islands, the Americas, northern India, Tibet, north Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.
Roberts and his co-author Brian Stewart, who specialize in the intersection of archaeology and anthropology, suggest that this success was helped in part by humanity’s ability to form communities. The sharing of food between non-kin, for example, was an early adaptation that proved to be crucial to the success of H. Sapiens.
“Non-kin food sharing, long-distance exchange, and ritual relationships would have allowed populations to ‘reflexively’ adapt to local climatic and environmental fluctuations, and outcompete and replace other hominin species.” Having knowledge and sharing it with other, in other words, allowed social bonds to strengthen even within rugged environments.
Recent archaeological finds have shown that humanity’s ability to strengthen these bonds into tools. A single cave site in Kenya revealed fossils dating back 78,000 years through the Ice Age, and showed early man’s abilities to use tools evolving over time. For Roberts and Stewart, such finds can show how societies interacted as much as it can the tools they used.
“While we often get excited by the discovery of new fossils or genomes, perhaps we need to think about the behavioral implications of these discoveries in more detail, and pay more attention to what these new finds tell us about new the passing of ecological thresholds,” Stewart says.
Of course, the finding has another implication: Humanity has taken its first step into another ecological threshold, one of harsher natural disasters caused by global warming. As fires and storms get worse, the new study offers a sliver of hope that humanity has bonds strong as any animal on Earth.
Source: Max Planck
Previously published by: Popular Mechanics USA