How Homo sapiens stormed to victory in the human race

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How Homo sapiens stormed to victory in the human race

Our ability to thrive in the most extreme climates separates us from other forms of early man, say experts

Sarah Knapton
A skull of a Homo erectus from Java, the new discovery, Homo floresiensis from Flores, and a modern-day human skull, the Homo sapiens.
Head start A skull of a Homo erectus from Java, the new discovery, Homo floresiensis from Flores, and a modern-day human skull, the Homo sapiens.
Image: Abbie Trayler-Smith

Humans remain obsessed with the weather, even though Oscar Wilde once remarked that, conversationally, it was the last refuge of the unimaginative. Yet a study suggests that our ability to understand and adapt to climate and weather systems is what truly makes us human.

Researchers reviewed ancient fossils and landscapes and found that what separates us from other forms of early man was our ability to flourish in even the most extreme environments, from deserts and tropical jungles to icy mountains and wastelands.

Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany say that ability was far more important than art, language or technology, setting us apart from other hominids who also had rich cultures, yet still died out. Not only did Homo sapiens survive in harsh landscapes, but thrived, learning to become “generalist specialists”.

Neanderthals were smart, with culture and rituals, but still died out.
Niche abilities Neanderthals were smart, with culture and rituals, but still died out.
Image: 123RF/irstone

Dr Patrick Robert, of the institute, said: “Definitions of our species have tended to focus on differences in capacity for symbolism, language, social networking, technological competence and cognitive development. We argue, based on comparison with the available information for other members of the genus homo, that our species developed a new ecological niche, that of the ‘generalist specialist’.

“This provides a framework for discussing what it means to be human and how our species became the last surviving hominin on the planet.

“Although today there is just one species of homo, there were once many groups that emerged from Africa three million years ago, and who inhabited Spain, Georgia, China, Indonesia and Britain 700,000 years ago. Like Homo sapiens, many, including Neanderthal and Homo erectus, also had symbolic behaviour, toolmaking abilities and social networks. Yet they backed themselves into an ecological corner, learning only to exploit certain environmental niches.

While other hominids
stayed in their environments, Homo sapiens spread out and by at least 45,000 years ago were rapidly colonising the world.

For example, Neanderthals primarily hunted in forests and grasslands, while the tiny Homo floriensis, known as “the hobbit”, survived only in the rainforest habitats of Indonesia.

Previously, researchers thought early Homo sapiens had stayed close to the coast or the savannahs, not reaching the extreme environments until about 15,000 years ago, but recent evidence has shown that humans were in tougher climates far earlier.

While other hominids stayed in their environments, Homo sapiens spread out and by at least 45,000 years ago were rapidly colonising the world, managing to cross the deserts of northern Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and north-west India, as well as the high elevations of Tibet and the Andes.

Their ability to proliferate made them resilient and allowed them to build widespread networks, on which they could rely in straitened times, and share knowledge and experience.

Dr Brian Stewart, co-author of the study, said: “Non-kin food sharing, long-distance exchange and ritual relationships would have allowed populations to ‘reflexively’ adapt to local climatic and environmental fluctuations, and out-compete and replace other hominin species.”

The research was published in the monthly online journal Nature Human Behaviour.

© The Daily Telegraph

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