Defining Moment in Human Evolution: Turbulent Era Sparked Leap in Human Behavior, Technology 320,000 Years Ago

Koora Basin Drill Core Site

Drill core site. In seeking to understand the major evolutionary transition they had uncovered at Olorgesailie in 2018, Potts and his team had been frustrated by a large 180,000-year gap in the region’s environmental record. To learn about how the region changed during that period, they had to look elsewhere. They arranged to have a Nairobi company drill in the nearby Koora basin, extracting sediment from as deep into the earth as they could. The drill site, about 15 miles from the archaeological dig sites, was a flat, grassy plain, and the team had no clear idea what was beneath its surface. With the involvement and support from the National Museums of Kenya and the local Oldonyo Nyokie community, a 139-meter core was removed from the earth. That cylinder of earth, just four centimeters in diameter, turned out to represent 1 million years of environmental history. Credit: Human Origins Program, Smithsonian

New drill core shows a boom-bust landscape in the east African rift valley at a defining moment in human evolution, technology and culture.

For hundreds of thousands of years, early humans in the East African Rift Valley could expect certain things of their environment. Freshwater lakes in the region ensured a reliable source of water, and large grazing herbivores roamed the grasslands. Then, around 400,000 years ago, things changed. The environment became less predictable, and human ancestors faced new sources of instability and uncertainty that challenged their previous long-standing way of life.

The first analysis of a new sedimentary drill core representing 1 million years of environmental history in the East African Rift Valley shows that at the same time early humans were abandoning old tools in favor of more sophisticated technology and broadening their trade networks, their landscape was experiencing frequent fluctuations in vegetation and water supply that made resources less reliably available. The findings suggest that instability in their surrounding climate, land and ecosystem was a key driver in the development of new traits and behaviors underpinning human adaptability.

Transition From Stone Handaxes to New Technology

Transition from stone handaxes to new technology. Potts and colleagues documented a major behavioral and cultural shift among humans in 2018 based on artifacts recovered at an archaeological site known as Olorgesailie in modern-day Kenya. Decades of study at Olorgesailie by Potts’ team and collaborators at the National Museums of Kenya have determined that early humans at Olorgesailie relied on the same tools, stone handaxes, for 700,000 years. Then, beginning around 320,000 years ago, people living there entered the Middle Stone Age, crafting smaller, more sophisticated weapons, including projectiles. At the same time, they began to trade resources with distant groups and to use coloring materials, suggesting symbolic communication. Credit: Human Origins Program, Smithsonian

In the October 21, 2020, issue of the journal Science Advances, an interdisciplinary team of scientists led by Richard Potts, director of the Human Origins Program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, describes the prolonged period of instability across the landscape in this part of Africa (now Kenya) that occurred at the same time humans in the region were undergoing a major behavioral and cultural shift in their evolution.

Potts and colleagues documented this behavioral and cultural shift in 2018 based on artifacts recovered at an archaeological site known as Olorgesailie. Decades of study at Olorgesailie by Potts’ team and collaborators at the National Museums of Kenya have determined that early humans at Olorgesailie relied on the same tools, stone handaxes, for 700,000 years. Their way of life during this period was remarkably stable, with no major changes in their behaviors and strategies for survival. Then, beginning around 320,000 years ago, people living there entered the Middle Stone Age, crafting smaller, more sophisticated weapons, including projectiles. At the same time, they began to trade resources with distant groups and to use coloring materials, suggesting symbolic communication. All these changes were a significant departure from their previous lifestyle, likely helping early humans cope with their newly variable landscape, Potts said.

“The history of human evolution has been one of increasing adaptability,” Potts said. “We come from a family tree that’s diverse, but all of those other ways of being human are now extinct. There’s only one of us left, and we may well be the most adaptable species that may have ever existed on the face of the Earth.”

Drill Core From Koora Basin

Drill core. The team’s analysis suggests that as parts of the grassy plains in the region were fragmented along fault lines due to tectonic activity, small basins formed. These areas were more sensitive to changes in rainfall than the larger lake basins that had been there before. Elevated terrain also allowed water runoff from high ground to contribute to the formation and drying out of lakes. These changes occurred during a period when precipitation had become more variable, leading to frequent and dramatic fluctuations in water supply. With the fluctuations, a broader set of ecological changes also took place. The team found that vegetation in the region also changed repeatedly, shifting between grassy plains and wooded areas. Meanwhile, large grazing herbivores, which no longer had large tracts of grass to feed on, began to die out and were replaced by smaller mammals with more diverse diets. The findings suggest that instability in their surrounding climate, land and ecosystem was a key driver in the development of new traits and behaviors underpinning human adaptability. Credit: Human Origins Program, Smithsonian; core image courtesy of LacCore, University of Minnesota.

While some scientists have proposed that climate fluctuations alone may have driven humans to evolve this remarkable quality of adaptability, the new study indicates the picture is more complicated than that. Instead, the team’s analysis shows that climate variability is but one of several intertwined environmental factors that drove the cultural shift they described in 2018. The new analysis reveals how a changing climate along with new land faults introduced by tectonic activity and ecological disruptions in the vegetation and fauna all came together to drive disruptions that made technological innovation, trading resources and symbolic communication¬–three key factors in adaptability–beneficial for early humans in this region.

In seeking to understand the major evolutionary transition they had uncovered at Olorgesailie, Potts and his team had been frustrated by a large gap in the region’s environmental record. Erosion at Olorgesailie, a hilly area full of sedimentary outcrops, had removed the geologic layers representing some 180,000 years of time at exactly the period of this evolutionary transition. To learn about how the region changed during that period, they had to look elsewhere.

They arranged to have a Nairobi company drill in the nearby Koora basin, extracting sediment from as deep into the earth as they could. The drill site, about 15 miles from the archaeological dig sites, was a flat, grassy plain, and the team had no clear idea what was beneath its surface. With the involvement and support from the National Museums of Kenya and the local Oldonyo Nyokie community, a 139-meter core was removed from the earth. That cylinder of earth, just four centimeters in diameter, turned out to represent 1 million years of environmental history.

Colleagues in the National Museum of Natural History’s Human Origins Program and Department of Paleobiology and dozens of collaborators at institutions worldwide worked to analyze the environmental record they had obtained, which is now the most precisely dated African environmental record of the past 1 million years. Charting radioisotope ages and changes in chemical composition and deposits left by plants and microscopic organisms through the different layers of the core, the team reconstructed key features of the ancient landscape and climate across time.

They found that after a long period of stability, the environment in this part of Africa became more variable around 400,000 years ago, when tectonic activity fragmented the landscape. By integrating information from the drill core with knowledge gleaned from fossils and archeological artifacts, they determined that the entire ecosystem evolved in response.

The team’s analysis suggests that as parts of the grassy plains in the region were fragmented along fault lines due to tectonic activity, small basins formed. These areas were more sensitive to changes in rainfall than the larger lake basins that had been there before. Elevated terrain also allowed water runoff from high ground to contribute to the formation and drying out of lakes. These changes occurred during a period when precipitation had become more variable, leading to frequent and dramatic fluctuations in water supply.

With the fluctuations, a broader set of ecological changes also took place. The team found that vegetation in the region also changed repeatedly, shifting between grassy plains and wooded areas. Meanwhile, large grazing herbivores, which no longer had large tracts of grass to feed on, began to die out and were replaced by smaller mammals with more diverse diets.

“There was a massive change in the animal fauna during the time period when we see early human behavior changing,” Potts said. “The animals also influenced the landscape through the kinds of plants that they ate. Then with humans in the mix, and some of their innovations like projectile weapons, they also may have affected the fauna. It’s a whole ecosystem changing, with humans as part of it.”

Finally, Potts notes that while adaptability is a hallmark of human evolution, that does not mean the species is necessarily equipped to endure the unprecedented change Earth is now experiencing due to man-made climate change and Anthropogenic biodiversity loss. “We have an astonishing capacity to adapt, biologically in our genes as well as culturally and socially,” he said. “The question is, are we now creating through our own activities new sources of environmental disruption that will continue to challenge human adaptability?”

Reference: “Increased ecological resource variability during a critical transition in hominin evolution” by Richard Potts, René Dommain, Jessica W. Moerman, Anna K. Behrensmeyer, Alan L. Deino, Simon Riedl, Emily J. Beverly, Erik T. Brown, Daniel Deocampo, Rahab Kinyanjui, Rachel Lupien, R. Bernhart Owen, Nathan Rabideaux, James M. Russell, Mona Stockhecke, Peter deMenocal, J. Tyler Faith, Yannick Garcin, Anders Noren, Jennifer J. Scott, David Western, Jordon Bright, Jennifer B. Clark, Andrew S. Cohen, C. Brehnin Keller, John King, Naomi E. Levin, Kristina Brady Shannon, Veronica Muiruri, Robin W. Renaut, Stephen M. Rucina and Kevin Uno, 21 October 2020, Science Advances.
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abc8975

Funding for this research was provided by the William H. Donner Foundation and the Peter Buck Fund for the National Museum of Natural History’s Human Origins Program.

15 Comments on "Defining Moment in Human Evolution: Turbulent Era Sparked Leap in Human Behavior, Technology 320,000 Years Ago"

  1. this seems an understatement:

    “Finally, Potts notes that while adaptability is a hallmark of human evolution, that does not mean the species is necessarily equipped to endure the unprecedented change Earth is now experiencing due to man-made climate change and Anthropogenic biodiversity loss.”

    terrific read!

    • As Nietzsche observed, “What does not kill him makes him stronger.”

      No cultural change for 700,000 years. Then, environmental challenges, and advancement. There seems to be a message there.

  2. Trade? New tech reduces attrition, increases survival rates, fueling intertribal conflict. Group competition was our greatest impetus to innovate, to develop. It created the modern human being. Did one tribe prevail over the others, sweep the continent? It has happened so many times since.

  3. Babu G. Ranganathan | October 22, 2020 at 11:59 am | Reply

    Babu G. Ranganathan*
    (B.A. Bible/Biology)

    THE NATURAL LIMITS TO EVOLUTION

    ONLY LIMITED EVOLUTION (micro-evolution or evolution within biological “kinds”) is genetically possible (such as the varieties of dogs, cats, horses, cows, etc.), but not macro-evolution, or evolution across biological “kinds,” (such as from sea sponge to human). All real evolution in nature is simply the expression, over time, of already existing genes or variations of already existing genes. For example, we have breeds of dogs today that we didn’t have a few hundred years ago. The genes for these breeds had always existed in the dog population but never had opportunity before to be expressed. Only limited evolution, variations of already existing genes and traits, is possible.

    The genes (chemical instructions or code) for a trait must first exist or otherwise the trait cannot come into existence. Genes instruct the body to build our tissues and organs. Nature is mindless and has no ability to design and program entirely new genes for entirely new traits.

    Evolutionists believe that, if given millions of years, accidents in the genetic code of species caused by the environment will generate entirely new code making evolution possible from one type of life to another. It’s much like believing that by randomly changing the sequence of letters in a romance novel, over millions of years, can turn the novel into a book on astronomy! Not to worry. We’ll address the issue of “Junk DNA” in a moment.

    WHAT ABOUT NATURAL SELECTION? Natural selection doesn’t produce biological traits or variations. It can only “select” from biological variations that are possible and which have survival value.

    HOW COULD SPECIES HAVE SURVIVED if their vital tissues, organs, reproductive systems, etc. were still evolving? A partially evolved trait or organ that is not complete and fully integrated and functioning from the start would be a liability to a species, not a survival asset. Plants and animals in the process of macro-evolution would be unfit for survival. For example, “if a leg of a reptile were to evolve (over supposedly millions of years) into a wing of a bird, it would become a bad leg long before it became a good wing” (Dr. Walt Brown, scientist and creationist). Survival of the fittest actually would have prevented evolution across biological kinds!

    NEW SPECIES BUT NOT NEW DNA: Although it’s been observed that new species have come into existence, they don’t carry any new genes. They’ve become new species only because they can’t be crossed back with the original parent stock for various biological reasons. A biological “kind” allows for new species but not new genes. Nature has no ability to invent new genes for new traits. Only limited variations and adaptations are possible in nature, and all strictly within a biological “kind” (i.e. varieties of dogs, cats, etc.).

    Dr. Randy J. Guliuzza’s extensive research points to a better explanation than natural selection for variation and adaptation in nature. Dr. Guliuzza explains that species have pre-engineered mechanisms that enable organisms to continuously track and respond to environmental changes with system elements that correspond to human-designed tracking systems. This model is called CET (continuous environmental tracking). His research strongly indicates that living things have been pre-engineered to produce the right adaptations and changes required to live in changing environments. It’s much like a car that’s been pre-engineered so that the head lights turn on automatically when day changes to night.

    What about genetic and biological similarities between species? Genetic information, like other forms of information, cannot happen by chance, so it is more logical to believe that genetic and biological similarities between all forms of life are due to a common Designer who designed similar functions for similar purposes. It doesn’t mean all forms of life are biologically related! Only genetic similarities within a natural species proves relationship because it’s only within a natural species that members can interbreed and reproduce.

    Many people have wrong ideas of how evolution is supposed to work. Physical traits and characteristics are determined and passed on by genes – not by what happens to our body parts. For example, if a woman were to lose her finger this wouldn’t affect how many fingers her baby will have. Changing the color and texture of your hair will not affect the color and texture of your children’s hair. So, even if an ape or ape-like creature’s muscles and bones changed so that it could walk upright it still would not be able to pass on this trait to its offspring. Only changes or mutations that occur in the genetic code of reproductive cells (i.e. sperm and egg) can be passed on to offspring.

    What about the new science of epigenetics? Epigenetics involves inheritable factors which can turn already-existing genes on, but epigenetics doesn’t create new genes.

    Most biological variations are from new combinations of already existing genes, not mutations. Mutations are accidents in the genetic code caused by nature (i.e. environmental radiation), are mostly harmful, and have no capability of producing greater complexity in the code. Even if a good accident occurred, for every good one there would be hundreds of harmful ones with the net result, over time, being harmful, even lethal, to the species. Even if a single mutation is not immediately harmful, the accumulation of mutations over time will be harmful to the species resulting in extinction. At very best, mutations only produce further variations within a natural species.

    All species of plants and animals in the fossil record are found complete, fully formed, and fully functional. This is powerful evidence that all species came into existence as complete and fully formed from the beginning. This is only possible by creation.

    God began with a perfect and harmonious creation. Even all the animals were vegetarian (Genesis 1:30) in the beginning and did not struggle for survival nor kill and devour each other. Macro-evolutionary theory does not begin with a perfect and harmonious creation as the Bible states. The Bible and macro-evolutionary theory cannot both be true.

    All the fossils that have been used to support human evolution have been found to be either hoaxes, non-human, or human, but not non-human and human (i.e. Neanderthal Man was discovered later to be fully human).

    There has never been unanimous agreement among evolutionary scientists on ANY fossil evidence that has been used to support human evolution over the many years, Including LUCY.

    The actual similarity between ape and human DNA is between 70-87% not 99.8% as commonly believed. The original research stating 99.8% similarity was based on ignoring contradicting evidence. Only a certain segment of DNA between apes and humans was compared, not the entire DNA genome.

    Also, so-called “Junk DNA” isn’t junk. Although these “non-coding” segments of DNA don’t code for proteins, they have recently been found to be vital in regulating gene expression (i.e. when, where, and how genes are expressed, so they’re not “junk”). Also, there is evidence that, in certain situations, they can code for protein.

    ARE FOSSILS REALLY MILLIONS OF YEARS OLD? (Internet article by author)

    Visit my latest Internet site: THE SCIENCE SUPPORTING CREATION (This site answers many arguments, both old and new, that have been used by evolutionists to support their theory)

    Author of popular Internet article, TRADITIONAL DOCTRINE OF HELL EVOLVED FROM GREEK ROOTS

    *I have given successful lectures (with question and answer period afterwards) defending creation before evolutionist science faculty and students at various colleges and universities. I’ve been privileged to be recognized in the 24th edition of Marquis “Who’s Who in The East” for my writings on religion and science.

    • Are you a Nihilist when is comes to suffering in hell? Are you a Full Preterist? I agree that Christ did come in judgement in 70 AD, destroying the temple and ushering in the age to come. However, do you believe He will come again as in Final Judgement? That He will restore all things and establish the New Heavens and New Earth where Christians will be with Him for eternity?

    • Do you subscribe to Full Preterism? And a Nihilistic view of Hell? Lots of sound stuff but find some confusion on some issues that I wonder if I’m understanding correctly from you. Are you Amill? Postmill? I know you aren’t premill. You say not all prophecy is fulfilled but then don’t mention what the Christians ultimate look forward to is which is His Return and only touch on His Second Coming being the destruction of the temple. But God has come in judgement many a times so…. we (meaning Christians) still believe Christ will come again and finally. And Scripture does teach Nihilism of the unbeliever. Sounds nice and makes preaching easier because well repent and believe or you’ll perish briefly then nothing… I mean that is an awesome belief when you’re conducting a funeral for a grieving family of a loved one with no sign of belief yet to the contrary the mouth spoke abundantly from the heart against God or grandma who was so sweet and worshipped Mary as holy and always prayed her rosary. Or the Hindu who worshipped his false gods religiously everyday of his life. Sounds swell but doesn’t make it biblical.

    • Sorry ANnihilism…….

    • Your thesis is correct — on a flat Earth!

  4. I find it amazing what limiting information in an agenda based education can do to an otherwise fully functional human being.
    It must not be too damaging overall or they would not still be with us, insisting their view is the only view. A degree in closed minds, must be a left coast liberal college thing.

    The shift in technology brought about by severe fluctuations in climate is consistent with the downfall of the Neanderthals, seemingly locked into their existing tool kit. It had functioned fine for ten thousand generations (200,000 years) and habits run deep, too deep to change on short notice. Early humans were new and had no established patterns to change, only new ones to be made on the fly. And this fit them so well we are the only humans to survive.

    I am good with that and wait for further details as they are uncovered.

  5. This was a very informative article. I enjoyed reading this article and learning about how well humans can adapt and overcome to survive. However, I am disappointed about the ending of this article. Yes humans are a contributing factor in climate change… but we are not the only factor. Mainstream media and mainstream is not painting the whole picture clearly to the general public. There is a lot more going on with our planet then just humans contributing to the changes that are going on. I’m sure that I don’t have to point out the rest of the events that are also contributing to these changes. Being scientists, I’m sure you know the truth!!

  6. Scientists are fun to listen to like Michio Kaku!

  7. 300,000 years ago, necessity was already the mother of invention.

  8. So on one side of our scientific mouth we admit early humans were an active part in the shaping and reshaping of the environment, just like the other animal fauna in the area, but then along comes the anthropogenic disclaimer from the opposite side of our scientific mouth that humans, although adaptable, are still this bad thing and not an active participant in the environment or a co-contributer like the other animal fauna. Okay. I get it. Scientists must toe the anthropogenic climate change line or risk losing their funding. Great article right up until the disclaimer part at the end.

  9. What the biggest load of nonsense. Man is not hundreds of thousands of years old. The human mutation rate proves that.

    Human evolution is fairy tale Darwinian nonsense. Time the whole idea/philosophy was binned.

  10. I thought Homo sapiens remains had been found recently in Morocco and had been dated at 350 000 years BP, some 30 000 years before the 320 000 dates for the change in tools determined in this article. Therefore what sub-species of Hominins are referred to in the article as “early humans”. A change in design of tools does not necessarily mean that a new sub-species of Hominin had to have evolved to have produced those tools.

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