Changing climates, evolving humans
Why are we here? What's life all about?
The British Museum, London, hosted the Natural Environment Research Council's EFCHED end of programme event on Friday 10th and Saturday 11th November 2006.
"The history of human evolution", said archaeologist Clive Gamble to a packed house at the British Museum, "is one of idealism, despair, struggle, passion, success, failure and enormously long lunch breaks."
Clive, paraphrasing the author Douglas Adams, introduced the day's events which centred around the findings of NERC's research programme Environmental Factors in the Chronology of Human Evolution and Dispersal (EFCHED). The programme examined the role of the environment, in particular climate change, in the story of human evolution.
The Royal Holloway academic explained how the environment played a pivotal role in our early development, "Ice ages were multiple. We are interested in how these changes, repeated many times, affected our ancestors."
"Up until about 10,000 years ago [around the end of the last ice age] we always inhabited this planet with another species, whether it was Neanderthal or Homo floresiensis. Only at that last moment did we become a single human species distributed across the entire planet."
Following Clive's introduction, Chris Stringer from the Natural History Museum discussed early human development in Europe and Africa. "In Europe, where Neanderthals lived, the main environmental changes were hot and cold - ice ages and interglacials. In Africa the main environmental changes were to do with humidity - wet or dry. In the dry periods we can envisage that human populations were isolated and quite small, but in times of humidity these populations could expand and spread out and mix with each other, before the climate returned to a dry period, and these populations became isolated once more. This happened over hundreds of thousands of years, and probably led to modern human diversity in Africa. It could even have influenced modern human behaviour."
Other speakers throughout the day included Phil Harding from Channel Four's Time Team, who took to the stage and wowed the audience with a demonstration of the ancient craft of flint knapping (using basic stone tools to fashion hand axes), and Silvia Gonzalez, from John Moores University, Liverpool, whose discovery of fleeing footprints, preserved in volcanic ash in Mexico, could rewrite American history books if they indeed date from 40,000 years ago, as she claims.
More detailed information about all EFCHED projects is available from the results and findings section.