Evidence for early journeys from Africa to Asia

A fragile consensus has developed concerning the date when fully modern humans left Africa then migrated to all habitable continents. It is based on genetic comparisons among living people, very sparse occurrences of H. sapiens remains that have been dated and on the environmental pressures in Africa to migrate during the highly erratic deterioration of climate since the last interglacial. The last included a series of abrupt cooling and drying episodes around 118, 110, 86, 75, 71 and 67 ka. That fully modern humans entered the Middle East from time to time between 130 and 75 ka is backed up by actual fossils, but most palaeoanthropologists believe that they moved no further, because of the growth of surrounding deserts, and probably did not return until around 45 ka. The consensus for the decisive move out of Africa to Eurasia is that it was via the Straits of Bab el Mandab at the entrance to the Red Sea, when sea level fell to a level that would have allowed a crossing by rafting over narrow seaways. The most likely was during the brief 67 ka cool/dry episode that coincided with an 80 m fall in global sea level: the largest since the previous glacial maximum. This would fit the earliest dates of fully modern human remains in Asia and Australasia. There had been falls of more than 50 m around 110, 86 and 75 ka, each followed by rising sea level. Each of them accompanied by cooling and drying in Africa conceivably could have allowed earlier migrations from Africa to southern Arabia. Emerging data seems set to complicate matters.

At a conference in Gibraltar during September 2009 (Balter, M. 2009. New work may complicate history of Neandertals and H. sapiens. Science, v. 326, p. 224-225) there were further reports of stone tools, which apparently resemble those of a similar age from Africa, beneath the 74 ka Toba ash in South India, and dated between 70 to 80 ka old in the Yemen and United Arab Emirates. Even more challenging are reports of archaic H. sapiens teeth and a jawbone with a chin – a sure sign of a fully modern human – from cave sediments in southern China that yield a date of about 110 ka (Stone, R. 2009. Signs of early Homo sapiens in China. Science, v. 326, p. 655). Given an opportunity and a need humans do tend to move in order to survive, a proclivity that would undoubtedly be boosted by our insatiable curiosity: after all H. erectus, antecessor and neanderthalensis all made tremendous migrations starting more than 1.6 Ma ago.


Fungal clue to fate of North American megafauna

More than 30 large mammal species, including elephants and giant sloths, that had roamed North America during the Pleistocene met their end between 13 and 11.5 ka. Whether or not predation by newly arrived humans caused these extinctions remains unresolved, as do the triggers for coinciding changes in plant communities and evidence for increased burning of biomass. While the ages of fossil bones are direct evidence for species being present, they are not found everywhere that a megafauna likely lived and occurrences are patchy in time. There is however a proxy for the presence or absence of large herbivores: spores of fungus that thrived on their dung (Gill, J.L. et al. 2009. Pleistocene megafaunal collapse, novel plant communities, and enhanced fire regimes in North America. Science, v. 326, p. 1100-1103). Sporormiella can only complete its life cycle after herbivores have digested plant matter. So its spores in sediment cores form an impressive link to the local presence of herds. In a lake core from New York State such fungal spores, having been much more abundant beforehand, fell to less than 2% of all spores and pollen about 13.7 thousand years ago. This suggests that large herbivores vanished from this area at that time. Interestingly, the timing is during a warm period (the Bølling-Allerød) rather than the stress of the Younger Dryas glacial re-advance. Moreover, the local disappearance predates the first signs of Clovis people, although there is evidence for earlier human colonisers back to 15 ka. It is possible that it was the disappearance of large herbivores that allowed the development of extensive mixed coniferous-deciduous woodland, broad-leaved trees having perhaps been browsed severely by earlier herbivores.

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