Paleobiological approaches to the reconstruction of habitats

Christine Hertler

During the course of human evolution, environmental factors have co-determined the expansions of the genus Homo. However, the relative impact of these factors has changed through time. Unlike their immediate precursors, early representatives of the genus Homo were no longer restricted to the environments of Africa. In this way, the genus Homo was able to successfully populate a wider array of habitats and access resources in places where their predecessors had failed. By studying these expansion processes, we can reconstruct those changes.

The paleobiological component of this research unit focuses on studying how early humans survived in their habitats, the specific forms of their resource utilization and the biological requirements of the environments they inhabited. Therefore, we can precisely reconstruct the habitats that early humans occupied by using the information about local environmental settings that all components of the biotic habitat provide. For instance, the relative frequencies of competitors indicate the direct consequences of resource competition. Other characteristics of habitat, including vegetation density, seasonal fluctuations in resource availability and relative humidity, can be inferred from the ecological profiles of certain faunal elements. The paleobiological part of this project will identify, compile and analyze these important environmental indicators.

The Reconstruction of Environment by means of Palaeobotany

Angela Bruch

In order to get an entire picture of the environment and landscape that formed the habitat of early humans and to identify environmental influences on migration, the palaeobotanical working group of the research centre aims to quantitatively reconstruct climate and vegetation based on fossil plant material. Fossil floras from Africa and Eurasia between 3 Ma and 20 ka are analysed with standardised methods to quantify spatial patterns of climate and vegetation. Moreover, profile data from key regions are important sources to study the temporal development of climate and vegetation in high resolution and to quantify the amplitudes of observed changes. Based on a compilation of published data, own projects (e.g., Caucasus) and international cooperations (NECLIME, Neotoma), palaeobotanical data enable the reconstruction of spatiotemporal distribution patterns of environmental parameters. Together with other environmental proxies as palaeontology, geology and modelling and linked to observed spatiotemporal patterns in hominid occurrence and evolution, this will lead to the definition of environmental influences on migration at a given time and may help to identify potential migration routes in those areas which are yet lacking archaeological evidence.