But how do you re-create specific environments from millions of years ago to understand where our ancient ancestors lived?
Paleoanthropologists use animal fossils like proxy time machines to re-create what past environments were like. If animal fossils indicate browsing on tree leaves, like giraffes and monkeys do, then they know that the environment was characterized by woody trees and significant rainfall. If the fossils suggest grazing on grass, as many antelopes do, then the environments would have been open and arid with grassy plains.
Scientists have long suggested that global cooling and the spread of grassy environments set the stage for the beginnings of Homo.
“A growing body of evidence has hinted at this connection,” said Joshua Robinson, postdoctoral researcher with the Institute of Human Origins, “but, until now, we had no direct environmental data for the origins of Homo now that its been pushed back in time.”
Following the discovery of the Ledi-Geraru jaw, an intensive environmental study of the eastern African Plio-Pleistocene — from around 3.5 million years ago to 1.0 million years ago — was conducted in order to investigate these long-standing hypotheses.
The study, coauthored by ASU researchers Joshua Robinson, John Rowan, Christopher Campisano and Kaye Reed with University of South Florida researcher Jonathan Wynn, in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, offers the first comprehensive assessment of the ecological contexts of the transition from Australopithecus to Homo.