Identifying early modern human ecological niche expansions and associated cultural dynamics in the South African Middle Stone Age [Anthropology]
The archaeological record shows that typically human cultural traits emerged at different times, in different parts of the world, and among different hominin taxa. This pattern suggests that their emergence is the outcome of complex and nonlinear evolutionary trajectories, influenced by environmental, demographic, and social factors, that need to be understood and traced at regional scales. The application of predictive algorithms using archaeological and paleoenvironmental data allows one to estimate the ecological niches occupied by past human populations and identify niche changes through time, thus providing the possibility of investigating relationships between cultural innovations and possible niche shifts. By using such methods to examine two key southern Africa archaeological cultures, the Still Bay [76–71 thousand years before present (ka)] and the Howiesons Poort (HP; 66–59 ka), we identify a niche shift characterized by a significant expansion in the breadth of the HP ecological niche. This expansion is coincident with aridification occurring across Marine Isotope Stage 4 (ca. 72–60 ka) and especially pronounced at 60 ka. We argue that this niche shift was made possible by the development of a flexible technological system, reliant on composite tools and cultural transmission strategies based more on “product copying” rather than “process copying.” These results counter the one niche/one human taxon equation. They indicate that what makes our cultures, and probably the cultures of other members of our lineage, unique is their flexibility and ability to produce innovations that allow a population to shift its ecological niche.
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