Friday, March 05, 2010

Remote Sensing Tools for Human Evolution Studies

Science Mag reports that researchers have often proposed that dramatic changes in ancient climates triggered major events in human evolution, such as the emergence of a new species or migrations of our ancestors in and out of Africa. But it has been notoriously difficult to tie deep-sea records of global climate fluctuations to local fossil sites in Africa and, hence, to specific fossils of human ancestors. Now, a new report released yesterday by the National Research Council recommends a major new interdisciplinary research program to study how past climate influenced human evolution.

In the report, an interdisciplinary team of paleoanthropologists and geologists recommended four new research initiatives over the next 10 to 20 years. The first is to launch a major effort to locate new fossil sites using remote-sensing tools and traditional ground methods to survey new terrain. The point is to fill in key gaps in the fossil record, such as when new species first appear and disappear, to see if there are links between these major events in human evolution and changes in the climate.

The researchers also called for a comprehensive program to drill ancient lakebeds and lakes on land, as well as in ocean basins, in the regions where humans evolved in the Rift Valley of Ethiopia and Kenya, for example. This would help provide a record of climate changes in the local areas where human ancestors actually lived, given that the climate can vary dramatically in different parts of Africa. It would be part of a larger effort to reconstruct past environments in local habitats where fossils have been found.

The researchers also proposed that funding agencies make a major investment in research to model local and regional climates during key times in human evolution. Finally, they are also seeking funds to educate the public about how climate change influenced human evolution.

A public briefing to discuss the report's findings will be held on 31 March at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.


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