Africa was the first continent where our ancestors appeared. It has a solid connection to the ecology and geography of human evolution. The REACHE project, which stands for Research on Eastern African Catarrhine and Hominoid Evolution, was founded on generalizations of specific interpretations from specific fossil sites.
According to a scientific story, Africa was initially covered in huge forests stretching from coast to coast, creating a lush paradise. Around 21 million years ago, the oldest relatives of apes and humans first developed that set them apart from their monkey relatives, including upright posture.
However, global climates began to chill and dry, and trees declined. By roughly 10 million years ago, forests in eastern Africa began to be replaced by grasses and shrubs better suited to withstand the region’s rising aridity.
Many human qualities, like walking on two legs, using tools, and hunting, have been connected for a long time to the emergence of grasslands in Africa. Although this view is widely accepted, growing data from paleontological and paleo-climatological studies refute it.
A multidisciplinary team of scientists from Kenya, Uganda, Europe, and the United States concluded that it is time to finally dismiss the version of the evolutionary story in recent studies.
The atmosphere at Moroto (Uganda)
The researchers investigated the chemistry of fossil soils and the tiny plant remains. It can reconstruct the ancient temperature and flora at Moroto to determine the habitat.
Based on photosynthesis, trees, most shrubs, and nontropical grasses are categorized as C3 plants. C4 plants are tropical grasses that use a particular type of photosynthetic mechanism.
Significantly, the ratios of the various carbon isotopes that C3 and C4 plants absorb vary. The carbon isotope ratios maintained in the paleosols can provide information on the makeup of the prehistoric flora.
Three independent carbon isotope signatures offered a unique viewpoint on the plant community: carbon produced by the breakdown of plants and soil microorganisms, carbon produced by plant waxes, and carbon produced by calcium carbonate nodules created in soils as a result of evaporation.
This finding represented a disclosure. Water loss from photosynthesis is lower in C4 grasses than in C3 trees and shrubs. C4 grasses now dominate the majority of Africa’s seasonal dry savanna habitats. However, until 10 million years ago, researchers only believed Africa had evolved to the proportions of C4 biomass at Moroto.
A Local Perspective of Early Ape Habitations
The researchers used the same methodology in the project to reconstruct habitats at eight additional fossil sites in Kenya and Uganda that date from roughly 16 million to 21 million years ago. After all, Morotopithecus was just one of several apes that existed at the time.
The scientists were shocked to learn that the ecological signal detected at Moroto was not unique. Instead, it was part of a larger pattern that was prevalent at the time throughout eastern Africa.
At each fossil site, the isotopic proxies provided two critical insights. First, several vegetation sites existed, from open woodland fields to closed-canopy forests. Additionally, each site contained a mix of C3 and C4 vegetation, with specific areas having a significant amount of C4 grass biomass.
The presence of abundant C4 grasses was confirmed by phytoliths from the same paleosols. The discovery that the early apes lived in such a diversity of conditions, particularly open habitats with C4 grasses, demands a revaluation of the evolution of apes and that of humans and other African animals.
The scientific investigation was able to regularly confirm that habitats such as that early apes and their animal occupied within the environments, despite some studies’ claims to the contrary.
The research established that African grassland habitats existed far earlier than the estimated revaluation of many evolutionary concepts based on the timing of the habitats’ assembly.
The research supplements the intensifying data that the origin of humans cannot be solely attributed to the emergence of grassland ecosystems, as shown by differences in human anatomy, ecology, and behavior. It consciously reminds us that hominin evolution took place over many millions of years.
It is likely that Africa’s vast and spectacular grasslands significantly influenced some of the numerous steps on the route to becoming human.
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