A Spring Forward for Human Evolution in East Africa?

Wednesday, 17 December 2014
Mark O Cuthbert, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, B15, United Kingdom; University of New South Wales, Connected Waters Initiative Research Centre, Sydney, Australia and Gail M Ashley, Rutgers University New Brunswick, New Brunswick, NJ, United States
The current consensus is that humans evolved in Africa and then migrated in waves to other parts of the world starting as early as 2 Ma. The climate was both cooling and drying. One of the major unknowns connected with human survival in this climatically turbulent environment is the availability of resources, particularly water. A growing body of geological evidence shows an association between springs, stone tools and hominin fossils at a number of sites in the East African Rift System (EARS) during a critical period for hominin evolution (from 1.8 Ma). The springs may have been vulnerable to climate variability, thus the role that groundwater availability may have played in human evolution and migration to other continents is not known.

Using palaeogeological reconstruction and groundwater modelling of the paleo-catchment of one such EARS site, Olduvai Gorge (3°S), we show how spring discharge was likely linked to climate variability of annual to Milankovitch cycle timescales. Under decadal to centennial timescales, spring flow would have been relatively invariant providing good water resource resilience through long droughts. For multi-millennial periods, modelled spring flows lag groundwater recharge by 100s to 1000 years. Our results show how groundwater would have provided ‘drought proof’ water supply and habitats during arid phases as potable surface water from rivers or lakes became increasingly scarce.

Localized groundwater systems are likely to have been widespread within the EARS providing refugia and intense competition during dry periods. Thus, springs and associated wetlands may have been important factors in natural selection and evolution, as well as a vital resource during dispersal within and out of Africa. While further exploration is needed to test the geographical extent of groundwater use by early humans, we propose that groundwater flow systems produced in the EARS played a significant role in the evolution and dispersal of early humans.