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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Climate affected human evolution

An old evolution question gets a new answer, thanks in part to the UA. The question: How are some of the biggest human evolutionary steps shaped by the climate in which our ancestors lived?

In a report commissioned by the National Science Foundation, a group of scientific experts from around the nation, including UA geosciences professor Andrew Cohen, tackled this question.

“”The idea is basically that since the time of Charles Darwin, people have had a notion that environmental change is probably responsible for a lot of the evolution we see in humans and their ancestors,”” Cohen said. “”But we didn’t have good data to examine it.””

Studying lake cores as a record of environmental change helped Cohen deliver an environmental perspective to the group of experts for the report.

A conjunction between the climate and fossil records formed the basis for the report.

“”When we start seeing major climate changes on the Earth, that’s the time when all the splitting started to occur and early species of early hominids start to appear in early Africa,”” he said.

The impact of climate on our ancestors and how to better study it in and outside of schools were major goals of the report.

“”It’s not so much of just an academic question,”” Cohen said. “”It’s really at the core of two scientific themes that are important for the public to understand: climate and evolution.””

Three years in the making, the study brought in people analyzing human sides of the research, an interdisciplinary effort in which the UA has been involved for several years.

“”I’m always interested in how climate change and environmental change cause or stimulate changes in human adaptations over the long term,”” said Steve Kuhn, a UA archaeologist and anthropology professor who led a seminar with Cohen about this topic.

Kuhn noted there’s a lot that the UA in particular brings to this type of research.

“”I think one of the things that we bring is that we can, more than many universities … work across many disciplines,”” he said. “”You need to understand the archaeological record but you also need to understand the environmental information. You need to be able to work across disciplines.””

This interplay has helped the UA take steps toward figuring out how changing environments change human biology, and how that expands over the world in conjunction with our own evolutionary history.

“”The witnessing of the unfolding of the human story is fascinating,”” said Jay Quade, a geosciences professor who also studies the interplay between climate and evolution.

Quade noted that the research he and others are doing at the UA would make definitive marks on the scientific community.

“”They had a really good group of people and they put together a kind of state-of-the-art discussion of where things are at,”” Quade said.

Overall, he noted his excitement about the progress made by the report and how that will propel scientific knowledge in the future.

“”To be able to be witness to some of these studies … it’s one of the most exciting scientific things that I have ever been a part of,”” he said.

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