COG3 Seminar - Ainara Sistiaga (U. Copenhagen)

Ainara Sistiaga (U. Copenhagen)
Friday, April 23, 2021 - 10:00am to 11:00am

New insights on the role of tectonics and hydrothermalism in Human Evolution: a geochemical perspective

Landscape-scale reconstructions of ancient environments within the cradle of humanity may reveal insights into the relationship between early hominins and the changing resources around them. Many studies of Olduvai Gorge during Pliocene–Pleistocene times have revealed the presence of precession-driven wet–dry cycles atop a general aridification trend, though may underestimate the impact of local-scale conditions on early hominins, who likely experienced a varied and more dynamic landscape. Fossil lipid biomarkers from ancient plants and microbes encode information about their surroundings via their molecular structures and composition, and thus can shed light on past environments. Here, we employ fossil lipid biomarkers to study the paleolandscape at Olduvai Gorge at the emergence of the Acheulean technology, 1.7 Ma. In the context of the expansion of savanna grasslands, our results represent a resource-rich mosaic ecosystem populated by groundwater-fed rivers, aquatic plants, angiosperm shrublands, and edible plants. Evidence of a geothermally active landscape is reported via an unusual biomarker distribution consistent with the presence of hydrothermal features seen today at Yellowstone National Park. The study of hydrothermalism in ancient settings and its impact on hominin evolution has not been addressed before, although the association of thermal springs in the proximity of archaeological sites documented here can also be found at other localities. Hominin encephalization has been at the centre of debates concerning human evolution with a consensus on a greater role for improved dietary quality. To sustain the energetic demands of larger brains, cooking was likely essential for increasing the digestibility and energy gain of meat and readily available, yet toxic starches. Here, we present the oldest geochemical evidence for a landscape influenced by tectonic activity and hydrothermal features that potentially shaped early hominin behaviour at Olduvai Gorge. Although use of fire at this time is controversial, hot springs may have provided an alternative way to thermally process dietary resources available in the 1.7 Myo Olduvai wetland. Our data supports the presence of an aquatic-dominated landscape with hydrothermal features that offered hominins new opportunities to hunt and cook readily available tubers and herbivore prey at the emergence of the Acheulean technology. Future studies should further examine whether hydrothermalism similarly influenced other critical aspects of human evolution

About this Series:

The Chemical Oceanography, Geology, Geochemistry, and Geobiology Seminar [COG3] is a student-run seminar series. Topics include chemical oceanography, geology, geochemistry, and geobiology. The seminars take place on Fridays from 10-11am, unless otherwise noted (term-time only). Contact: