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Early hominins evolved within non-analog ecosystems


J Tyler Faith, John Rowan, Andrew Du


Present-day African ecosystems serve as referential models for conceptualizing the environmental context of early hominin evolu- tion, but the degree to which modern ecosystems are representa- tive of those in the past is unclear. A growing body of evidence from eastern Africas rich and well-dated late Cenozoic fossil record documents communities of large-bodied mammalian herbivores with ecological structures differing dramatically from those of the present day, implying that modern communities may not be suit- able analogs for the ancient ecosystems of hominin evolution. To determine when and why the ecological structure of eastern Africas herbivore faunas came to resemble those of the present, here we analyze functional trait changes in a comprehensive dataset of 305 modern and fossil herbivore communities spanning the last 7 Myr. We show that nearly all communities prior to 700 ka were function- ally non-analog, largely due to a greater richness of non-ruminants and megaherbivores (species >1,000 kg). The emergence of function- ally modern communities precedes that of taxonomically modern communities by 100,000s of years, and can be attributed to the combined influence of Plio-Pleistocene C4 grassland expansion and pulses of aridity after 1 Ma. Given the disproportionate ecological impacts of large-bodied herbivores on factors such as vegetation structure, hydrology, and fire regimes, it follows that the vast majority of early hominin evolution transpired in the context of ecosystems that functioned unlike any today. Identifying how past ecosystems differed compositionally and functionally from those today is key to conceptualizing ancient African environments and testing ecological hypotheses of hominin evolution.

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Last Updated: 4/13/21