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Origins of human culture linked to rapid climate change

21 May 2013

Rapid climate change during the Middle Stone Age, between 80,000 and 40,000 years ago, during the Middle Stone Age, sparked surges in cultural innovation in early modern human populations, according to new research.

The research, published in Nature Communications [21 May], was conducted by a team of scientists from Cardiff University’s School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, the Natural History Museum in London and the University of Barcelona.

The scientists studied a marine sediment core off the coast of South Africa and reconstructed terrestrial climate variability over the last 100,000 years.

Dr Martin Ziegler, Cardiff University School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, said: "We found that South Africa experienced rapid climate transitions toward wetter conditions at times when the Northern Hemisphere experienced extremely cold conditions."

These large Northern Hemisphere cooling events have previously been linked to a change in the Atlantic Ocean circulation that led to a reduced transport of warm water to the high latitudes in the North. In response to this Northern Hemisphere cooling, large parts of the sub-Saharan Africa experienced very dry conditions.

"Our new data however, contrasts with sub-Saharan Africa and demonstrates that the South African climate responded in the opposite direction, with increasing rainfall, that can be associated with a globally occurring southward shift of the tropical monsoon belt."

Linking climate change with human evolution

Professor Ian Hall, Cardiff University School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, said: "When the timing of these rapidly occurring wet pulses was compared with the archaeological datasets, we found remarkable coincidences.

"The occurrence of several major Middle Stone Age industries fell tightly together with the onset of periods with increased rainfall"

"Similarly, the disappearance of the industries appears to coincide with the transition to drier climatic conditions."

Professor Chris Stringer of London’s Natural History Museum commented "The correspondence between climatic ameliorations and cultural innovations supports the view that population growth fuelled cultural changes, through increased human interactions".

The South African archaeological record is so important because it shows some of the oldest evidence for modern behavior in early humans. This includes the use of symbols, which has been linked to the development of complex language, and personal adornments made of seashells.

"The quality of the southern African data allowed us to make these correlations between climate and behavioural change, but it will require comparable data from other areas before we can say whether this region was uniquely important in the development of modern human culture" added Professor Stringer.

The new study presents the most convincing evidence so far that abrupt climate change was instrumental in this development.

The research was supported by the UK Natural Environment Research Council and is part of the international Gateways training network, funded by the 7th Framework Programme of the European Union.

Ends

Cardiff University
Cardiff University is recognised in independent government assessments as one of Britain’s leading teaching and research universities and is a member of the Russell Group of the UK’s most research intensive universities. Among its academic staff are two Nobel Laureates, including the winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize for Medicine, University Chancellor Professor Sir Martin Evans. Founded by Royal Charter in 1883, today the University combines impressive modern facilities and a dynamic approach to teaching and research. The University’s breadth of expertise encompasses: the College of Humanities and Social Sciences; the College of Biomedical and Life Sciences; and the College of Physical Sciences, along with a longstanding commitment to lifelong learning. Cardiff's three flagship Research Institutes are offering radical new approaches to neurosciences and mental health, cancer stem cells and sustainable places. www.cardiff.ac.uk

Natural History Museum
Winner of ‘Best of the Best’ in the Museums and Heritage Awards 2013, the Natural History Museum welcomes 5 million visitors a year. It is also a world-leading science research centre. Through its collections and scientific expertise the museum helps understand and maintain the diversity of our planet, with groundbreaking partnerships in more than 70 countries. For more information go to www.nhm.ac.uk

For further information or to arrange an interview with Professor Ian Hall, please contact:

Emma Darling, Public Relations,

Cardiff University                                                                                                                                                                         

Tel: 02920874499  Email: DarlingEL@cardiff.ac.uk

For further information or to arrange an interview with Professor Chris Stringer, please contact:

The Natural History Museum Press Office
Tel: 020 7942 5654 Email: press@nhm.ac.uk