Friday, December 20, 2013

The Science of Early Humans

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At the close of the year, I write a series of posts on overlooked environmental stories of the year.  In previous years, I wrote about the acceptance of the "new normal" in climate change, the growth of GMO food in the US diet, the expansion of benchmarking in sustainability management, the growth in the science of Mars, the acceptance of climate change by big energy, the high carbon cost of the internetwhite nose syndrome, the lack of clear US energy policy, the normalization of sustainability in everyday lives, the decline of the nuclear energy industrythe end of sprawl, and population growth.

It is interesting to go back to those posts and gauge their relevance in today's conversations on the environment and sustainability.  If you have any suggestions as to what I should feature in this year's series on overlooked environmental issues, send a note or leave a comment.

Today's overlooked environmental story is on the growth in the understanding of early humans.  While this may seem like an odd choice as an overlooked environmental story, I think it is important to understand how humans developed in order to understand how we can adapt to today's changing natural and cultural environment.

Early humans lived in some extreme environments and anthropologists have been diligently working out the details of their lives for decades.  New information coming from DNA analysis is particularly fascinating, including the recovery of the oldest DNA from a human ancestor.  We are also getting detailed information on early modern human DNA from a number of different locations from around the world including China.  What all this research is telling us is that human ancestry is much more complicated than originally thought.

We are also learning much more about how early humans lived.  For example, this story tells us that dogs were first domesticated in Europe between 19,000 and 32,000 years ago.  We have also learned this year that Neanderthals had a much more complex culture than originally thought.  We are also learning more about diet and its role in early cultures.

We are also learning a great deal about the environmental impact of human arrival in the Americas and their interaction with now extinct megafauna. And we are learning how humans interacted with ancient climate change in other parts of the world and about the environmental changes associated with the transition from hunter gatherer to agricultural societies.

These are just a few new pieces of information that came out this year and there is much more I could report.  Indeed, the amount of information coming out on early humans is accelerating.  It provides evidence that while we are very different from our ancestors, we do have many similarities.  One big similarity is that we have always been altering our environment in some way.  Hopefully we will be able to learn more from the past in order to understand where we may be heading.

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