|July 2013: NERC £1.2 m grant: Climatic change and human evolution
The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) has approved a grant of £1.2 m to a UK team including researchers at the British Geological Survey (BGS) to investigate the influence of past climatic changes on human evolution in Africa.
In November 2013, working with partners from Germany, the US, and Ethiopia, the team will drill a 400 m-deep sediment core from Chew Bahir, an ancient lake basin in south Ethiopia, close to some of the world's most famous human fossil sites.
Over the next three years, the cores will yield a high-resolution record of changes in rainfall, temperature and vegetation spanning at least the last 500 000 years, a period that covers the evolution of our species, Homo sapiens, and dispersal of our distant ancestors from Africa into Asia and Europe.
Until now, there have been no such long environmental records from the African centre of human origins, so ideas about how climatic change may have influenced the emergence and dispersal of modern humans have remained largely speculative. By placing the fossil and archaeological data against a detailed record of regional climatic variation, and by modelling the likely effects of changing local environments on ancient human populations, the project will develop the first rigorous tests of hypotheses about how climate drove the genetic and cultural evolution of our species, and our eventual spread to every part of the globe.
The Chew Bahir project is part of the Hominin Sites and Paleolakes Drilling Project, a multi-national research effort to obtain core records of climatic change from five key palaeoanthropological sites in east Africa, covering the last four million years of human evolution.
The UK part of the project is headed by Professor Henry Lamb (Aberystwyth University) who leads a strong research team, including Professor Melanie Leng (BGS/University of Leicester) as well as scientists from Bangor, Liverpool, Newcastle, Oxford, and St Andrews universities.
The research is also supported by grants from the National Science Foundation (USA), the German Research Foundation (DFG), and the International Continental Scientific Drilling Programme.
Cores, from Kenya and Chew Bahir will be analysed initially at the US National Lake Core laboratories (LacCore) at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. Samples for dating, microfossil, and geochemical/isotope analysis will then be studied at the team's specialist laboratories (including the BGS stable isotope laboratory) in the UK and Cologne, Germany.