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How Dorset’s landscape could reveal secrets about our early ancestors

PUBLISHED: 10:27 11 May 2015 | UPDATED: 10:33 11 May 2015

Dr Sally Reynolds holding 'Mrs Ples' found in Sterkfontein and the Taung Child skull. Both are Australopithecus africanusa which represents a type of 'missing link' species of ancient ape-men from southern Africa

Dr Sally Reynolds holding 'Mrs Ples' found in Sterkfontein and the Taung Child skull. Both are Australopithecus africanusa which represents a type of 'missing link' species of ancient ape-men from southern Africa

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Dr Sally Reynolds, a Research Fellow in Human Evolution at Bournemouth University, reflects on how Dorset’s landscape could reveal secrets about our early ancestors

I am more accustomed to roaming the Highveld of my native South Africa or the rift valley of east African than the grasslands of Dorset. My research passion is to understand how our early human ancestors (hominins) coped in a harsh environment – one full of dangerous predators, and often lacking in food and water; an environment also subject to climate change. You may therefore wonder why my search has led me to the lush green landscape and rolling hills of Dorset. Surprisingly the answer lies under our feet: a legacy of tectonics.

Most geology textbooks feature the folds and faults exposed on the Dorset coast in places such as Lulworth Cover or Durdle Door. These buckled and folded rocks formed as the distal parts of the Alpine Orogeny – 65 million to 2.5 million years ago - during the early Tertiary period. These events mostly pre-date the African rift, which also began to emerge during the Tertiary and is still active even today. Africa is being slowly ripped in two and the East African Rift Valley marks the tear.

This extraordinary region of Africa preserves ancient fossils of human ancestors that point to this as the cradle of humanity. Many scientists believe that a cooling, drying climate led to fragmented forests and drove our ancestors from the trees to adopt a bipedal way of life. However, my colleagues and I believe that landscape processes, along with climate change, provide a better way to understand the how our species evolved. Alongside my colleagues at Bournemouth University (BU), we use our knowledge of earth processes to understand the importance of tectonics in evolution of our early human ancestors.

The key point is that tectonics give landscapes diversity. Eastern African landscapes, such as those in Kenya are diverse: characterised by crater lakes, rift lakes, volcanoes and steep fault scarps. In these rich landscapes, our ancestors would have found a wider range of food resources, reliable sources of fresh drinking water and, importantly, refuge from predators. It is an ideal mix for ape-like creatures not able to run fast or defend themselves well.

I joined BU in the summer of 2014 to work with work with Professor Matthew Bennett, known for his work on early African footprints in Kenya. Together we are pioneering this field of human evolution studies by drawing in an impressive array of BU expertise under the banner of the newly launched Institute for Studies of Landscape and Human Evolution (ISLHE). This includes not only scientific and geology expertise, but also the skills of computer scientists, animators and remote sensors.

Together with research colleagues across the UK and in France and Germany, we will investigate important modern landscapes such as the Okavango Delta in Botswana and Lake Chad through state-of the-art satellite imagery and data-rich science and using animation to create short features that will engage people about how landscapes have changed the course of human history.

Well it’s certainly something to ponder when you are next admiring our scenic Dorset landscape.

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