RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Evolutionary scientists are planning to launch a big new project to look back in time and find out how climate change over millions of years affected human evolution. A panel of experts from the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. says the project could reveal a whole new side of human history. NPR News's Christopher Joyce has that story.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: If anyone has pushed the idea that climate made us, it's anthropologist Rick Potts. These days you'll find Potts running like a man possessed around the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. He's the curator of an exhibit that's just opening, called What Does It Mean to Be Human?

Dr. RICK POTTS (Curator, What Does It Mean To Be Human): Let's go this way.

JOYCE: This is it?

Dr. POTTS: This is it. And my goodness, you're seeing a statue of Homo�floresiensis right from the start here.

JOYCE: The bronze statue of the so-called Hobbit discovered in Indonesia three years ago seems a bit lost among workers pulling bones out of boxes. Potts gives instructions on how to mount skulls on a wall, so they'll stare down at viewers.

Dr. POTTS: I don't think we're tilting those up at all. I think we're tilting all the other ones down.

JOYCE: Potts knows them all by heart.

Dr. POTTS: This is the black skull from West Turkana, with the beautiful name WT-17,000.

JOYCE: Skulls show how our ancestors evolved. But this exhibit and the Science Academy are proposing something novel about what helped drive that evolution. They think climate change did.

Dr. POTTS: The explanations that we've had tied human origins back to an African savannah or to a European ice age. And it was never really adequate to try to understand the plasticity, the versatility of the human species.

JOYCE: Darwin's idea was that living things adapt to a place, a habitat. But Potts says habitats kept changing because climates kept changing. Centuries of drought, for example, shifting to centuries of monsoons over and over - which raises a question.

Dr. POTTS: Not how did humans become adapted to a specific ancestral environment, but how did we become adaptable?

JOYCE: Extraordinarily adaptable to so many different environments.

Dr. POTTS: And that's a totally new question, one that Darwin never really addressed.

JOYCE: Potts, one of the authors of the academy's report, proposes that it was flip-flopping climate that sparked some of our biggest evolutionary adaptations; the invention of better tools, for example, or a bigger brain. So the Science Academy says let's find out.

Their plan says get a fuller climate history in places where human ancestors lived, like East Africa. And, in fact, you can - by digging into sediments at the bottom of African lakes.

Professor ANDREW COHEN (Department of Geosciences, University of Arizona): You can think of it almost like the rings of a tree.

JOYCE: Andrew Cohen is a geologist at the University of Arizona. He drills into lake bottoms and retrieves tubes of muck. Lake sediments are stacked in those cores like pages in a book. They contain clues to millions of years of climate history.

Prof. COHEN: Everything from the fossils of the plant pollen and the organisms that lived in the lakes that are responding to climate, to the chemistry of the sediments that also can give us very detailed information about changes in temperature and precipitation.

JOYCE: Scientists can compare these climate timelines to the fossil record of our ancestors, to see how climate change affected evolution. But they'll need more bones to do that. Rick Potts at the Smithsonian says images from satellites or airborne drones could pinpoint where to find them.

Dr. POTTS: The idea of being able to target in on places - hmm, here's a white spot in Africa. That is a place in the satellite image where there is exposure. It's not vegetated. Let's go there and let's have a look.

JOYCE: Theyll also want to look at how climate change affected the animals we evolved with. Take the case of the Pleistocene extinctions - the extermination of big mammals like mammoths and saber-toothed cats during the last ice age. One popular theory is that rapacious human hunters did them in.

But a geneticist at the University of Copenhagen named Tom Gilbert says maybe not. Gilbert got DNA from 149 musk oxen, some as far back as 57,000 years. The musk ox is a big, hairy animal that lived through the Pleistocene extinctions, but just barely.

By studying musk ox DNA, Gilbert could tell where and when their populations waxed and waned. He then looked at where human hunters were.

Professor TOM GILBERT (Department of Biology, University of Copenhagen): We have musk ox in Greenland. When did humans get to Greenland? We have musk ox in Canada. When did humans get to Canada?

JOYCE: And the record shows that when man and musk ox met, the herds did not suffer that much. What did kill them off was rapid climate change.

Professor GILBERT: And it does seem with the musk ox, there is this overall matching trend that when the climate is really oscillating up and down, the musk ox seem to be doing fairly badly. Their populations are declining.

JOYCE: So, apparently musk oxen didn't manage climate change so well, and humans have. At least that's the hypothesis that scientists want to test: that repeated climate change made us - those of us it didn't kill first anyway -more adaptable than just about any other creature on the planet.

Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.