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Late Pleistocene climate drivers of early human migration


On the basis of fossil and archaeological data it has been hypothesized that the exodus of Homo sapiens out of Africa and into Eurasia between ~50–120 thousand years ago occurred in several orbitally paced migration episodes1,2,3,4. Crossing vegetated pluvial corridors from northeastern Africa into the Arabian Peninsula and the Levant and expanding further into Eurasia, Australia and the Americas, early H. sapiens experienced massive time-varying climate and sea level conditions on a variety of timescales. Hitherto it has remained difficult to quantify the effect of glacial- and millennial-scale climate variability on early human dispersal and evolution. Here we present results from a numerical human dispersal model, which is forced by spatiotemporal estimates of climate and sea level changes over the past 125 thousand years. The model simulates the overall dispersal of H. sapiens in close agreement with archaeological and fossil data and features prominent glacial migration waves across the Arabian Peninsula and the Levant region around 106–94, 89–73, 59–47 and 45–29 thousand years ago. The findings document that orbital-scale global climate swings played a key role in shaping Late Pleistocene global population distributions, whereas millennial-scale abrupt climate changes, associated with Dansgaard–Oeschger events, had a more limited regional effect.

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Figure 1: Climate drivers.
Figure 2: Late Pleistocene human dispersal.
Figure 3: Arrival Times for different dispersal scenarios.


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We thank S. Feakins, M. Segschneider and Y. Chikamoto for discussions and L. Menviel for providing the data of the LOVECLIM Dansgaard-Oeschger hindcast experiment, A. Ganopolski for providing the ice-sheet forcing from CLIMBER and M. Tigchelaar for providing the PMIP3 model data. A.T. is supported through the US NSF (grants 1341311, 1400914).

Author information




A.T. designed the research study, wrote the numerical model code for the human dispersal model, conducted the human dispersal numerical experiments and wrote the paper. T.F. ran the transient climate model simulation, conducted the model/proxy data comparison and contributed to the interpretation of the data.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Axel Timmermann.

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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Additional information

The climate model and human dispersal model data are available on

Reviewer Information

Nature thanks P. deMenocal, R. Jennings, M. Petraglia and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Schematics of modelling framework adopted for this study.

Extended Data Figure 2 Validation of climate model simulation for temperature with palaeo sea surface temperature (SST) reconstructions.

Pattern and temporal evaluation of leading Empirical Orthogonal Function (EOF1) of reconstructed and simulated SST. a, Principal components of the EOF1 (PC1) for SST from 63 palaeo-records25,44,45,46,47,48,49,50,51,52,53,54,55,56,57,58,59,60,61,62,63,64,65,66,67,68,69,70,71,72,73,74,75,76,77,78,79,80,81,82,83,84,85,86,87,88,89(orange) covering the period 140–10 ka and simulated SST (blue) using every model grid point. b, Globally-averaged SST anomaly (K) from EOF1-based reconstruction. Colours as in a. c, EOF1-pattern (K) for 63 palaeo records25,44,45,46,47,48,49,50,51,52,53,54,55,56,57,58,59,60,61,62,63,64,65,66,67,68,69,70,71,72,73,74,75,76,77,78,79,80,81,82,83,84,85,86,87,88,89(circles) and for simulated SST in global domain (shading).

Extended Data Figure 3 Comparison of LOVECLIM simulation with other PMIP3 CGCM Last Glacial Maximum simulations.

aj, Simulated annual mean rainfall differences (LGM versus pre-industrial) relative to the pre-industrial long-term annual mean rainfall (%) for ten different climate model simulations (MIROC-ESM (a), MIROC-TS (b), MPI-ESM-P (c), MRI-CGCM3 (d), GISS-E2-R (e), IPSL-CM5A-LR (f), CCSM4 (g), CNRM-CM5 (h), COSMOS-ASO (i) and FGOALS-g2 (j)) conducted as part of the Paleo Model Intercomparison Project, Phase 5 (PMIP5) (see Methods) and the LOVECLIM model (k) used here.

Extended Data Figure 4 Temperature forcing for HDM.

a, First empirical orthogonal function (EOF) of temperature (°C). b, The corresponding principal component. First EOF mode captures orbital-scale variability. c, Second empirical orthogonal function of temperature (°C). The corresponding principal component is shown in d. Second EOF mode captures Heinrich and Dansgaard–Oeschger events. In b, the main Marine Isotope Stages (MIS) are indicated with blue shading. In d, the blue shading indicates the main Heinrich stadials and the C-events.

Extended Data Figure 5 Net primary production forcing for HDM.

Same as Extended Data Fig. 4, but for primary production (kgC m−2 yr−1).

Extended Data Figure 6 Desert fraction forcing for HDM.

Same as Extended Data Fig. 4, but for desert fraction (%).

Extended Data Figure 7 Late Pleistocene human dispersal.

Snapshots of the simulated evolution of human density (individuals per 100 km2) over the past 125 ka using the parameters of the scenario B (late exit) experiment (see Methods) with full climate (orbital and millennial-scale) and sea level forcing and with human adaptation.

Extended Data Table 1 Parameter configurations of human dispersal model used in early exit (scenario A) and late exit (scenario B) scenarios
Extended Data Table 2 Sensitivity experiments conducted with human dispersal model using different climate and dispersal scenarios

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Video of human density (individuals per 100 km2) in Human Dispersal Model simulation

This video shows scenario A (Early Exit) along with simulated sea-ice in LOVECLIM experiment and ice-sheet forcing from CLIMBER. (MOV 12688 kb)

Video of human density (individuals per 100 km2) in Human Dispersal Model simulation

This video shows scenario B (Late Exit) along with simulated sea-ice in LOVECLIM experiment and ice-sheet forcing from CLIMBER. (MOV 12314 kb)

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Timmermann, A., Friedrich, T. Late Pleistocene climate drivers of early human migration. Nature 538, 92–95 (2016).

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