The palaeoecological context of the Oldowan–Acheulean in southern Africa

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The influence of climatic and environmental change on human evolution in the Pleistocene epoch is understood largely from extensive East African stable isotope records. These records show increasing proportions of C4 plants in the Early Pleistocene. We know far less about the expansion of C4 grasses at higher latitudes, which were also occupied by early Homo but are more marginal for C4 plants. Here we show that both C3 and C4 grasses and prolonged wetlands remained major components of Early Pleistocene environments in the central interior of southern Africa, based on enamel stable carbon and oxygen isotope data and associated faunal abundance and phytolith evidence from the site of Wonderwerk Cave. Vegetation contexts associated with Oldowan and early Acheulean lithic industries, in which climate is driven by an interplay of regional rainfall seasonality together with global CO2 levels, develop along a regional distinct trajectory compared to eastern South Africa and East Africa.

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Fig. 1: Wonderwerk Cave.
Fig. 2: Enamel stable isotope results for the three most abundant tribes.
Fig. 3: Timeline and climate parameters of the past two million years.
Fig. 4: Mean δ 13C (‰) values for equids and Alcelaphini from sites in East and South Africa between 2 and 1 Ma.


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We are grateful to D. Morris (McGregor Museum, Kimberley) for granting permission for stable isotope sampling and to A. Gledhill (University of Bradford) for stable isotope measurements. All enamel samples were exported under a South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA) permit (Permit ID 1898). M.E. received funding from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), the Boise Fund Trust (University of Oxford) and the Quaternary Research Association (QRA). Research at Wonderwerk Cave, including on the fauna used in this study, is funded by grants from the Canadian Social Science and Humanities Research Council to M.C. We thank L. Scott for his invaluable input.

Author information

M.E., L.K.H., M.C. and J.L.-T. were responsible for research design and M.E. conducted the stable isotope analysis. J.S.B., L.K.H. and L.R. provided material and data. All authors contributed to discussions and writing of the manuscript and approved the final version.

Correspondence to Michaela Ecker.

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Carbon and oxygen stable isotope measurements for herbivore enamel samples of Stratum 12–5 (Exc. 1) and Stratum 2 (Exc. 2), indicating specimen number, species, origin and tooth type

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Ecker, M., Brink, J.S., Rossouw, L. et al. The palaeoecological context of the Oldowan–Acheulean in southern Africa. Nat Ecol Evol 2, 1080–1086 (2018) doi:10.1038/s41559-018-0560-0

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