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Defining the ‘generalist specialist’ niche for Pleistocene Homo sapiens


Definitions of our species as unique within the hominin clade have tended to focus on differences in capacities for symbolism, language, social networking, technological competence and cognitive development. More recently, however, attention has been turned towards humans’ unique ecological plasticity. Here, we critically review the growing archaeological and palaeoenvironmental datasets relating to the Middle–Late Pleistocene (300–12 thousand years ago) dispersal of our species within and beyond Africa. We argue, based on comparison with the available information for other members of the genus Homo, that our species developed a new ecological niche, that of the ‘generalist specialist’. Not only did it occupy and utilize a diversity of environments, but it also specialized in its adaptation to some of these environmental extremes. Understanding this ecological niche provides a framework for discussing what it means to be human and how our species became the last surviving hominin on the planet.

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P.R. thanks the Max Planck Society for funding and support. Altitude and forest coverage data for Fig. 2 are available from the US Geological Survey. We also thank H. Sell for his help producing Figs. 1, 2 and 4. J. Blinkhorn and Y. Demyanov provided photographs used in Fig. 3.

Author information

P.R. and B.A.S. designed this manuscript, analysed and interpreted the data, wrote the manuscript, and revised the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Correspondence to Patrick Roberts.

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Fig. 1
Fig. 2: Map showing the minimum suggested dates of persistent occupation of the different environmental extremes discussed in the text by H. sapiens based on current evidence.

NASA Worldview.

Fig. 3: Photographic selection of some of the ecological challenges faced by Pleistocene H. sapiens.

Yuri Demyanov. d, The tropical evergreen rainforest of Sri Lanka in the vicinity of one of the earliest occupied sites in the region. Photograph taken by P.R.

Fig. 4: Schematic of the utilization of different numbers of food webs by generalist and specialist populations, and the proposed unique human niche of ‘generalist specialist’127.