BOX 1.2

Statement of Task

Earth scientists, paleoanthropologists, and archaeologists who study human evolution have long recognized the likelihood that environmental parameters, particularly paleoclimate, significantly impacted the evolution of our species. Nevertheless, many of the details of the paleoenvironmental context for the more than 7 million years of hominin evolution are poorly constrained, making inferences concerning the nature and extent of such impacts problematic. To address this shortcoming, an NRC committee will

  • assess the present understanding of the earth system context for hominin evolution during the past 8 million years;

  • describe high priority research directions for an enhanced understanding of the paleoenvironmental context for hominin evolution; and

  • describe optimum strategies for achieving the priority research objectives, with particular emphasis on interdisciplinary initiatives.

In addition, the committee will suggest strategies for broad scientific dissemination of credible information concerning the earth system context for hominin evolution.

in grasslands have different capture techniques than predators inhabiting rain forests. Such ecological behaviors, which can be identified in the fossil record, serve as important ties that can help test the potential effects of climate on the evolution of organisms (Kappelman et al., 1997; DeGusta and Vrba, 2005).

Although genetic mutations operate independently of climate change, the spread of beneficial mutations is central to the process of evolution. These mutations become widespread because natural selection relies on the concept that environment plays the vital role in the difference between evolutionary success and extinction. An improved understanding of environmental change—that is, the earth system context as a dynamic force in evolutionary success and extinction—will substantially advance the scientific understanding of life on our planet, including human evolution.


The National Science Foundation, with responsibility for supporting basic research activities in the United States, commissioned the National Research Council (NRC) to identify focused research initiatives that would, over a 10- to 20-year period, transform our understanding of the origin of human adaptations to environmental change. The study committee was also charged to present advice on research implementation and public outreach strategies (Box 1.2).

To address the charge, the NRC assembled a committee of 13 experts with disciplinary expertise spanning paleoanthropology, earth system science, climate

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