This section articulates a vision for making substantive advances into the central question concerning the role of climate change in human origins. Simply put, how can we bridge the divide separating our current state of knowledge from what would be needed to address this question in a qualitatively improved way. Significant progress on this fundamental question of human origins cannot be attained without first recognizing that the problem is fundamentally data-limited. Data limitations include, but are not restricted to

  • gaps or poorly-studied intervals in the fossil and archaeological record, coupled with the highly-variable fossil density from different time periods and regions;

  • the inconsistent collection of all components of available fossil assemblages (e.g., invertebrates, vascular plants and algae, as well as vertebrates), which have potential to offer critical tests of the climate-evolution relationship;

  • stratigraphic and geochronologic limitations;

  • the rarity of quantitative paleoenvironmental records situated close to fossil localities; and

  • the need for broad application of newly-emerging techniques for quantitatively and accurately reconstructing past climates.

The central goal of the research activities encompassed by this research theme is to make substantial progress in overcoming these limitations and to introduce novel analytical approaches that build upon the existing scientific foundation, thereby enabling rigorous tests of how human evolution and the adaptability of our own species have been shaped by climate change.

This research vision depends upon data collection and analysis that is strategically focused on a number of critical time windows in which pivotal evolutionary events occurred. This approach to data collection will stimulate, for example, an in-depth analysis of how the earliest origin of the human lineage, the broad trajectory of technological change, the increase in human brain size and cognitive complexity, and the origin of the social behaviors characteristic of humans today emerged in relation to the pace and patterning of climate change, and thus whether the core adaptations of human beings revolve around the ability to solve the challenges of climate change.

This research vision also depends on a new level of integration of disciplines and training of scholars in ways that motivate the growth of a richly collaborative enterprise. Furthermore, these vital activities of data integration and collaborative analysis need to be focused on advances in hypothesis testing in which evolutionary and climatic records are treated as sources of natural history “experiments.”

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