Dr. Scott Blumenthal, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, University of Oregon
A fundamental challenge of human evolutionary studies is understanding the role of climatic and ecosystem change in shaping hominin biology and behavior. Despite decades of research, and significant efforts aimed at reconstructing the environmental context of human evolution, there remains relatively little clarity on fundamental aspects of hominin paleobiology that govern how hominins interact with their surroundings, and how these variables can be related to environmental conditions actually experienced by hominins. Two such parameters being explored by my research group aim to address this knowledge gap: hominin dietary flexibility and water conservation. Modern humans have highly flexible diets, and dietary flexibility may have played a key role in adaptations to increasingly grassy environments throughout the Pliocene and Pleistocene that, as observed in present-day tropical grassy biomes, were likely characterized by significant seasonal scale shifts in resource abundance. Though the potentially significant role of diet flexibility among hominins, especially across seasons, has been highlighted by ecological studies of living humans and non-human primates, the evolutionary history of diet flexibility in fossil hominins is largely unknown. Similarly, modern humans have water conservation adaptations, showing lower water turnover compared to other apes, that may have played a key role in adapting to periodically arid conditions as early as the Pliocene, yet the water requirements of early hominins is unknown. This talk will describe ongoing projects seeking to address these issues.