2-Million-Years-Old Teeth Discovered Inside African Cave Shines New Light on Africa’s Past Environment


Anthropologists at the University of Toronto (U of T) have conducted new research at the Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa. They discovered that two million years ago, southern Africa was a lot wetter than it is now.

Their paper was just published in Nature Ecology & Evolution. Michaela Ecker is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Anthropology at U of T and the lead author of the study. Together with Michael Chazan (director of U of T’s Archaeology Centre), they recreated the change of the environment inside the cave over a span of 2 million years. Michaela Ecker explained that:

“The influence of climatic and environmental change on human evolution is largely understood from East African research. Our research constructed the first extensive paleoenvironmental sequence for the interior of southern Africa using a combination of methods for environmental reconstruction at Wonderwerk Cave.”

South Africa Was A Lot Different 2 Million Years Ago

The research on East Africa shows that the grasslands spread and the aridity increased in time during the same period. However, the latest research on the environment in southern Africa shows that it was wetter. South Africa also had more plants than we now see in the African savanna. This means that our ancestors lived in a different kind of environment – definitely not in the arid and open grasslands.

Ecker and her team analyzed teeth of herbivores found in the cave by using carbon and oxygen stable isotope analysis. They reconstructed the vegetation of that period. Finally, they found out new information on how humans lived back then. Until now, their research discovered that the front of the cave was occupied by humans 2 million years ago. She explains their ultimate goal:

“Understanding the environment humans evolved in is key to improving our knowledge of our species and its development. Our work at Wonderwerk Cave demonstrates how humankind existed in multiple environmental contexts in the past — contexts which are substantially different from the environments of today.”


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