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The Frigid Epoch that Shaped Europe: Extreme Ice Age Linked to Disappearance of Earliest Humans
Recent findings indicate that following an unforeseen cold spell, the continent remained devoid of hominins for approximately 200,000 years.
A new studyhas unveiled a fascinating glimpse into Europe's ancient past, revealing a period of extreme cooling that might have led to the disappearance of the continent's earliest human inhabitants. This research challenges previous assumptions about continuous human occupation in Europe, shedding light on a gap in history that lasted for approximately 200,000 years. The study, published in Science, delves into the mysteries of this chilling epoch and its impact on our ancient ancestors.
For generations, it was believed that humans had inhabited Europe without interruption for over a million years since their initial arrival. However, the recent analysis by researchers, including paleoclimatologist Chronis Tzedakis from University College London, paints a different picture. There seems to be a missing chapter in history—a gap of about 200,000 years—where evidence of human presence is notably absent.
This intriguing revelation is closely tied to a period of dramatic climate change. The researchers utilized advanced techniques to reconstruct the climate of the past, drawing on a deep-sea sediment core off the coast of Portugal. By examining organic molecules and pollen grains within the sediment layers, they unearthed a startling revelation: a previously undocumented cooling event that occurred around 1.15 million years ago.
During this cooling period, the average winter temperatures plummeted significantly across the region. The Eastern Atlantic saw a drastic drop of 9 to 13 degrees Fahrenheit, while even the typically mild Mediterranean experienced freezing temperatures. This climatic shift had a profound impact on early humans, affecting not only their environment but also their food sources and overall survival.
The study suggests that this extreme cold snap dealt a severe blow to the hominins of the time. With limited resources and a challenging environment, these early humans likely struggled to adapt. Even after the freeze subsided, subsequent smaller cold stages continued to hinder their recovery. This unfavorable sequence of events might have ultimately led to a prolonged absence of human populations in western Europe.
The first humans to arrive in Europe, likely Homo erectus, were characterized by their modern human-like body proportions. Fossils and stone tools from this period have been discovered across Europe, indicating their widespread presence. However, the abrupt cold snap around 1.15 million years ago disrupted this continuity, prompting the departure or extinction of these early inhabitants.
It wasn't until much later, around 850,000 to 950,000 years ago, that humans ventured back into Europe. This time, they were possibly a more advanced species known as Homo antecessor. These individuals exhibited greater resilience to the cold, possibly due to evolutionary or behavioral changes that enabled them to survive in the challenging glacial conditions.
The cooling period's root cause was attributed to the melting of an extensive ice sheet that covered the Arctic and parts of North America and Europe. This event introduced an influx of freshwater, weakening the crucial Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation ocean current by a staggering 95%. The parallels with contemporary climate change concerns are striking, as researchers predict a potential weakening of the same ocean current due to human-induced climate change.
Michael Petraglia, a paleoanthropologist from Griffith University, commended the study's findings for their relevance to modern climate research. He emphasized the significant impact of climatic variability on early human populations in the past, drawing parallels to the challenges humanity faces today with extreme weather events and ecosystem changes.
The study's groundbreaking insights into Europe's climatic past offer a window into the challenges that shaped our ancient ancestors' lives. The gap in history and the chilling period of extreme cooling provide valuable lessons about the intricate interplay between climate, environment, and human survival. As we grapple with our changing world, these discoveries remind us of the resilience and adaptability that have been integral to human history for millions of years.
Vasiliki Margari et al., Extreme glacial cooling likely led to hominin depopulation of Europe in the Early Pleistocene. Science 381,693-699 (2023). DOI: 10.1126/science.adf4445