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Tectonics, volcanism, landscape structure and human evolution in the African Rift

By G. Bailey, I. Manighetti and G. King

Abstract

Tectonic movements and volcanism in the African Rift have usually been considered of relevance to human evolution only at very large geographical and chronological scales, principally in relation to longterm topographic and climatic variation at the continental scale. At the more loca1 scale of catchment basins and individual sites, tectonic features are generally considered to be at worst disruptive and at best incidental features enhancing the preservation and exposure of early sites. We demonstrate that recent lava flows and fault scarps in a tectonically active region create a distinctive landscape structure with a complex and highly differentiated topography of enclosures, barriers and fertile basins. This landscape structure has an important potential impact on the co-evolution of prey-predator interactions and on interspecific relationships more generally. In particular, we suggest that it would have offered unique opportunities for the development of a hominid niche characterised by bipedalism, meat-eating and stone tool use. These landscape features are best appreciated by looking at areas which today have rapid rates of tectonic movement and frequent volcanic activity, as in eastern Afar and Djibouti. These provide a better analogy for the Plio-Pleistocene environments occupied by early hominids than the present-day landscapes where their fossil remains and artefacts have been discovered. The latter areas are now less active than was the case when the sites were formed. They have also been radically transfomed by ongoing geomorphological processes in the intervening millennia. Thus, previous attempts to reconstruct the local landscape setting adjacent to these early hominid sites necessarily rely on limited geological windows into the ancient land surface and thus tend to filter out small-scale topographic detail because it cannot be reliably identified. It is precisely this local detail that we consider to be of importance in understanding the environmental contribution to co-evolutionary developments

Publisher: Oxbow Books
Year: 2000
OAI identifier: oai:eprints.whiterose.ac.uk:1169

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