Scientists find link between tectonically active landscapes and ancient sites

Our earliest ancestors preferred to settle in locations that have something in common with cities such as San Francisco, Naples and Istanbul – they are often on active tectonic faults in areas that have an earthquake risk or volcanoes, or both.

Regions vulnerable to earthquake and volcanic activity often create landscapes with long-term benefits for human settlement

 An international team of scientists has established a link between the shape of the landscape and the habitats preferred by our earliest ancestors. The research, by scientists at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, the University of York and the Institut de Physique du Globe Paris (IPGP), is published in the March 2011 issue of the Journal of Human Evolution.

The four-year study examines the geomorphology (literally the shape of the landscape) around ancient sites in southern Africa.

Lead author, South African Dr Sally Reynolds, a palaeoanthropologist at Witwatersrand who conducted the research during a postdoctoral fellowship at IPGP, says: ''We were stunned when during a fieldwork trip in South Africa in 2007, Professor Geoffrey King and I discovered evidence that hominin sites such as Taung, Sterkfontein and Makapansgat, show landscape features in combinations that are not random, but result from tectonic motions, such as earthquakes.''

Several lines of scientific evidence suggest that Australopithecus africanus (like the 'Mrs Ples' fossil from Sterkfontein) was adapted to mixed, or mosaic habitats – landscapes with trees and open grassland, with some wetland marshy areas.  The study suggests that it was the type of mosaic environment created by tectonic earth movements near rivers or lakes.