Human ancestors preferred mosaic landscapes and high ecosystem diversity

A new study published in the journal Science by an international team finds that early human species adapted to mosaic landscapes and diverse food resources, which would have increased our ancestor’s resilience to past shifts in climate.

Our genus Homo evolved over the past 3 million years – a period of increasing warm/cold climate fluctuations. How early human species have adapted to the intensification of climate extremes, ice-ages, and large-scale shifts in landscapes and vegetation remains elusive. Did our ancestors adjust to local environmental changes over time, or did they seek out more stable environments with diverse food resources? Was our human evolution influenced more by temporal changes in climate, or by the spatial character of the environment?

To test these fundamental hypotheses on human evolution and adaptation quantitively, the research team used a compilation of more than three thousand well-dated human fossil specimens and archeological sites, representing six different human species, in combination with realistic climate and vegetation model simulations, covering the past 3 million years. The scientists focused their analysis on biomes – geographic regions which are characterized by similar climate, plants, and animal communities (e.g., savannah, rainforest, or tundra).

“For the archeological and anthropological sites and corresponding ages, we extracted the local biome types from our climate-driven vegetation model. This revealed which biomes were favored by the extinct hominin species H. ergaster, H. habilis, H. erectus, H. heidelbergensis, and H. neanderthalensis andbyour direct ancestors – H. sapiens.”, said Elke Zeller, PhD student from the IBS Center for Climate Physics at Pusan National University, South Korea, and lead author of the study.

According to their analysis, the scientists found that earlier African groups preferred to live in open environments, such as grassland and dry shrubland. Migrating into Eurasia around 1.8 million years ago, hominins, such as H. erectus and later H. heidelbergensis and H. neanderthalensis developed higher tolerances to other biomes over time, including temperate and boreal forests. “To survive as forest-dwellers, these groups developed more advanced stone tools and likely also social skills”, said Prof. Pasquale Raia, from the Università di Napoli Federico II, Italy, co-author of the study. Eventually, H. sapiens emerged around 200,000 years ago in Africa, quickly becoming the master of all trades. Mobile, flexible, and competitive, our direct ancestors, unlike any other species before, survived in harsh environments such as desert and tundra.

When further looking into the preferred landscape characteristics, the scientists found a significant clustering of early human occupation sites in regions with increased biome diversity. “What that means is that our human ancestors had a liking for mosaic landscapes, with a great variety of plant and animal resources in close proximity”, said Prof. Axel Timmermann, co-author of the study and Director of the IBS Center for Climate Physics in South Korea. The results indicate that ecosystem diversity played a key role in human evolution.

The authors demonstrated this preference for mosaic landscapes for the first time on continental scales and propose a new Diversity Selection Hypothesis: Homo species, and H. sapiens in particular, were uniquely equipped to exploit heterogeneous biomes. “Our analysis shows the crucial importance of landscape and plant diversity as a selective element for humans and as a potential driver for socio-cultural developments” adds Elke Zeller. Elucidating how vegetation shifts have shaped human sustenance, the new Science study provides an unprecedented view into human prehistory and survival strategies. The climate and vegetation model simulations, which cover earth’s history of the past 3 million years, were conducted on one of South Korea’s fastest science supercomputers named Aleph. “Supercomputing is now emerging as a key tool in evolutionary biology and anthropology”, said Axel Timmermann.

Fig. 1: Artist illustration of hominins arriving in a multi-biome mosaic landscape. Such environments were greatly preferred by early humans, according to a new study published in the journal Science by a team of scientists from South Korea and Italy (Copyright, IBS Center for Climate Physics).
Fig. 2: Timeline of hominin evolution and adaptation to various vegetation types. According to the new Science study, adaptation played a key role in the geographic expansion of our genus Homo. (Image credit: Elke Zeller. This work includes adapted images from HCRP-UR501 and Sangiran 17 by Gerbil, Bodo by Ryan Somma, and Daka Homo by Cretan used under CC BY 3.0 and DNH-134 from Herries, A.I.R. et al. Science 2020.)

Notes for editors

– References

Human adaptation to diverse biomes over the past 3 million years, Elke Zeller, Axel Timmermann, Kyung-Sook Yun, Pasquale Raia, Karl Stein, Jiaoyang Ruan (2023): Science, doi:

– Media Contact

For further information or to request media assistance, please contact: U-Jeong Seo, IBS Center for Climate Physics, Pusan National University (+82-51-510-7328,

– About the Institute for Basic Science (IBS)

IBS was founded in 2011 by the government of the Republic of Korea with the sole purpose of promoting the development of basic science in South Korea. IBS has 33 research centers in a variety of disciplines.

About ICCP

The IBS Center for Climate Physics(ICCP) seeks to expand the frontiers of earth system science by conducting cutting-edge research into climate dynamics and utilizing high-performance computer simulations, with the goal of improving decadal Earth system forecasts and long-term projections. See more on