Using animal teeth to reconstruct our ancestors’ environment

by David Patterson, George Washington University

Author in the field in Kenya

Author in the field in Kenya

My research focuses on placing Plio-Pleistocene hominin evolution within a high-resolution ecological context. My dissertation focuses on the Turkana Basin of northern Kenya and Ethiopia, which can be an extremely difficult place to work. However, this region documents many of the most important events in hominin evolution. Thus, it is the perfect setting to test hypotheses that link ecological dynamics with hominin paleobiology.

Field work in the Turkana Basin, Kenya

Field work in the Turkana Basin, Kenya

These questions also take my work to the middle Pleistocene locality of Elandsfontein in South Africa. Much of my work in eastern and southern Africa focuses on understanding dietary shifts in large mammal communities and their broader implications for environmental dynamism. A comprehensive understanding of paleoecosystems requires the integration of multiple proxies, one of which is stable isotopes. I use stable isotopes extracted from mammalian enamel and fossil soils to investigate the system that drove some of the most important anatomical adaptations within our lineage. My work with stable isotopes takes place at Johns Hopkins University in collaboration with Naomi Levin, Ben Passey and Sophie Lehmann. Innovative techniques developed in the lab at Johns Hopkins promise to provide unprecedented insights into the biology of our ancestors and increase the resolution with which we understand the ecosystem in which they lived.

At this year’s GSA meeting I’ll be giving a talk on Monday, November 2nd entitled “New investigations into the stable isotope ecology of the mammal community from Elandsfontein, South Africa: implications for C4 plant distributions and hominin paleobiology in the Cape Floral Region during the Quaternary” in T195: Paleoenvironmental Reconstruction of Hominin Sites: new methods, new data and new insights. Hope to see you there!




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