Landscapes and their relation to hominin habitats: case studies from Australopithecus sites in eastern and southern Africa

S.C. Reynolds, Geoff Bailey, G.C.P. King

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We examine the links between geomorphological processes, specific landscape features, surface water drainage, and the creation of suitable habitats for hominins. The existence of mosaic (i.e. heterogeneous) habitats within hominin site landscape reconstructions is typically explained using models of the riverine and gallery forest settings, or the pan or lake setting. We propose a different model: the Tectonic Landscape Model (TLM), where tectonic faulting and volcanism disrupts existing pan or river settings at small scales (~ 10–25 km). Our model encompasses the interpretation of the landscape features, the role of tectonics in creating these landscapes, and the implications for hominins. In particular, the model explains the underlying mechanism for the creation and maintenance of heterogeneous habitats in regions of active tectonics. We illustrate how areas with faulting and disturbed drainage patterns would have been attractive habitats for hominins, such as Australopithecus, and other fauna. Wetland areas are an important characteristic of surface water disturbance by fault activity; therefore we examine the tectonically-controlled Okavango Delta (Botswana) and the Nylsvley wetland (South Africa) as modern examples of how tectonics in a riverine setting significantly enhances the faunal and floral biodiversity. While tectonic landscapes may not have been the only type of attractive habitats to hominins, we propose a suite of landscape, faunal, and floral indicators, which when recovered together suggest that site environments may have been influenced by tectonic and/or volcanic activity while hominins were present. For the fossil sites, we interpret the faulting and landscapes around australopithecine-bearing sites of the Middle Awash (Ethiopia) and Makapansgat, Taung, and Sterkfontein (South Africa) to illustrate these relationships between landscape features and surface water bodies. Exploitation of tectonically active landscapes may explain why the paleoenvironmental signals, anatomy, diets, as well as the fauna associated with Australopithecus appear largely heterogeneous through time and space. This hypothesis is discussed in light of potential preservation and time-averaging effects which may affect patterns visible in the fossil record. The model, however, offers insight into the landscape processes of how such habitats are formed. The landscape features and range of habitat conditions, specifically the wetter, down-dropped plains and drier, uplifted flanks persist in close proximity for as long as the fault motion continues. The Tectonic Landscape Model provides an alternative explanation of why mixed habitats may be represented at certain sites over longer timescales.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)281-98
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Human Evolution
Issue number3
Early online date21 Jan 2011
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2011

Bibliographical note

© 2011, Elsevier. This is an author produced version of a paper published in Journal of Human Evolution. Uploaded in accordance with the publisher's self-archiving policy.


  • Ethiopia
  • Tectonism
  • Volcanism
  • Taung
  • Sterkfontein Valley,
  • Makapansgat
  • Mosaic environments
  • Hominins

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