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Brain expansion in early hominins predicts carnivore extinctions in East Africa

Journal article
Authors Sören Faurby
Daniele Silvestro
L. Werdelin
Alexandre Antonelli
Published in Ecology Letters
Volume 23
Issue 3
Pages 537-544
ISSN 1461-023X
Publication year 2020
Published at Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences
Pages 537-544
Language en
Keywords anthropogenic, bayesian, carnivora, humans, pleistocene, pliocene, PyRate, species richness, stone tools, food, evolution, turkana, humans, impact, cover, diet, Environmental Sciences & Ecology
Subject categories Environmental Sciences


While the anthropogenic impact on ecosystems today is evident, it remains unclear if the detrimental effect of hominins on co-occurring biodiversity is a recent phenomenon or has also been the pattern for earlier hominin species. We test this using the East African carnivore fossil record. We analyse the diversity of carnivores over the last four million years and investigate whether any decline is related to an increase in hominin cognitive capacity, vegetation changes or climatic changes. We find that extinction rates in large carnivores correlate with increased hominin brain size and with vegetation changes, but not with precipitation or temperature changes. While temporal analyses cannot distinguish between the effects of vegetation changes and hominins, we show through spatial analyses of contemporary carnivores in Africa that only hominin causation is plausible. Our results suggest that substantial anthropogenic influence on biodiversity started millions of years earlier than currently assumed.

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