Landscape Structures and Human Evolutionary Ecology: space, scale and environmental patterning in Africa

Isabelle C. Winder


Department of Archaeology, University of York, The King's Manor, York YO1 7EP, UK. E-mail:

Cite this as: Winder, I.C. (2015). Landscape Structures and Human Evolutionary Ecology: space, scale and environmental patterning in Africa, Internet Archaeology 38.


Maps of continental variation in a range of environmental variables

Palaeoanthropologists and early prehistorians work hard to reconstruct ancient human-environment relationships and their influences on our lineage's ecology, biology and behaviour. These studies use a range of datasets (from ice-core records to animal bones and pollen grains to soils) and may focus on anything from the extremely local (site-specific) scale all the way up to global patterns. One aspect of past environments, however, remains obscure: we still know little about spatial patterning or landscape. This may be because well-known problems of taphonomy and spatial averaging in the fossil record prevent detailed reconstructions of palaeolandscapes, or it might simply be that landscapes have not received much attention.

This article addresses that gap in our knowledge. It analyses the spatial structures of extant African environments at different scales across four regions of potential significance to early human evolution. It then explores how these patterns relate to the structure and function of the Earth system, as a means of increasing understanding of broad landscape patterns and the relationships between environmental variables and assessing the contributions this sort of data might make to studies of the past. It suggests, among other things, that the optimum scale for reconstructing ancient landscapes may be neither the global/continental scales typically employed by modellers nor the single-site scales used in palaeoanthropological research, but the 'local landscape' scale. At this scale, it may be possible to integrate data from typically large-scale climatic reconstructions and small-scale landform analyses to mutual benefit.

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