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Extreme droughts sparked cultural leaps in human evolution

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EXTREME droughts lasting tens of thousands of years played a critical role in human evolution by forcing Homo sapiens to develop the culture and tools to cope, according to new research.

An international team of researchers, including academics from Aberystwyth University and across a wide range of disciplines, extracted two 280-metre cores of sediment from the Chew Bahir basin in southern Ethiopia. This area boasts a large concentration of human fossils and is where early humans lived during the Ice Age between 2.5 million and 11,700 years ago.

The cores give the most complete record across the longest period for humans living in this area and provide unprecedented insight into how climate influenced their biological and cultural transformation.

In a paper published today in the journal ‘Nature Geoscience’, the research found that between 620,000 and 275,000 years ago, humans lived in long-lasting and stable conditions in southern Ethiopia alongside a range of closely related groups.

However, between 275,000 and 60,000 years ago, the area was rocked by extensive natural climate changes which transformed areas of lush vegetation and deep lakes into deserts and small salty puddles.

The research demonstrated that these changes in climate forced humans to adapt culturally, socially and technologically, developing enhanced language, sophisticated hunting methods, and stone tools such as blades and spear points.

The period between 60,000 and 10,000 years ago contained the most extreme drought and likely forced humans to move to wetter regions in north east Africa and the Mediterranean.

However, while Homo sapiens were able to develop strategies to help them adapt, other human species like Homo habilis and Homo erectus were unable to do so, which led to their extinction.

The extracted cores are among the most detailed obtained from the region, giving researchers the opportunity to examine every single decade’s climate for the past 620,000 years every half a centimetre of sediment.

Professor Helen Roberts and Professor Henry Lamb, both from Aberystwyth University’s Department of Geography and Earth Sciences, worked on the project, which involved researchers from 19 institutions in six countries.

Professor Roberts said: “These findings take us a step closer to understanding the links between past climate, the environment and human evolution. The period we studied was one of great human innovation in how people interacted with each other, their culture, and their use of stone tools. Because of our findings we can further understand the conditions in which humans lived, how they evolved and developed as societies.

“It also has resonance today as our project helped us explore how different climate drivers interacted in the past. This is something that can be translated into the modern day and help us to understand climate and climate change now.”

Dr Verena Foerster at the University of Cologne’s Institute of Geography Education, which also took part in the research, said: “In view of current threats to the human habitat from climate change and the overuse of natural resources through human activity, understanding the relationship between climate and human evolution has become more relevant than ever.”

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Education

821% increase in homeschooling for Ceredigion area

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OVER the last decade homeschooling has risen by 821% in the Ceredigion area, according to figures supplied through a Freedom of Information (FOI) request by homeschooling provider Wolsey Hall Oxford.

In 2013, figures revealed that 28 children were homeschooled in the Ceredigion area but by 2022 this had increased to 258.

In the last four years alone, the Ceredigion area has seen an overall rise in homeschooling of 52%. The number of Primary-aged children being taught at home rose from 65 to 109 (67%) and the number of Secondary-aged children has risen from 104 to 149 (43%).

These figures show that despite Covid-19 restrictions easing up, and schools re-opening, many parents have opted to continue homeschooling their children. They reflect a similar picture seen across the UK, as statistics show that there are now more than 71,515 homeschoolers – up from 59,559 in 2018 and 22,408 in 2013. Wolsey Hall Oxford has been collating this information from over 100 UK Councils through FOIs.

Wolsey Hall Oxford Principal, Lee Wilcock, comments: “What seems very apparent is that those parents who chose to try homeschooling for the first time during Covid-19 have realised how beneficial online learning can be. Homeschooling allows children to learn at their own pace and at a time which suits them. It is a much more child-centred approach to education than is available in a traditional classroom.”

Of course, the pandemic is not the only reason parents opt to homeschool their children. At Wolsey Hall we’ve found that some of the most common reasons for parents to choose homeschooling include:

Lack of progress or underachievement at mainstream schools
Frustration with teaching standards in mainstream schools
Concerns for their child’s safety/bullying
Behavioural issues that are not suitably dealt with in mainstream schooling
Medical reasons or learning difficulties that inhibit a child’s ability to learn in a conventional environment
Travelling and expat families
Gifted/higher learning potential students or those who are elite athletes/in the performing arts industry

It is also interesting to note that a well-being survey conducted by Wolsey Hall Oxford in September 2022 – and completed by 343 parents – concluded that 91.5% of parents believe that their child’s well-being has improved since they opted to homeschool.

One parent noted, “My son has thrived. He is a true (gregarious) introvert… He loves being around people socially, but it tires him out, so school left him feeling drained, with no energy for true social interactions. Being able to learn alone and quietly has left him with plenty of energy for social and extra-curricular activities – scouts/young leaders, tennis, drama club, youth group etc. He has become confident in his own abilities and also learnt when and how he can take the initiative to get help when needed.”

To find out more about these statistics or to interview any of our team members, please contact Danielle Hilton: danielle.hilton@wolseyhalloxford.org.uk

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Education

Aberystwyth academic helping to improve British wrestling

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A LECTURER in Film Theory and Practice from Aberystwyth University is contributing towards a ‘code of better practice’ for British wrestling.

Dr Thomas Alcott from the Department of Theatre, Film and Television Studies has been invited by the All-Party Group on Wrestling at the UK Parliament to participate in a conference on the topic later this month.

The group – which includes MPs from across the political spectrum – recently led an inquiry and published the findings in April last year.

The cross party group reviewed regulation, funding, safeguarding and wellbeing in wrestling, and sought to find ways to better support and regulate the industry.

Dr Alcott’s doctoral research, which explored the relationship between audiences, stars and industry within the world of Professional Wrestling, was one of the resources used and quoted in the report.

Organised by the groups of MPs, Loughborough University and wrestling training school Playfight, the conference will be attended by academics, wrestlers, promoters and coaches.

It is intended to provide an opportunity for training and discussion, and lead to a safer and more inclusive environment.

Dr Alcott told The Ceredigion Herald: “For over a century, wrestling has been a popular form of culture and entertainment. However, a lack of clarity on whether it sits within the sector of sport or theatre has led to complexities about how the industry is governed and regulated.

“The inquiry by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Wrestling is the first official analysis and intervention in the wrestling industry for many decades. The conference that follows the publication of the group’s report will provide an opportunity to discuss a guide of better practice to improve the industry for the future, for the benefit of both performers and fans.”

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Education

New Japanese partnership to boost climate change research at Aberystwyth University

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ABERYSTWYTH University has signed up to a new partnership with a Japanese university in a boost to its climate change research.

The new memorandum of understanding with Ritsumeikan University includes exchanging research and joint investment in cutting-edge technology.

As part of the partnership, the two universities are collaborating on major projects studying climate change in Mexico and Japan.

In southern Mexico, a joint team will investigate records of past climate change in the region and its role in the collapse of the Classic Mayan civilisation.

Professor Sarah Davies, Head of Geography and Earth Sciences at Aberystwyth University said:

“It’s a pleasure to confirm our commitments with this new memorandum which builds on a long-standing research relationship between our two institutions. These projects will make an important contribution to our understanding of climate change, and its role in the development of human civilisation.

“Together with our Japanese partners and the support of Aberystwyth University and the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, we have made a significant investment in our X-ray Fluorescence core scanner. This is a resource of both UK and international importance, enabling very high-resolution geochemical analysis of sediment cores to reconstruct climate variability. These joint investments in instrumentation are an important boost to our future research work.”

Professor Takeshi Nakagawa from Ritsumeikan University commented:

“We are delighted to forge even closer ties with our partners at Aberystwyth University as we conduct ground-breaking research together. The joint research on climate change is a very exciting opportunity to unlock some of humanity’s secrets and better understand our world.”

As part of the partnership, Professor Takeshi Nakagawa and Dr Ikuko Kitaba from Ritsumeikan University are visiting Aberystwyth until 14th November.

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