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Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The pyrophilic primate hypothesis

Members of genus Homo are the only animals known to create and control 
fire. The adaptive significance of this unique behavior is broadly 
recognized, but the steps by which our ancestors evolved pyrotechnic 
abilities remain unknown. Many hypotheses attempting to answer this 
question attribute hominin fire to serendipitous, even accidental, 
discovery. Using recent paleoenvironmental reconstructions, we present 
an alternative scenario in which, 2 to 3 million years ago in tropical 
Africa, human fire dependence was the result of adapting to 
progressively fire-prone environments. The extreme and rapid 
fluctuations between closed canopy forests, woodland, and grasslands 
that occurred in tropical Africa during that time, in conjunction with 
reductions in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, changed the fire 
regime of the region, increasing the occurrence of natural fires. We 
use models from optimal foraging theory to hypothesize benefits that 
this fire-altered landscape provided to ancestral hominins and link 
these benefits to steps that transformed our ancestors into a genus of 
active pyrophiles whose dependence on fire for survival contributed to 
its rapid expansion out of Africa...

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