In a sweltering tropical rainforest on an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, I started to appreciate why archaeologists and anthropologists had long ignored ‘jungles’ in their search for humanity’s origins. The mosquitoes, leeches, harsh terrain and difficult footing were bad enough, but now a summer monsoon downpour was rapidly approaching. As we slogged on under a canopy of green, the forest grew quiet. The usual chattering life had been smart enough to seek shelter, leaving us alone to face the monsoon rains.
It was the summer of 2014, and I was trudging through a tropical rainforest in Sri Lanka with my close friend and colleague, the archaeologist Oshan Wedage. We’d come here to do archaeological fieldwork, to look for traces of past human activity, and to challenge prevailing narratives about our species’ evolution. We’d come for answers to a controversial question: what if our distant ancestors had chosen to live in humid, insect-ridden forests like this one?
This is a controversial question because, since Charles Darwin, many scholars have avoided tropical forests and focused instead on dry ‘savannahs’ as the key to early hominin evolution in Africa. There are many reasons for this, including the groundbreaking fossil discovery of ‘Lucy’ in Ethiopia, the multi-year campaigns of the British-Kenyan archaeologists Louis and Mary Leakey in eastern Africa, and the analysis of the earliest stone tools, which were found in Kenya and later determined to be 3.3 million years old. The contexts of these remarkable finds all seemed to suggest that it was out in the open – not in dense rainforests – that our hominin ancestors apparently first became increasingly upright, freed up their hands for experimentation with tools, and hunted large game to fuel their growing brains. This focus on open spaces, with an additional consideration of coastal habitats, has not only dominated the study of our hominin ancestors but also the study of our own species. It has dictated how we understand our unique behavioural traits, and our incredible feats of dispersal after Homo sapiens emerged in the Middle Pleistocene, roughly between 300,000 and 200,000 years ago. [Continue reading…]