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Some like it hot: Site of human evolution was scorching

If you think summer in your hometown is hot, consider it fortunate that you don't live in the Turkana Basin of Kenya, where the average daily temperature has reached the mid-90s or higher, year-round, for the past 4 million years.

The need to stay cool in that cradle of human evolution may relate, at least in part, to why pre-humans learned to walk upright, lost the fur that covered the bodies of their predecessors and became able to sweat more, Johns Hopkins University earth scientist Benjamin Passey said.

"The 'take home' message of our study," said Passey, whose report appears this week in the online early edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, "is that this region, which is one of the key places where fossils have been found documenting human evolution, has been a really hot place for a really long time, even during the period between 3 million years ago and now when the ice ages began and the global climate became cooler."

Passey, an assistant professor in the Morton K. Blaustein Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the university's Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, says that conclusion lends support to the so-called "thermal hypothesis" of human evolution.

That hypothesis states that our pre-human ancestors gained an evolutionary advantage in walking upright because doing so was cooler (when it is sunny, the near-surface air is warmer than air a few feet above the ground) and exposed their body mass to less sunlight than did crawling on all fours. The loss of body hair (fur) and the ability to regulate body temperature through perspiration would have been other adaptations helpful for living in a warm climate, according to the hypothesis.

"In order to figure out if (the thermal hypothesis) is possibly true or not, we have to know whether it was actually hot when and where these beings were evolving," he said. "If it was hot, then that hypothesis is credible. If

Contact: Lisa DeNike
Johns Hopkins University

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