Scientists have arrived on a new theory explaining why we are the only species within the genus Homo. In the journal Nature Human Behavior, Patrick Roberts, Ph.D. and Brian Stewart, Ph.D. argue that the reason our ancestors avoided extinction was because they could explore and adapt. Reporting for Inverse, Sarah Sloat discusses their theory, which provides that humans have a “unique ecological plasticity” that put our ancestors at an advantage over other hominins.
According to Roberts and Stewart, the capacity to inhabit extremely different landscapes and learn the specialized skills necessary to thrive in those places, means our species occupies an ecological niche they call “generalist specialist.” The prevailing theory for our survival over others in the Homo genus has been our ability to create or communicate.
However, Roberts, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, points to the holes in this theory, notably that Neanderthals were also capable of cultural expression. This indicates that those specialized capabilities weren’t only ours, preventing it from being the only reason. “Our species is the only one to have colonized the entire globe and all of its environments,” Roberts says. “This seemed to us to be the elephant in the room but somewhat neglected given the current focus on finding the latest fossil or flashy piece of jewelry or art.”
His team reviewed previous archaeological and paleoenvironmental research focused on human dispersal between 300,000 and 12,000 years ago. They contend that the record shows the expansion of anatomically modern humans to higher-elevation niches than their hominin predecessors and contemporaries. Still, Roberts and Stewart agree that their theory is contingent on the fossil record as it stands today.