Sub-Milankovitch paleoclimatic and paleoenvironmental variability in East Africa recorded by Pleistocene lacustrine sediments from Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania

Devon E. Colcord, Andrea M. Shilling, Peter E. Sauer, Katherine H. Freeman, Jackson K. Njau, Ian G. Stanistreet, Harald Stollhofen, Kathy D. Schick, Nicholas Toth, Simon C. Brassell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

32 Scopus citations


Over the past century, numerous discoveries throughout East Africa have advanced our understanding of hominin evolution and provided substantive evidence that climatic and environmental variability played a critical role in evolutionary developments. Stratigraphic records with high temporal resolution aid in testing evolutionary hypotheses that invoke changes in climate and environment at various timescales as drivers of hominin evolution. Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania has a rich history of hominin fossil discoveries from its ~2.0 Ma sedimentary sequence, which includes multiple deep lake intervals. In 2014, the Olduvai Gorge Coring Project (OGCP) recovered a sequence of sediment cores that provide an extensive record of the Pleistocene sedimentary history, including paleolacustrine systems in this area. With >94% core recovery, these cores are ideally suited for high-resolution analyses of organic geochemical proxies and provide an exceptional opportunity to build on previously published outcrop-based paleoenvironmental data from Olduvai. The OGCP core 2A section between 76.6 and 86.9 m depth is considered as a time-stratigraphic equivalent of strata that host the hominin fossils OH24 and OH56 at the Olduvai DK archaeological site. This depositional interval age-bracketed between ~1.88 Ma (Bed I Basalt) and ~1.85 Ma (Tuff IB) was sampled for organic geochemical analyses. The carbon isotopic composition of organic matter (δ13CTOC) from this section varies between values representative of more forested and open grassland ecosystems over ~21 kyr. This observation is consistent with the Milankovitch precession cycle driving the availability of water, which was previously observed in lower resolution studies of outcrop samples. Complementary organic geochemical proxies provide further evidence of these shifts in environmental conditions and record sub-Milankovitch scale changes superimposed on the precession cycle. This suggests the occurrence of short-term fluctuations in the environments inhabited by hominins, which opens new lines of investigation on how environmental scenarios may affect particular evolutionary mechanisms that drove various evolutionary responses.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)284-291
Number of pages8
JournalPalaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology
StatePublished - Apr 15 2018

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Oceanography
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Earth-Surface Processes
  • Palaeontology


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