Heading north: Late Pleistocene environments and human dispersals in central and eastern Asia
The adaptability of our species, as revealed by the geographic routes and palaeoenvironmental contexts of human dispersal beyond Africa, is a prominent topic in archaeology and palaeoanthropology. Northern and Central Asia have largely been neglected as it has been assumed that the deserts and mountain ranges of these regions acted as ‘barriers’, forcing human populations to arc north into temperate and arctic Siberia. Here, we test this proposition by constructing Least Cost Path models of human dispersal under glacial and interstadial conditions between prominent archaeological sites in Central and East Asia. Incorporating information from palaeoclimatic, palaeolake, and archaeological data, we demonstrate that regions such as the Gobi Desert and the Altai Mountain chains could have periodically acted as corridors and routes for human dispersals and framing biological interactions between hominin populations. Review of the archaeological datasets in these regions indicates the necessity of wide-scale archaeological survey and excavations in many poorly documented parts of Eurasia. We argue that such work is likely to highlight the ‘northern routes’ of human dispersal as variable, yet crucial, foci for understanding the extreme adaptive plasticity characteristic of the emergence of Homo sapiens as a global species, as well as the cultural and biological hybridization of the diverse hominin species present in Asia during the Late Pleistocene.