A spring forward for hominin evolution in East Africa.
Groundwater is essential to modern human survival during drought periods. There is also growing geological evidence of springs associated with stone tools and hominin fossils in the East African Rift System (EARS) during a critical period for hominin evolution (from 1.8 Ma). However it is not known how vulnerable these springs may have been to climate variability and whether groundwater availability may have played a part in human evolution. Recent interdisciplinary research at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, has documented climate fluctuations attributable to astronomic forcing and the presence of paleosprings directly associated with archaeological sites. Using palaeogeological reconstruction and groundwater modelling of the Olduvai Gorge paleo-catchment, we show how spring discharge was likely linked to East African climate variability of annual to Milankovitch cycle timescales. Under decadal to centennial timescales, spring flow would have been relatively invariant providing good water resource resilience through long droughts. For multi-millennial periods, modelled spring flows lag groundwater recharge by 100 s to 1000 years. The lag creates long buffer periods allowing hominins to adapt to new habitats as potable surface water from rivers or lakes became increasingly scarce. Localised groundwater systems are likely to have been widespread within the EARS providing refugia and intense competition during dry periods, thus being an important factor in natural selection and evolution, as well as a vital resource during hominin dispersal within and out of Africa.