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Critical review of growing archaeological and palaeoenvironmental datasets relating to the Middle and Late Pleistocene (300-12 thousand years ago) hominin dispersals within and beyond Africa, published today in Nature Human Behaviour, demonstrates unique environmental settings and adaptations for Homo sapiens relative to previous and coexisting hominins such as Homo neanderthalensis and Homo erectus. Our species' ability to occupy diverse and 'extreme' settings around the world stands in stark contrast to the ecological adaptations of other hominin taxa, and may explain how our species became the last surviving hominin on the planet.

The paper, by scientists from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and the University of Michigan suggests investigations into what it means to be human should shift from attempts to uncover the earliest material traces of 'art', 'language', or technological 'complexity' towards understanding what makes our species ecologically unique. In contrast to our ancestors and contemporary relatives, our species not only colonized a diversity of challenging environments, including deserts, tropical rainforests, high altitude settings, and the palaeoarctic, but also specialized in its adaptation to some of these extremes.

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