The ‘mosaic habitat’ concept in human evolution: past and present

Sally C. Reynolds, David M. Wilkinson, Christopher G. Marston, Hannah J. O'Regan

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    The habitats preferred by hominins and other species are an important theme in palaeoanthropology, and the ‘mosaic habitat’ (also referred to as habitat heterogeneity) has been a central concept in this regard for the last four decades. Here we explore the development of this concept – loosely defined as a range of different habitat types, such as woodlands, riverine forest and savannah within a limited spatial area – in studies of human evolution over the last 60 years or so. We outline the key developments that took place before and around the time when the term ‘mosaic’ came to wider palaeoanthropological attention. To achieve this, we used an analysis of the published literature, a study of illustrations of hominin evolution from 1925 onwards and an email survey of senior researchers in palaeoanthropology and related fields. We found that the term ‘mosaic’ starts to be applied in palaeoanthropological thinking during the 1970s due to the work of a number of researchers, including Karl Butzer and Glynn Isaac, with the earliest usage we have found of ‘mosaic’ in specific reference to hominin habitats being by Adriaan Kortlandt (1972). While we observe a steady increase in the numbers of publications reporting mosaic palaeohabitats, in keeping with the growing interest and specialisation in various methods of palaeoenvironmental reconstruction, we also note that there is a lack of critical studies that define this habitat, or examine the temporal and spatial scales associated with it. The general consensus within the field is that the concept now requires more detailed definition and study to evaluate its role in human evolution.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)57-69
    JournalTransactions of the Royal Society of South Africa
    Issue number1
    Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 6 Mar 2015


    • habitat heterogeneity
    • time-averaging
    • habitat variability
    • Savannah Hypothesis
    • palaeoenvironmental reconstruction
    • palaeoecology.


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