© Sergio Pitamitz/GettyIt used to be wetter
Wet spells in the Sahara may have opened the door for early human migration. According to new evidence, water-dependent trees and shrubs grew there between 120,000 and 45,000 years ago. This suggests that changes in the weather helped early humans cross the desert on their way out of Africa.
The Sahara would have been a formidable barrier during the Stone Age, making it hard to understand how humans made it to Europe from eastern Africa, where the earliest remains of our hominin ancestors are found.
Isla Castañeda of the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research and colleagues studied land plant hydrocarbons in Saharan dust that has settled on the sea floor off west Africa over the past 192,000 years. From the ratio of carbon isotopes in the hydrocarbons they can work out which types of plants were present at different times.Wet spells
While about 40 per cent of hydrocarbons in today's dust come from water-dependent plants, this rose to 60 per cent, first between 120,000 and 110,000 ago and again from 50,000 to 45,000 years ago. So the region seemed to be in the grip of unusually wet spells at the time.
That may have been enough to allow sub-Saharan Stone Age Homo sapiens to migrate north: the first fossils of modern humans outside Africa date from 93,000 year ago in Israel. And both genetic analysis and archaeology show that humans didn't spread extensively beyond Africa until 50,000 years ago, suggesting a second migration at the time of the second wet spell.