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Dispersal of hominins across Asia – species interactions and climate

Homo sapiens first spread from Africa and across Asia between 180-50 thousand years ago, along the way interbreeding with other hominins: the Neanderthals and Denisovans. Yet our understanding of the timing and location of these critical events in our evolutionary history remains limited. Deserts separated different hominins and were significant barriers to our dispersal.

This project examines whether, where, and when climate change may have allowed hominins to cross these barriers via ‘freshwater corridors’, refining our understanding of opportunities for admixture and of the potential routes and timing of our species’ early expansions.

Critical questions:

  • when, by which routes, and how frequently, could homo sapiens have dispersed into and through Asia between 300-40ka?
  • how might regional climatic change have manifested as local environmental fluctuations, and how might these have provided opportunities for movements through previously impenetrable areas, or led to population isolations, thus influencing the admixture, demography and interactions of hominins in Asia?


To address the project's critical questions, by detailing the changing availability over time of routes for dispersal through the Asian deserts and examining their implications concerning interactions between different hominin species during the Late Middle and Late Pleistocene (~300 to 40 ka).

This includes:

  • to map palaeohydrology in high (90m) resolution across the deserts of continental Asia, using remote sensing and geographic information system (GIS) techniques developed by Dr Paul Breeze and Professor Nick Drake at King's, and previously utilised in the Sahara and Arabia.
  • to integrate these data with regional archaeological and palaeoenvironmental records to provide, for the first time, a complete assessment of freshwater corridors for desert dispersals and determine whether archaeological evidence supports their use, stretching from Africa (Dr Breeze and Professor Drake’s previous work) to East Asia from ~300-40 ka.
  • to use these new data:
  1. to evaluate and test differing models for Homo sapiens dispersals out-of-Africa and across Asia, based on the availability of ‘freshwater corridors’ (sensu, Breeze et al., 2016)
  2. to assess the changing connectivity of hominin occupation regions and environmental refuges, defining potential opportunities for dispersals and admixture of Homo sapiens, Neanderthals and Denisovans.


In addition to the desk-based analyses, linked interdisciplinary fieldwork is ongoing in Arabia and Mongolia, organised by collaborators in the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History (Jena, Germany). The aim is to investigate the archaeological and palaeoenvironmental records of these regions, targeted using the hydrological analyses.

This fieldwork is also feeding dust source analyses being performed by collaborators in the National Oceanography Centre at the University of Southampton (UK), with the aim of improving our understanding of dust sources in regional oceanic sediment cores.

Project status: Ongoing

Principal Investigator


Funding Body: Leverhulme Trust

Amount: £75,000

Period: September 2019 - August 2022