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School teacher sparks international evolution study

A science teacher at Bishop Gore School helped spark a study that has found how freshwater springs influenced the evolution of mankind by allowing early humans to travel across East Africa.

C.J. McCormack

C.J. McCormack began looking for evidence of how groundwater 'pit-stops' in the region may have sustained our ancestors for his Masters degree.

East Africa is currently experiencing a relatively dry period but his research found 450 springs in existence.

His initial thesis attracted the interest of other academics and he continued as part of a research team from universities in the UK and North America that formed to further develop his work.

By studying the current landscape of a 21-million-square-mile sector of the region they have concluded that, between one and two million years ago, early humans had access to hundreds of springs ‑ even during dry conditions when there was little or no water in sight.

This, it is believed, allowed them to survive the driest periods then travel north out of Africa.

The study, which was published in the journal Nature Communications last week and has since been widely reported in the national press, could help researchers explain how the ancestors of humans evolved by understanding their movement across the continent.

Mr McCormack, who has previously worked as a geologist in Australia, said what first sparked his interest was that plenty of fossils had been discovered in the region but little evidence of sources of drinking water for our ancestors.

Groundwater springs often leave no geological record. The researchers believe that it is likely early humans went from one groundwater spring to the next, eventually crossing Africa to reach Europe and Asia.

Mr McCormack, who joined Bishop Gore as a physics teacher at Easter, said he was very pleased but not surprised at the interest the study has attracted.

"Everyone loves hearing stories about our distant past and this one is a particularly good one," he said.

"It does fill a big gap in our previous understanding and it opens up a number of other questions."

One of the lessons Mr McCormack says he can pass on to his students is that pursuing a real interest or passion in a subject can reap amazing and unexpected rewards.


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