The capability of Pleistocene hominins to successfully adapt to different types of tropical forested environments has long been debated. In order to investigate environmental changes in Southeast Asia during a critical period for the turnover of hominin species, we analysed palaeoenvironmental proxies from five late Middle to Late Pleistocene faunas. Human teeth discoveries have been reported at Duoi U’Oi, Vietnam (70–60 ka) and Nam Lot, Laos (86–72 ka). However, the use of palaeoproteomics allowed us to discard the latter, and, to date, no human remains older than ~ 70 ka are documented in the area. Our findings indicate that tropical rainforests were highly sensitive to climatic changes over that period, with significant fluctuations of the canopy forests. Locally, large-bodied faunas were resilient to these fluctuations until the cooling period of the Marine Isotope Stage 4 (MIS 4; 74–59 ka) that transformed the overall biotope. Then, under strong selective pressures, populations with new phenotypic characteristics emerged while some other species disappeared. We argue that this climate-driven shift offered new foraging opportunities for hominins in a novel rainforest environment and was most likely a key factor in the settlement and dispersal of our species during MIS 4 in SE Asia.
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