Science Professor Co-authors The Urban Cliff Revolution

24-Sep-2004 12:00 PM EDT

Saint Mary's University

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Newswise — Why are penthouse apartments the most coveted and expensive? Where did bedbugs live before there were beds? Why do we find cliffs and waterfalls beautiful?

A new book co-authored Dr. Jeremy Lundholm answers these questions by examining the use of cliffs and caves by humans and other organisms over evolutionary time. Dr. Lunholm is Biology and Environmental Studies professor in the Faculty of Science at Saint Mary's University.

The Urban Cliff Revolution argues that cliffs and rock shelters have played a vital role in the origin, evolution and development of the entire human habitat, including modern cities. The authors, an interdisciplinary team led by University of Guelph professor Dr. Douglas Larson, conclude that we still depend on artificial cliffs and rock shelters, much as we have for the past million years.

"It is widely recognized that humans have exploited cave environments throughout our evolutionary history," says Dr. Lundholm, during an interview from his biology laboratory in the University's Science Building.

"The 'caveman' is someone we would like to think we have long since evolved beyond, but the history of the built environment suggests otherwise. This new research brings together insights from physical anthropology, architecture, ecology and botany to suggest that not only were cave and cliff environments essential to evolution and successful spread of Homo sapiens throughout the world, but that the first buildings explicitly replicated key ecological features of the cave environment that helped us survive and prosper," he says.

He goes on to explain that the development of cities can be traced from the consistent use of rock shelters and caves to their subsequent modification and eventually to the construction of free-standing buildings.

"While cities have frequently been referred to as 'concrete canyons', this research suggests that urban ecosystems actually do function as good replicas of rock outcrop habitats, both in their suitability for humans and as home for a host of other organisms that have followed us her," he says.

The book shows that people were not the only ones using rock shelters. Over half of the species of plants and animals commonly found in cities have their evolutionary origins in rocky habitats. Dandelions, rats, pigeons and cockroaches, and most of our food plants followed us into urban habitats and farmland as cities grew and cave use diminished. Many of these species are viewed as pests, and the research presented in the book suggests that the reason they have resisted eradication is that we continue propagating their preferred habitat and food sources all around the globe. The replication of rock outcrop habitats may represent an ecological 'revolution' of importance equal to the agricultural and industrial revolutions, but one that has been largely ignored up to now.

The book also argues that people retain an evolutionary-based spiritual attraction to cliffs to the point that much of modern architecture reiterates those aspects of rock shelters that make us feel the most comfortable and safe.

"The Urban Cliff Revolution suggests that we still seek out rock shelters, but that we are largely ignorant of our dependence on a very specific type of habitat," says Dr. Lundholm.

"We view ourselves as highly adaptable and opportunistic, but this view must be tempered by the recognition that we are in fact highly ecologically specialized and still maintain our connections with a modern version of our ancestral home," he adds.

Saint Mary's University is known for its community outreach projects, both in Canada and around the world. Saint Mary's University, founded in 1802, is home to one of Canada's leading business schools, a Science Faculty widely known for its cutting-edge research, a comprehensive and innovative Arts Faculty and a new Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research.

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