Today, tundra is generally limited to discontinuous patches of land: arctic islands and coastlines, alpine areas above the tree line, etc. Yet it is only when tundra covers large land areas that it can support large herds of migrating herbivores. Such herds can in turn support a relatively large human population, but at the cost of high male mortality—because the men have to cover long distances to seek out and follow the wandering herds.
As late as 10,000 years ago, continental steppe-tundra covered an extensive land mass, particularly in Eurasia. It was thus one of the main adaptive landscapes of modern humans during their evolution outside Africa. In particular, it might explain the unusual physical appearance of Europeans, i.e., their feminized face shape and their complex of highly visible color traits (diverse palette of hair and eye colors, depigmentation of skin color to pinkish-white).
At this point, people ask: “But why would this sexual selection play out only in ice-age Europe? What about northern Asia? There must have been lots of steppe-tundra there as well.”
There was, but it lay much further north than in Europe and was less hospitable to humans. It was all the more inhospitable because it stretched further into the heart of Eurasia and away from the warming and moistening influence of the Atlantic. Thus, the Asian steppe-tundra never supported as many humans as did the European steppe-tundra. Indeed, it seems to have been devoid of human life at the height of the last ice age (Goebel, 1999, pp. 218, 222-223).
On a map of ice-age Eurasia, the steppe-tundra belt would look like a large blotch covering the plains of northern and eastern Europe plus a narrower strip running farther north across Asia. By a geographic accident—a large mass of ice covering Scandinavia—it had been pushed much further south in Europe than elsewhere. This was where the steppe-tundra could support substantial and continuous human settlement.
When making this argument, I usually stress the word ‘continuous.’ But the word ‘substantial’ is probably more important. The larger the population, the greater the chance that interesting variants will appear through mutation:
Small populations have limited variability at any one time and low absolute incidence of mutation, and they may be subject to genetic drift. They are also likely to be narrowly localized and so more subject to rapid extinction by a regional catastrophe. … Other things being equal, the larger the population the more potential variability, at least, it is likely to have and the larger its absolute rate of mutation will be. (Simpson, 1953, p. 297)
Frost, P. (2008). Sexual selection and human geographic variation, Special Issue: Proceedings of the 2nd Annual Meeting of the NorthEastern Evolutionary Psychology Society. Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, 2(4), pp. 169-191.
Frost, P. (2006). European hair and eye color - A case of frequency-dependent sexual selection? Evolution and Human Behavior, 27, 85-103.
Goebel, T. (1999). Pleistocene human colonization of Siberia and peopling of the Americas: An ecological approach. Evolutionary Anthropology, 8, 208‑227.
Simpson, G.G. (1953). The Major Features of Evolution, New York: Columbia University Press.