drupal statistics module

Machines Like Us

Ancient human ancestors had unique diet

Thursday, 28 June 2012

A high-tech dental analysis of a 2-million-year-old hominid from South Africa involving CU-Boulder researchers indicates it had a unique diet that included trees, bushes and fruits. Credit: Paul Sandberg, University of Colorado

When it came to eating, an upright, 2-million-year-old African hominid had a diet unlike virtually all other known human ancestors, says a study led by the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany and involving the University of Colorado Boulder.

The study indicated that Australopithecus sediba -- a short, gangly hominid that lived in South Africa -- ate harder foods than other early hominids, targeting trees, bushes and fruits. In contrast, virtually all other ancient human ancestors tested from Africa -- including Paranthropus boisei, dubbed "Nutcracker Man" because of its massive jaws and teeth -- focused more on grasses and sedges, said CU-Boulder doctoral student Paul Sandberg, a co-author on the new study.

The A. sediba diet was analyzed using a technique that involved zapping fossilized teeth with a laser, said Sandberg. The laser frees telltale carbon from the enamel of teeth, allowing scientists to pinpoint the types of plants that were consumed and the environments in which the hominids lived. The carbon signals from the teeth are split into two groups: C3 plants like trees, shrubs and bushes preferred by A. sediba, and C4 plants like grasses and sedges consumed by many other early hominids.

The teeth from the two A. sediba individuals analyzed in the study had carbon isotope values outside the range of all 81 previously tested hominids. "The lack of any C4 evidence, and the evidence for the consumption of hard objects, are what make the inferred diet of these individuals compelling," said Sandberg.

"It is an important finding because diet is one of the fundamental aspects of an animal, one that drives its behavior and ecological niche. As environments change over time because of shifting climates, animals are generally forced to either move or to adapt to their new surroundings," said Sandberg of CU-Boulder's anthropology department.

The researchers concluded from their scientific tests that bark and other fracture-resistant foods were at least a seasonal part of the A. sediba diet. While bark and woody tissues had not been previously documented as a dietary component of any other ancient African hominids, such foods are consumed by many contemporary primates and contain both protein and soluble sugars. The diet of A. sediba may have been similar to that of today's African savanna chimpanzees, Sandberg said.

One unique aspect of the project was the analysis of microscopic, fossilized particles of plant tissue known as phytoliths trapped in ancient tooth tarter, a hardened form of dental plaque, said corresponding study author Amanda Henry of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.