Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

New technologies challenge old ideas about early hominid diets

Date:
October 14, 2011
Source:
University of Colorado at Boulder
Summary:
New assessments by researchers using the latest high-tech tools to study the diets of early hominids are challenging long-held assumptions about what our ancestors ate.

Skull of Paranthropus boisei.
Credit: University of Colorado

New assessments by researchers using the latest high-tech tools to study the diets of early hominids are challenging long-held assumptions about what our ancestors ate, says a study by the University of Colorado Boulder and the University of Arkansas.

By analyzing microscopic pits and scratches on hominid teeth, as well as stable isotopes of carbon found in teeth, researchers are getting a very different picture of the diet habitats of early hominids than that painted by the physical structure of the skull, jawbones and teeth. While some early hominids sported powerful jaws and large molars -- including Paranthropus boisei, dubbed "Nutcracker Man" -- they may have cracked nuts rarely if at all, said CU-Boulder anthropology Professor Matt Sponheimer, study co-author.

Such findings are forcing anthropologists to rethink long-held assumptions about early hominids, aided by technological tools that were unknown just a few years ago. A paper on the subject by Sponheimer and co-author Peter Ungar, a distinguished professor at the University of Arkansas, was published in the Oct. 14 issue of Science.

Earlier this year, Sponheimer and his colleagues showed Paranthropus boisei was essentially feeding on grasses and sedges rather than soft fruits preferred by chimpanzees. "We can now be sure that Paranthropus boisei ate foods that no self-respecting chimpanzee would stomach in quantity," said Sponheimer. "It is also clear that our previous notions of this group's diet were grossly oversimplified at best, and absolutely backward at worst."

"The morphology tells you what a hominid may have eaten," said Ungar. But it does not necessarily reveal what the animal was actually dining on, he said.

While Ungar studies dental micro-wear -- the microscopic pits and scratches that telltale food leaves behind on teeth -- Sponheimer studies stable isotopes of carbon in teeth. By analyzing stable carbon isotopes obtained from tiny portions of animal teeth, researchers can determine whether the animals were eating foods that use different photosynthetic pathways that convert sunlight to energy.

The results for teeth from Paranthropus boisei, published earlier this year, indicated they were eating foods from the so-called C4 photosynthetic pathway, which points to consumption of grasses and sedges. The analysis stands in contrast to our closest human relatives like chimpanzees and gorillas that eat foods from the so-called C3 synthetic pathway pointing to a diet that included trees, shrubs and bushes.

Dental micro-wear and stable isotope studies also point to potentially large differences in diet between southern and eastern African hominids, said Sponheimer, a finding that was not anticipated given their strong anatomical similarities. "Frankly, I don't believe anyone would have predicted such strong regional differences," said Sponheimer. "But this is one of the things that is fun about science -- nature frequently reminds us that there is much that we don't yet understand.

"The bottom line is that our old answers about hominid diets are no longer sufficient, and we really need to start looking in directions that would have been considered crazy even a decade ago," Sponheimer said. "We also see much more evidence of dietary variability among our hominid kin than was previously appreciated. Consequently, the whole notion of hominid diet is really problematic, as different species may have consumed fundamentally different things."

While the new techniques have prompted new findings in the field of biological anthropology, they are not limited to use in human ancestors, according to the researchers. Current animals under study using the new tooth-testing techniques range from rodents and ancient marsupials to dinosaurs, said Sponheimer.

Much of Sponheimer's research on ancient hominids has been funded by the National Science Foundation.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of Colorado at Boulder. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Peter S. Ungar, Matt Sponheimer. The Diets of Early Hominins. Science, 2011; 334 (6053): 190-193 DOI: 10.1126/science.1207701

Cite This Page:

University of Colorado at Boulder. "New technologies challenge old ideas about early hominid diets." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 14 October 2011. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/10/111013141849.htm>.
University of Colorado at Boulder. (2011, October 14). New technologies challenge old ideas about early hominid diets. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 24, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/10/111013141849.htm
University of Colorado at Boulder. "New technologies challenge old ideas about early hominid diets." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/10/111013141849.htm (accessed April 24, 2014).

Share This



More Fossils & Ruins News

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

New Pictures of Ship That Sank in 1888

New Pictures of Ship That Sank in 1888

AP (Apr. 24, 2014) — Federal researchers have released new images of the City of Chester, a steamship that sank in San Francisco Bay in 1888. Researchers recently found the shipwreck while mapping shipping routes. (April 24) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Mich. Boy Unearths 10,000-Year-Old Mastodon Tooth

Mich. Boy Unearths 10,000-Year-Old Mastodon Tooth

Newsy (Apr. 20, 2014) — A 9-year-old Michigan boy was exploring a creek when he came across a 10,000-year-old tooth from a prehistoric mastodon. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Couple Finds Love Letters From WWI In Attic

Couple Finds Love Letters From WWI In Attic

Newsy (Apr. 17, 2014) — A couple found love letters from World War I in their attic. They were able to deliver them to relatives of the writer of those letters. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Erotic Art Offers Glimpse of China's 'lost' Sexual Philosophy

Erotic Art Offers Glimpse of China's 'lost' Sexual Philosophy

AFP (Apr. 16, 2014) — Explicit Chinese art works dating back centuries go on display in Hong Kong, revealing China's ancient relationship with sex. Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
 
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:  

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:  

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile iPhone Android Web
Follow Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins