Stable isotopes in fossil hominin tooth enamel suggest a fundamental dietary shift in the Pliocene. Academic Article uri icon

abstract

  • Accumulating isotopic evidence from fossil hominin tooth enamel has provided unexpected insights into early hominin dietary ecology. Among the South African australopiths, these data demonstrate significant contributions to the diet of carbon originally fixed by C(4) photosynthesis, consisting of C(4) tropical/savannah grasses and certain sedges, and/or animals eating C(4) foods. Moreover, high-resolution analysis of tooth enamel reveals strong intra-tooth variability in many cases, suggesting seasonal-scale dietary shifts. This pattern is quite unlike that seen in any great apes, even 'savannah' chimpanzees. The overall proportions of C(4) input persisted for well over a million years, even while environments shifted from relatively closed (ca 3 Ma) to open conditions after ca 1.8 Ma. Data from East Africa suggest a more extreme scenario, where results for Paranthropus boisei indicate a diet dominated (approx. 80%) by C(4) plants, in spite of indications from their powerful 'nutcracker' morphology for diets of hard objects. We argue that such evidence for engagement with C(4) food resources may mark a fundamental transition in the evolution of hominin lineages, and that the pattern had antecedents prior to the emergence of Australopithecus africanus. Since new isotopic evidence from Aramis suggests that it was not present in Ardipithecus ramidus at 4.4 Ma, we suggest that the origins lie in the period between 3 and 4 Myr ago.

published proceedings

  • Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci

altmetric score

  • 0.25

author list (cited authors)

  • Lee-Thorp, J. A., Sponheimer, M., Passey, B. H., de Ruiter, D. J., & Cerling, T. E

citation count

  • 82

complete list of authors

  • Lee-Thorp, Julia A||Sponheimer, Matt||Passey, Benjamin H||de Ruiter, Darryl J||Cerling, Thure E

publication date

  • October 2010