Using carbon isotopes to track dietary change in modern, historical, and ancient primates. Academic Article uri icon


  • Stable isotope analysis can be used to document dietary changes within the lifetimes of individuals and may prove useful for investigating fallback food consumption in modern, historical, and ancient primates. Feces, hair, and enamel are all suitable materials for such analysis, and each has its own benefits and limitations. Feces provide highly resolved temporal dietary data, but are generally limited to providing dietary information about modern individuals and require labor-intensive sample collection and analysis. Hair provides less well-resolved data, but has the advantage that one or a few hair strands can provide evidence of dietary change over months or years. Hair is also available in museum collections, making it possible to investigate the diets of historical specimens. Enamel provides the poorest temporal resolution of these materials, but is often preserved for millions of years, allowing examination of dietary change in deep time. We briefly discuss the use of carbon isotope data as it pertains to recent thinking about fallback food consumption in ancient hominins and suggest that we may need to rethink the functional significance of the australopith masticatory package.

published proceedings

  • Am J Phys Anthropol

author list (cited authors)

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

citation count

  • 40

complete list of authors

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

publication date

  • December 2009