Diet likely changed game for some hominids 3.5 million years ago, says CU-Boulder study

A new look at the diets of ancient African hominids shows a “game changer” occurred about 3.5 million years ago when some members added grasses or sedges to their menus, according to a new study led by the University of Colorado Boulder.

High-tech tests on tooth enamel by researchers indicate that prior to about 4 million years ago, Africa’s hominids were eating essentially chimpanzee style, likely dining on fruits and some leaves, said CU-Boulder anthropology Professor Matt Sponheimer, lead study author.  Despite the fact that grasses and sedges were readily available back then, the hominids seem to have ignored them for an extended period, he said.

“We don’t know exactly what happened,” said Sponheimer.  “But we do know that after about 3.5 million years ago, some of these hominids started to eat things that they did not eat before, and it is quite possible that these changes in diet were an important step in becoming human.”

A paper on the subject was published online by the Proceedings of the National of Sciences the week of June 3, along with three related papers.  Prior to the new PNAS studies, researchers had analyzed teeth from 87 ancient hominid specimens.  The new PNAS papers provide detailed information on the teeth of 88 additional specimens, including five previously unanalyzed hominid species, doubling the dataset, he said.

Sponheimer specializes in stable isotope analysis, comparing particular forms of the same chemical element, like carbon, that are present in hominid fossil teeth. The stable carbon isotopes obtained from ancient hominids helps researchers determine what types of plants they were eating, he said.  

Carbon signals from hominid teeth are derived from two distinct plant photosynthetic pathways, said Sponheimer: The C3 signals are from plants like trees and bushes, while the C4 signals are from plants like grasses and sedges. The researchers also looked at the microscopic wear of hominid teeth, which provides scientists with more information on the foods they were eating, he said.

While the hominids from the genus Homo that evolved from australopithecines like the 3 million-year-old fossil Lucy -- considered by many the matriarch of modern humans -- were broadening their food choices, a short, upright hominid known as Paranthropus boisei that lived side by side with them in eastern Africa was diverging toward a more specific, C4 diet. Scientists initially had dubbed P. boisei “Nutcracker Man” because of its large, flat teeth and powerful jaws, but recent analyses indicate it might have instead used its back teeth to grind grasses and sedges, Sponheimer said.

“We now have the first direct evidence that as the cheek teeth on hominids got bigger, their consumption of plants like grasses and sedges increased,” he said. “We also see niche differentiation between Homo and Paranthropus -- it looks probable that Paranthropus boisei had a relatively restricted diet, while members of the genus Homo were eating a wider variety of things. “The genus Paranthropus went extinct about 1 million years ago, while the genus Homo that includes us obviously did not.”

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