Paleoanthropology: Early hominids had a surprisingly diverse diet

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Paleoanthropology: Early hominids had a surprisingly diverse diet
Paleoanthropology: Early hominids had a surprisingly diverse diet
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Earlier hominids had an amazingly varied diet

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Paranthropus robustus, a hominid that went extinct a little over a million years ago, wasn't quite the food specialist it was thought to be. As scientists led by Matt Sponheimer from the University of Colorado in Boulder have now found out, the Paranthropus, which is native to southern Africa, not only fed on leaves, seeds and nuts, but also on the grasses of dry savannah landscapes and maybe even animals. The researchers therefore doubt the thesis that the hominid species has reached an evolutionary dead end through specialization in a certain food supply.

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The Paranthropus, sometimes referred to as the "Nutcracker Man", was about 1.60 meters tall and seemed predestined to eat fibre-rich and low-nutrient food from forest areas because of its pronounced chewing apparatus with large grinding teeth and strong jaw muscles. Researchers previously suspected that the supposed food specialist could not adapt quickly enough to the drier climate in southern Africa and therefore died out together with the other so-called robust Australopithecine species of its time. With the new findings, it is again open why Paranthropus disappeared while its contemporary Homo habilis evolved into modern humans.

Paranthropus' diet was not only more diverse than expected, it was also shown to vary from month to month. The researchers interpret this as an indication of extensive migratory movements of the upright hominid or as a result of a seasonal change in the food supply.

For their study, they analyzed tiny samples from the teeth of a fossil discovered in South Africa's Swartkran. The types of plants that Paranthropus ingested depended on the ratio of characteristic carbon isotopes that had accumulated in the tooth enamel while it was alive. In contrast to previous studies, in which the teeth had to be incised - and thus destroyed - the laser ablation technique used by Sponheimer and his colleagues only minimally damaged the valuable finds.

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