Australopithecus afarensis

The genus Australopithecus lived two million to four million years ago, At least eight species of Australopithecus (collectively known as Australopithecines) have been identified. It is not clear how they were related. Some are called robust australopithecines (australopiths) because they had heavy features and large jaws with powerful muscles for smashing and grinding tough food. The other species had heavy jaws but were more slightly built.

Scientists believes that early Australopithecus species were equally at home in the forests and the savannah. The forest provided shelter, shade, nuts, fruit and protection from predators. The savannahs, velds and scattered woodlands of eastern Africa and southern Africa were ideal for foraging things like termites, grasshoppers, field mice, bird's eggs, flying ants, roots and tubers.

Streams provided nutritious plants, drinking water and small prey. Crocodiles and hippos were a danger. Elephants were a third larger than modern species. Other animals that lived around the same times as the Australopithecus species included baboons, cow-size pigs with meter-long tusks, massive buffalo, rodents, zebra, wildebeest rhinoceros, giraffes, and leaf-eating monkeys. Animals such as zebra, wildebeest and elephants were probably too large for Australopithecus species to hunt with simple tools. Early hominids may have scavenged meat from animals that died of natural causes or were killed by lions or leopards. If they did engage in such activities Australopithecines had to compete with other predators and scavengers such as hyenas.

Largely herbivorous, Australopithecus species didn't migrate as extensively as later Homo species. It is believed that stayed close to plants they were familiar with. The teeth and small size of Australopithecus and the giant creatures that were its contemporaries — bear-size hyenas, saber tooth tigers and huge birds and reptiles — suggest that Australopithecus were more likely prey than predators. This means that early hominids were far from the mammoth-hunting cavemen that we think of when we think of early man but rather were reticent but clever creatures that used their social skills and wits to find food and outmaneuver predators. Scientists are currently studying DNA linked with hormone oxytocin, which is associated with trust in the brain to gain insight into early man's social behavior.

Researchers have done microscopic analysis of wear in fossilized teeth of Australopithecines to figure out what they ate. Sindya N. Bhanoo wrote in the New York Times: “By studying the pits and scratches on fossilized teeth and analyzing the carbon isotopes on enamel, researchers have discovered new information about the diets of early hominins. “The new data suggests our simple story, of harder and harder diets over time, is not accurate,” said Peter Ungar, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Arkansas, whose lab does microscopic analysis of dental wear. [Source: Sindya N. Bhanoo, New York Times, October 17, 2011 /::]

“The genus Australopithecus shows a greater variation in diet over geographic region than over time, he said. The carbon isotope analysis was done by his colleague and co-author Matt Sponheimer, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Colorado. Australopithecus groups in eastern Africa lived in the open savannah and fed on tough foods, like grasses. In South Africa, the data shows that Australopithecus groups may have had to fall back on hard, brittle foods like nuts, roots and seeds. /::\ “There were similar differences in diet between groups of Paranthropus, a genus that lived about 2.7 million years ago, Dr. Ungar said. Paranthropus had strong jaws and teeth, and scientists previously believed that it relied heavily on hard, brittle foods. But “shapes of the teeth alone tell you what the animal is capable of eating, not what they eat on a day-to-day basis,” he said.” Microwear and carbon analysis provides more detailed information on the ecology of hominins — how they lived based on what was immediately available to them.” /::\

Websites and Resources on Hominins and Human Origins: Smithsonian Human Origins Program ; Institute of Human Origins ; Becoming Human University of Arizona site ; Hall of Human Origins American Museum of Natural History ; The Bradshaw Foundation ; Britannica Human Evolution ; Human Evolution ; University of California Museum of Anthropology; John Hawks' Anthropology Weblog ; New Scientist: Human Evolution

Chimpanzee and Gorilla Food

Chimpanzees have been observed eating over 81 different types of vegetable food, including seeds, blossoms, stems, nuts and fruit. They peel away the outer layers of reeds and eat the juicy core. Holes remain from where the chimps pick the galls. Chimps love baobab fruit. Chimpanzees that peel their bananas are more sophisticated than the majority who pop the fruit into their mouth peal and all. Some chimps enjoy eating bird’s eggs. Normally they crack them and throw them into their mouths with leaves and then suck and chew their version of "egg salad."

Contradicting what people had previously thought Goodall observed in 1960 that chimpanzees are not strictly vegetarians. "Monkey seems to be the favorite item on the menu," Goodall wrote. "I saw them eaten on four occasion, and twice I found bits of bone in chimpanzee droppings. In addition, I once saw a young bushbuck eaten, and another time a young bush pig. Four times the prey was unidentifiable." Chimps in Côte D'Ivoire fed on colobus monkey. They share the meat with the group. When chimpanzees eat meat they often suck on it rather than tear it like most animals.

Chimps have been observed using tools for eating. Describing the first example of tool manufacturing by a non-human animals, Goodall wrote, "The chimpanzee peers at the surface of a termite heap and, where he spies one of the sealed off entrances, scrapes away the thin layer of soil. Then picks a straw or dried stem of grass and pokes this carefully down the hole. The termites, like miniature bulldogs, bite the straw and hang on grimly as it is gently withdrawn. I have watched chimpanzees fish this way for two hours at a time, picking dainty morsels from the straw and munching with delight. ..I have seen them break off a twig and carry it for a far as half a mile, going from one termite hill to another."

Chimpanzees in Côte D'Ivoire have been observed using wood hammers to crack open soft nuts and stones to smash open harder ones. When the nuts are in season the sound of hammering chimps is so pronounced that Swiss Researchers Hedwige Boesch-Achermann said "Once I was leading someone here who was wondering what carpenters were doing in the forest." Before the nut is cracked open it is often secured in the knot hole of fallen tree or root protruding from the ground. The chimps prefer to hold the rock with two hands. Stones are scare in the rain forest and chimpanzees place them in different locations around the forest and remember where they are so they can be used again. Tools allow chimps to harvest more nutritious food which outweighs the large body size necessary to carry a larger brain. Nuts are chock filled with calories and with a rock a champ can eat 3,500 calories in just two hours. Consuming the same amount of calories in leaves might take as long as ten hours. [Source: Eugene Linden, National Geographic, March 1992]

Gorillas eat leaves, thistles, bamboos shoots, vines, wild celery and other succulents and, when they are in season, large cherry like fruits. Gorillas have large stomachs which enable them to eat large amounts of foliage. They don't eat meat but they do pick out worms and beetles from tree trunks an eat those. Gorillas haven’t been observed using tools like chimpanzees. Gorillas it seems have a stomach coated with metal. They eat wild celery, thistles, nettles and a vine called Galium that humans and other animals have a hard time digesting. Gorillas even eat stinging nettles which humans have wear gloves to protect themselves from. A special gorilla treat is blackberries which they go through the trouble of picking off their thorny stems.

Gorillas spend nearly all of their time laying around eating or sleeping. They feed for three hours in the morning, then nap, and eat socialize until they fall asleep at night. Gorillas build sleeping nests, usually on the ground. They are made of foliage, branches, branches and loose soil. They usually stay around their nesting site for a couple of days, exhausting the food supply there, and then move on to a new place. Some times older gorilla couples share a nest.

Food Eaten by Pre-Australopithecines

Laurence A. Marschall wrote in Natural History magazine: Only have a tooth, or a fragment of bone? Good enough for an analysis of paleodiets, since animals are what they eat. Animals that have higher abundances of carbon-13 in their bones and teeth have ingested savanna grasses, while those whose diet consists of forest fruits and vegetation have a higher ratio of carbon-12. Grazers such as antelopes fall into the former category, but so do many australopithecines, hominids that lived in East Africa as early as 4 million years ago. Since it’s hard to imagine any primate subsisting on grasses, the high carbon-13 levels in those early hominids suggest that they ate a fair amount of meat from animals that grazed on grasses, and that they had already developed considerable ingenuity in chasing, trapping, or scavenging food for dinner. A few atoms, in other words, imply the emergence of novel social and cognitive skills. [Source: Laurence A. Marschall wrote in Natural History magazine, 2012]

Rudapithecus was the name given to a 10-million-year-old great ape unearthed in Hungary. Some have said it is the closest fossil hunters have come to finding a common ancestor of humans and African apes. Named after the village of Hungarian Rudabanya, near where it was found, it had a body and brain about the size of a chimpanzee. Its long arms and curved fingers indicate it spent a lot of time hanging from the branches of trees. Modest-size molars and thin tooth enamel suggested it ate soft fruits.

Ardipithecus lived about 4.4 million years There is some debate whether it was a hominin or not. Based on the fact that the canines of Ardipithecus males are small and similar to females — unlike male apes which have large canines and use them mainly in fights with other males — Ardipithecus is theorized to have won over females by coming down out of the trees to collect high-protein, high-fat food given to the females offspring in return for sex. Bipedalism developed as a way to carry back food. Scientists believe that Ardipithecus kadabba and Ardipithecus ramidus lived in the forest because: 1) their teeth indicate they ate woodland foods: and 2) their remains were found among fossils of forest dwelling plants and monkeys.

Did our human ancestors evolve as prey rather predators. Paleontologist Kirsten Jenkins excavating at Rusinga and nearby Mfangano islands in Kenya reported in a 2010 study that she had found evidence of primates that lived 16 to 20 million years ago being preyed upon. They are hoping to find more fossils — especially those from birds — so that the scientists can identify the species that were hunting the prehistoric primates. Discovery News reported: The study presents the first evidence of raptor predation on fossil primates from Rusinga, which was part of the side of a large volcano 20 million years ago. Multiple ash layers suggest that eruptions killed countless animals from time to time. But when the volcano was inactive, the site supported a wooded area. [Source: Jennifer Viegas, Discovery Channel, October 13, 2010]

Did a Taste for Marrow and Fat Make Us Human?

Consuming the meat of large animals is generally thought to have played a part in human evolution. It allowed early hominins, such as australopithecines, to begin developing larger brains some 3.4 million years ago. But at this time early hominins were not yet able to manufacture the kind of sophisticated tools needed to hunt large animals and thus obtaining meat from large animals was at least a risky, dangerous undertaking. [Source: Marrow of Humanity, Ancientfoods April 27, 2019]

Researchers now believe that our human ancestors may have first acquired the taste for meat by scavenging carcasses left behind by other predators. Even if most of the meat was rotten or had already been consumed, early hominins may have used stones and other tools to smash open bones and access fatty marrow deposits, an invaluable source of the nutrients required by their very large brains. “Targeting marrow not only enables a stone-wielding hominin to access a novel resource that can’t be accessed by most other carnivores, but it was a relatively low-risk food,” says Yale University paleoanthropologist Jessica Thompson. This combination of high caloric returns at a low cost may have served as the ideal gateway to a long-standing carnivorous habit.

In a paper in Current Anthropology Thompson said: "Our ancestors likely began acquiring a taste for fat 4 million years ago, which explains why we crave it today. The reservoirs of fat in the long bones of carcasses were a huge calorie package on a calorie-poor landscape. That could have been what gave an ancestral population the advantage it needed to set off the chain of human evolution." [Source: Yale University]

According to a Yale University press release: While focusing on fat over meat may seem like a subtle distinction, the difference is significant, Thompson says. The nutrients of meat and fat are different, as are the technologies required to access them. Meat eating is traditionally paired with the manufacture of sharp, flaked-stone tools, while obtaining fat-rich marrow only required smashing bones with a rock, Thompson notes.

The authors review evidence that a craving for marrow could have fueled not just a growing brain size, but the quest to go beyond smashing bones with rocks to make more sophisticated tools and to hunt large animals. "That's how all technology originated — taking one thing and using it to alter something else," Thompson says. "That's the origin of the iPhone right there." The human brain consumes 20 percent of the body's energy at rest, or twice that of the brains of other primates, which are almost exclusively vegetarian. It's a mystery to scientists how our human ancestors met the calorie demands to develop and sustain our larger brains.

A meat-centered paradigm for human evolution hypothesizes that an ape population began more actively hunting and eating small game, which became an evolutionary stepping stone to the human behavior of hunting large animals. The paper argues that this theory does not make nutritional sense. "The meat of wild animals is lean," Thompson says. "It actually takes more work to metabolize lean protein than you get back." In fact, eating lean meat without a good source of fat can lead to protein poisoning and acute malnutrition. Early Arctic explorers, who attempted to survive on rabbit meat exclusively, described the condition as "rabbit starvation." This protein problem, coupled with the energy required for an upright ape with small canines to capture and eat small animals, would seem to rule out eating meat as a pathway to fueling brain growth, Thompson says.

The new paper presents a new hypothesis, going back about 4 million years, to the Pliocene. As the human ancestor began walking primarily on two legs, heavily forested regions of Africa were breaking into mosaics, creating open grasslands. "Our human ancestors were likely awkward creatures," Thompson says. "They weren't good in trees, like chimpanzees are, but they weren't necessarily all that good on the ground either. So, what did the first upright walking apes in our lineage do to make them so successful? At this stage, there was already a small increase in the size of the brains. How were they feeding that?"

Thompson and her co-authors propose that our early ancestors wielded rocks as they foraged on open grassland. After a predator had finished eating a large mammal, these upright apes explored the leftovers by smashing them and discovered the marrow hidden in the limb bones. "The bones sealed up the marrow like a Tupperware container, preventing bacterial growth," Thompson says. And the only things that could crack open these containers, she adds, were the bone-cracking jaws of hyenas or a clever ape wielding a rock.

The hypothesis offers an explanation for how the human ancestor may have garnered the extra calories needed to foster a larger brain, long before there is evidence for controlled fire, which could have mitigated the problem of bacteria in rotting, scavenged meat. The fat hypothesis also predates by more than 1 million years most evidence for even basic toolmaking of simple stone flakes. Scientists ought to begin looking for evidence of bone-smashing behavior in early human ancestors, Thompson said.

Early Hominins Skipped Fruit, Went for Nuts

Argania spinosa

Our earliest human ancestors consumed a lot of root vegetables, nuts, insects and some meat did not eat much fruit, but instead , according to a new study. According to The Seeker: “Early hominin ancestors may have left the trees to take advantage of ground-level foods, a behavioral shift that could have resulted in two of the major defining characteristics of humans: unique teeth and walking on two legs, a mode of locomotion known as bipedalism that is extremely rare elsewhere in the animal kingdom. "It is no coincidence that the emergence of terrestrial bipedalism went hand in hand with changes in oro-facial morphology, tooth enamel thickness and tooth microstructure," said co-author Gabriele Macho, a professor of paleoanthropology at the University of Bradford. [Source: Seeker, November 9, 2009 **]

“Macho and colleague Daisuke Shimizu analyzed the teeth of Australopithecus anamensis, a hominin that lived in Africa 4.2 to 3.9 million years ago. The famous skeleton "Lucy" came from the same genus. And anthropologists now suspect that the recently found and even older Ardipithecus evolved into Australopithecus, which likely led to the modern human genus, Homo. **

“Based on actual tooth finds, Shimizu produced sophisticated computer models showing multiple external and internal details of the teeth. One determination was immediately clear: Unlike chimpanzees, which are fruit specialists, the hominin couldn't have been much of a fruit-lover. "Soft fleshy fruits tend to be acidic and do not require high bite forces to be broken down," explained Macho. "The enamel microstructure of A. anamensis indicates that their teeth were not well equipped to cope with acid erosion, but were well adapted to masticate an abrasive and hard diet." **

“The researchers therefore believe this early human ate nuts, root vegetables, insects — such as termites — and some meat. While they think certain flowering plants known as sedges might have been in the diet, Lucy and her relatives were not properly equipped for frequent leaf-chewing. **

“For the study, accepted for publication in the Journal of Human Evolution, Shimizu also modeled chimpanzee and gorilla teeth as a comparison. "Gorilla molars are relatively high crowned and have shearing crests, which are advantageous for the breakdown of leaves," Macho said. In contrast, the shape of the hominin teeth and their internal enamel structure, suggests the early humans combined shearing with lateral lower jaw movement. "Chew a toffee and feel the difference," Macho said, comparing this type of chewing with eating a brittle food, like a roasted peanut, which involves more up and down motion. Although he thinks the ancient humans ate certain nuts, including the peanut-like groundnut, their teeth suggest brittle edibles were mostly absent from their diet. **

“University of California at Berkeley paleontologist Tim White co-directed the recent project that brought to light the "Ardi" skeleton and Ardipithecus ramidus, which lived 4.4 million years ago. White agrees that Australopithecus molars had thick enamel "more durable to heavy chewing of hard and tough foods with adhering grit," he told Discovery News. Ardi likely consumed a similar diet and "was probably omnivorous," according to White and his team, who add that mushrooms were also probably on the prehistoric menu. ** “Macho and Shimizu think the emergence of photosynthesizing plants at the Miocene/Pliocene boundary led to "major global and local environmental changes." These caused more seasonality, which meant fluctuating food supplies, greater predation risk at the forest edge and increased competition for resources. To cope with these challenges, the scientists believe primates developed different strategies. Gorillas essentially became herbivores, chimps evolved into fruit specialists and hominins became omnivores, which was a wise path to follow. Macho explained, "This subtle interplay between diet, social structure and life history ultimately led to the evolution of our large brains."” **

Diet Changes 3.5 Million Years Ago with Australopithecus Afarensis

Nutcracker man eating fruit

Australopithecus afarensis — the species that includes Lucy — had different diets from their ancestors An analysis teeth from extinct fossils has found that they expanded their diets about 3.5 million years ago to include grasses and possibly animals. Before this, humanlike creatures – or hominins – ate a forest-based diet similar to modern gorillas and chimps. Researchers analysed fossilised tooth enamel of 11 species of hominins and other primates found in East Africa. The findings appeared in four papers published in PNAS journal. [Source: Melissa Hogenboom, BBC News, June 4, 2013 |::|]

Melissa Hogenboom of the BBC wrote: “Like chimpanzees today, many of our early human ancestors lived in forests and ate a diet of leaves and fruits from trees, shrubs and herbs. But scientists have now found that this changed 3.5 million years ago in the species Australopithecus afarensis and Kenyanthropus platyops. Their diet included grasses, sedges, and possibly animals that ate such plants. They also tended to live in the open savannahs of Africa. The new studies show that they not only lived there, but began to consume progressively more foods from the savannahs. |::|

“Researchers looked at samples from 175 hominins of 11 species, ranging from 1.4 to 4.1 million years old. It is not yet clear whether the change in diet included animals, but “the possible diets of some of our hominin kin” has been considerably narrowed down, Dr Matt Sponheimer, lead author of another of the papers, told BBC News. “We now have good evidence that some early hominins began using plant foods that are not used in abundance by living African apes today, and this probably led to a major change in the way they used the landscape. One consequence could be that the dietary expansion led to a habitat expansion, as they could travel to more open habitats more efficiently. We know that many early hominins lived in areas that would not have readily supported chimpanzees with their strong preference for forest fruits. It could also be argued that this dietary expansion was a key element in hominin diversification.” |::|

“The study has also answered, at least in part, what researchers have long been speculating – how so many large species of primate managed to co-exist. “They were not competing for the same foods,” said Prof Thure Cerling from the University of Utah, who led one of the research papers. “All these species who were once in the human lineage, ventured out into this new world of foods 3.5 million years ago, but we don’t yet understand why that is.” |::|

“As well as looking at non-human primates, the researchers analysed fossils from other animals from the same era and did not find any evidence of a change in diet. This combined research highlights a “step towards becoming the modern human”, said Dr Jonathan Wynn from the University of South Florida, who led the analysis of Australopithecus afarensis. “Exploring new environments and testing new foods, ultimately might be correlated with further changes in human history.” These four complementary studies give a persuasive account of shifts in dietary niche in East African hominins, Dr Louise Humphrey from the Natural History Museum in London, told BBC news. |::|

3.3-Million-Year-Old Cut Marks: Earliest Evidence of Tools — And Meat Eating

In 2009, 3.3-million-year-old bones — found in Dikika, Ethiopia, near site where a Lucy-like hominin was discovered — with slashes, parallel marks and other cut marks that appear to have been made with stone tools, was presented as evidence that stone tools were produced more than 800,000 years than earlier thought and they could have been made by a possible human ancestor such as Lucy (Australopithecus afarenis).

The marks were made on a rib from a cow-like hoofed creature and a thigh bone from a goat-size animal, possibly from an impala, gazelle or antelope. It was argued that someone used stones to trim flesh from bone and perhaps crush bones to get at the marrow inside. It was also argued that this was the earliest evidence of meat and marrow consumption by hominins. No tools were found at that site, so it was unclear whether the marks were made with handmade tools or just naturally sharp rocks. [Source: Charles Q. Choi, Live Science, May 20, 2015]

Jennifer Viegas wrote in Discovery News: “Various types of electron microscopy, along with chemical analysis, determined that cut marks were inflicted while one or more individuals carved meat off the bones with a sharp stone tool. Percussion marks were also created when a stone tool broke open the bones to extract their nutritious marrow. The fossilized bones were found sandwiched between volcanic deposits, which permitted reliable dating of them. Before this discovery, the world’s oldest human evidence for butchery dated to 2.5 million years ago and came from Bouri and Gona, Ethiopia. No human remains were found in association with those fossilized prey bones, but A. afarensis remains were previously unearthed near the recent Afar Region discoveries. [Source: Jennifer Viegas Discovery News, August 11, 2010]

Zach Zorich wrote in Archaeology magazine: Imagine a scene where a troop of ape-like human ancestors a little more than four feet tall, with brains roughly equal in size to those of their evolutionary cousins chimpanzees, come upon a pack of large carnivores — say, lions or hyenas — feeding on a fresh carcass. Rather than run in fear from these predators, the hominins approach them screeching, waving their arms, and trying to be as frightening as possible. The carnivores, perhaps baffled or intimidated by this display, run away, leaving the hominins to feast on the fresh meat. [Source: Zach Zorich, Archaeology magazine, May-June 2020]

“According to research by a team of European biologists, this type of scene may have been common enough to cause the extinction of large carnivores across East Africa. These extinctions became more frequent as early hominin brain size began to increase, perhaps about three million years ago. Using previously published data, the researchers were able to rule out climate change as the cause of these extinctions. The data also shows a correlation between large carnivore extinctions and increased hominin brain size. “The surprise was actually how clear the results are,” says Søren Faurby, a biologist at the University of Gothenburg. Next, the researchers hope to document how widespread the impact of early hominin evolution was on other, perhaps less vicious, animals.

Diet of 3-Million-Year-Old Australopithecus bahrelghazali,

Australopithecus bahrelghazali teeth

The University of Oxford reported: “Researchers involved in a new study led by Oxford University have found that between three million and 3.5 million years ago, the diet of our very early ancestors in central Africa is likely to have consisted mainly of tropical grasses and sedges. The findings are published in the early online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. [Source: University of Oxford, December 14, 2012]

“An international research team extracted information from the fossilised teeth of three Australopithecus bahrelghazali individuals — the first early hominins excavated at two sites in Chad. Professor Julia Lee-Thorp from Oxford University with researchers from Chad, France and the US analysed the carbon isotope ratios in the teeth and found the signature of a diet rich in foods derived from C4 plants.

“Professor Lee-Thorp, a specialist in isotopic analyses of fossil tooth enamel, from the Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art, said: “We found evidence suggesting that early hominins, in central Africa at least, ate a diet mainly composed of tropical grasses and sedges. No African great apes, including chimpanzees, eat this type of food despite the fact it grows in abundance in tropical and subtropical regions. The only notable exception is the savannah baboon which still forages for these types of plants today. We were surprised to discover that early hominins appear to have consumed more than even the baboons.”

“The research paper suggests this discovery demonstrates how early hominins experienced a shift in their diet relatively early, at least in Central Africa. The finding is significant in signalling how early humans were able to survive in open landscapes with few trees, rather than sticking only to types of terrain containing many trees. This allowed them to move out of the earliest ancestral forests or denser woodlands, and occupy and exploit new environments much farther afield, says the study.

“The fossils of the three individuals, ranging between three million and 3.5 million years old, originate from two sites in the Djurab desert. Today this is a dry, hyper-arid environment near the ancient Bahr el Ghazal channel which links the southern and northern Lake Chad sub-basins. However, in their paper the authors observe that at the time when Australopithecus bahrelghazali roamed, the area would have had reeds and sedges growing around a network of shallow lakes, with floodplains and wooded grasslands beyond.

“Previously, it was widely believed that early human ancestors acquired tougher tooth enamel, large grinding teeth and powerful muscles so they could eat foods like hard nuts and seeds. This research finding suggests that the diet of early hominins diverged from that of the standard great ape at a much earlier stage. The authors argue that it is unlikely that the hominins would have eaten the leaves of the tropical grasses as they would have been too abrasive and tough to break down and digest. Instead, they suggest that these early hominins may have relied on the roots, corms and bulbs at the base of the plant.

“Professor Lee-Thorp said: “Based on our carbon isotope data we can’t exclude the possibility that the hominins’ diets may have included animals that in turn ate the tropical grasses. But as neither humans nor other primates have diets rich in animal food, and of course the hominins are not equipped as carnivores are with sharp teeth, we can assume that they ate the tropical grasses and the sedges directly.”“

Difference in Diet Between East African and South African Australopithecines

Australopithecus africanus

The University or Arkansas reported: “Research examining microscopic marks on the teeth of the “Lucy” species Australopithecus afarensis suggests that the ancient hominid ate a different diet than the tooth enamel, size and shape suggest, says Peter Ungar, professor of anthropology at the University of Arkansas. “The Lucy species is among the first hominins to show thickened enamel and flattened teeth,” an indication that hard, or abrasive foods such as nuts, seeds and tubers, might be on the menu, Ungar said. However, the microwear texture analysis indicates that tough objects, such as grass and leaves, dominated Lucy’s diet. “This challenges long-held assumptions and leads us to questions that must be addressed using other techniques,” Ungar said. Researchers thought that with the development of thick enamel, robust skulls and large chewing muscles, these species had evolved to eat hard, brittle foods. However, the microwear texture analysis shows that these individuals were not eating such foods toward the end of their lives. [Source: University or Arkansas, October 22, 2009]

“The researchers used a combination of a scanning confocal microscope, and scale-sensitive fractal analysis to create a microwear texture analysis of the molars from 19 specimens of A. afarensis, the Lucy species, which lived between 3.9 and 2.9 million years ago, and three specimens from A. anamensis, which lived between 4.1 and 3.9 million years ago. They looked at complexity and directionality of wear textures in the teeth they examined. Since food interacts with teeth, it leaves behind telltale signs that can be measured.

“Hard, brittle foods like nuts and seeds tend to lead to more complex tooth profiles, while tough foods like leaves generally lead to more parallel scratches, which corresponds with directionality. “The long-held assumption was that with the development of thick enamel, robust skulls and larger chewing muscles marked the beginning of a shift towards hard, brittle foods, such as nuts, seeds and tubers,” Ungar said. “The Lucy species and the species that came before it did not show the predicted trajectory.”

“Next they compared the microwear profiles of these two species with microwear profiles from Paranthropus boisei, known as Nutcracker Man that lived between 2.3 and 1.2 million years ago, P. robustus, which lived between 2 million and 1.5 million years ago, and Australopithecus africanus, which lived between about 3 million and 2.3 million years ago. They also compared the microwear profiles of the ancient hominins to those of modern-day primates that eat different types of diets.

The researchers discovered that microwear profiles of the three east African species, A. afarensis, A. anamensis and P. boisei, differed substantially from the two south African species, P. robustus and A. africanus, both of which showed evidence of diets consisting of hard and brittle food. “There are huge differences in size of skull and shape of teeth between the species in eastern Africa, but not in their microwear,” Ungar said. “This opens a whole new set of questions.”

Hominins Eating Beef Steak 2.5 Million Years Ago?

In 2010, Discovery News reported: “The discovery of a new “missing link” species of bull dating to a million years ago in Eritrea pushes back the beef steak dinner to the very dawn of humans and cattle. Although there is no evidence that early humans were actually herding early cattle 2.5 million years ago, the early humans and early cattle certainly shared the same landscape and beef was definitely on the menu all along, say researchers. [Source: Discovery News, February 9, 2010 ^]

“The telltale fossil is a skull with enormous horns that belongs to the cattle genus Bos. It has been reassembled from over a hundred shards found at a dig that also contains early human remains, said paleontologist Bienvenido Martinez-Navarro of the Universitat Rovira i Virgili in Tarragona, Spain. Martinez is the lead author of a paper reporting the discovery in the February issue of the journal Quaternary International. “This means that the humans have been eating Bos since the beginnings of the genus Homo,” said Martinez, referring to the genus to which humans belong. ^

“The million-year-old skull of the new Bos species, dubbed Bos buiaensis, has features of both earlier and later forms of Bos, which make it essentially a missing link between more modern cow-like species found in Eurasia and the earlier African cattle ancestors found alongside hominins and dating back 2.5 million years. “The most important point is that this Bos connects the African Bos with Eurasian bulls,” and so confirms the long, uninterrupted coexistence of humans and cattle from the earliest times, he told Discovery News. ^

“There are some researchers who might take issue with some of the details of the cattle family tree as Martinez and his colleagues have described it, but the overall conclusion seems sound, commented Sandra Olsen, curator of anthropology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. “One way or the other, hominins are associated with these creatures,” Olsen told Discovery News.

The distinctive horns of the new Bos also broach some other interesting matters, said Olsen. For one thing, this was an animal that had to live out in open areas, just like early humans. It’s very hard to imagine any animal with such long horns surviving in a forest, she said. Then there is also a tantalizing resemblance between the newfound Bos and depictions of bulls in ancient petroglyphs found in western Saudi Arabia — along the route once taken by humans out of Africa. The rock art shows exceptionally long-horned cattle being hunted by humans with bows, arrows and dogs, Olsen said. The petroglyphs are at least 5,000 years old, she said, but very hard to date exactly. (The new Bos species) look so much like the pictures in Saudi Arabia,” said Olsen, “which people have thought were exaggerations.” ^

“The ancient pictures also include depictions of some of the other animals known to have left Africa by the same route: lions, cheetahs and hyena, she said. The message from the new fossil echoes those being discovered about the prehistory of other domesticated animals, including horses, which Olsen has studied, in particular. “We’ve seen over and over again,” she said: “These are very long relationships.”“ ^

Hominins Ate Crocodiles, Fish, Antelope, Turtles and Hippos 2 Million Years Ago

jawbones of differeny hominins

Johns Hopkins University reported: “A team of researchers that included Johns Hopkins University geologist Naomi Levin has found that early hominins living in what is now northern Kenya ate a wider variety of foods than previously thought, including fish and aquatic animals such as turtles and crocodiles. Rich in protein and nutrients, these foods may have played a key role in the development of a larger, more human-like brain in our early forebears, which some anthropologists believe happened around 2 million years ago, according to the researchers’ study. [Source: Johns Hopkins, June 9, 2010]

A paper on the study was published recently in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and offers first-ever evidence of such dietary variety among early pre-humans. “Considering that growing a bigger brain requires many nutrients and calories, anthropologists have posited that adding meat to their diet was key to the development of a larger brain,” said Levin, an assistant professor in the Morton K. Blaustein Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Johns Hopkins’ Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. “Before now, we have never had such a wealth of data that actually demonstrates the wide variety of animal resources that early humans accessed.” Levin served as the main geologist on the team, which included scientists from the United States, South Africa, Kenya, Australia and the United Kingdom.

“In 2004, the team discovered a 1.95 million-year-old site in northern Kenya and spent four years excavating it, yielding thousands of fossilized tools and bones. According to paper’s lead author David Braun of the University of Cape Town (South Africa), the site provided the right conditions to preserve those valuable artifacts. “At sites of this age, we often consider ourselves lucky if we find any bone associated with stone tools. But here, we found everything from small bird bones to hippopotamus leg bones,” Braun said.

“The preservation of the artifacts was so remarkable, in fact, that it allowed the team to meticulously and accurately reconstruct the environment, identifying numerous fossilized plant remains and extinct species that seem to be a sign that these early humans lived in a wet — and possibly even a marshy — environment. “Results from stable isotopic analysis of the fossil teeth helped refine our picture of the paleoenvironment of the site, telling us that the majority of mammals at the site subsisted on grassy, well-watered resources,” Levin said. “Today, the Turkana region in northern Kenya is an extremely dry and harsh environment. So, clearly, the environment of this butchery site was very different 1.95 million years ago — this spot was much wetter and lush.”

Using a variety of techniques, the team was able to conclude that the hominins butchered at least 10 individual animals — including turtles, fish, crocodiles and antelopes — on the site for use as meals. Cut marks found on the bones indicate that the hominins use simple, sharp-edged stone tools to butcher their prey. It’s not clear to us how early humans acquired or processed the butchered meat, but it’s likely that it was eaten raw,” Levin said. The team theorizes that the wet and marshy environment gave early pre-humans a way to increase the protein in their diets (and grow larger brains!) while possibly avoiding contact with larger carnivores, such as hyenas and lions.

Australopithecus Sediba Primarily Ate Bark, Wood and Leaves 1.9 Million Years Ago

Based on marks left on the teeth two specimens found in Malapa caves in southern Africa, it appears that Australopithecus sediba, which lived 1.95-1.78 million years ago, subsisted almost entirely on a diet of leaves, fruits, wood and bark, a finding that contrasted sharply with the known diet of other hominins in the region and time frame, who mainly consumed grasses and sedges from the savanna. [Source: John Noble Wilford, New York Times, June 27, 2012]

John Noble Wilford wrote in the New York Times: “The Au. sediba diet also appeared to be a matter of choice, not necessity. Other evidence from animal fossils and sediments in the area indicated the presence at the time of vast grasslands in the vicinity. Yet these hominins, their skeletons adapted for tree climbing as well as upright walking, chose to feed themselves in adjacent woodlands. In this, scientists said, their behavior was more like that of modern chimpanzees, which tend to ignore savanna grasses, or perhaps the more apelike hominin Ardipithecus ramidus, which lived largely on hard foods some 4.4 million years ago.”

Australopithecus sediba

“An international team of scientists led by Amanda G. Henry of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, reported on the research that supported their findings in the journal Nature. “If these individuals are representative of the species,” the scientists wrote, “Au. sediba had a diet that was different from those of most early African hominins studied so far.” They also concluded that the “inferred consumption” of woodland products “increased the known variety of early hominin foods.” But there is still much that is unknown or unclear about the newfound species: how or if it is related to modern humans and just where it fits on the hominin family tree.

“Ian Tattersall, a paleoanthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, who was not involved in the research, called the findings “intriguing” and the research “an imaginative and multisided approach that makes you want to know more about this morphologically unusual species.” “Fortunately,” Dr. Tattersall added, “rumor has it that more specimens are on the way.”

“Dr. Henry’s team followed three lines of research. One was an analysis of carbon isotopes extracted by laser from tooth enamel, one of the most durable and least contaminated body parts, and one that preserves chemical signatures of what was eaten in one’s youth. The type and amount of isotopes left from a diet of tree leaves, fruit and bark were well outside the range of those seen in all previously tested hominins — at least 95 percent forest food.

“A second approach was an examination of dental microwear, which can reveal pits, scratches and cracks left by hard foods consumed shortly before death. Dr. Tattersall said that this “doesn’t help much to clarify the situation, since it appears to differ significantly between the two individuals.” Finally, microscopic plant particles, called phytoliths, were recovered from dental tartar for the first time from a very ancient hominin (but from only one of the two individuals). Scientists said this apparently confirmed the carbon isotopic evidence for woodland diets.

“Benjamin H. Passey, a geochemist at Johns Hopkins University, who conducted the tests determining the high ratio of carbon isotopes indicating a diet mostly of forest foods, explained why the research was important to an understanding of human evolution. “One thing people probably don’t realize is that humans are basically grass eaters,” Dr. Passey said in a statement. “We eat grass in the form of the grains we use to make breads, noodles, cereals and beers, and we eat animals that eat grass. So when did our addiction to grass begin? At what point in our evolutionary history did we start making use of grasses? We are simply trying to find out where in the human chain that begins.”“

Scientists believe they have found the remains of seeds and other food particles stuck between Australopithecus sediba’s teeth. Professor Berger, said: 'We found out this wasn't just a normal type of rock that they were contained in - it was a rock that was preserving organic material. 'Plant remains are captured in it - seeds, things like that - even food particulates that are captured in the teeth, so we can see what they were eating. [Source: Richard Gray, MailOnline, May 8, 2015 ^=^]

Richard Gray wrote in MailOnline: The remains of plants and insects have also been found preserved in the cement-like breccia alongside the skeletons. It is thought that sediment in the bottom of a pool of water may have helped to protect the organic material from bacteria that would have caused them to rot and break down. ^=^

teeth of different homins

‘Nutcracker Man’ Mainly Ate Grass 1.4-to-1.9 Million Years Ago

In 2014, the University of Oxford reported: “An Oxford University study has concluded that our ancient ancestors who lived in East Africa between 2.4 million-1.4 million years ago survived mainly on a diet of tiger nuts. Tiger nuts are edible grass bulbs still eaten in parts of the world today. The study published in the journal, PLOS ONE, also suggests that these early hominins may have sought additional nourishment from fruits and invertebrates, like worms and grasshoppers. [Source: University of Oxford , January 9, 2014 ==]

In 2011, AP reported, “Nutcracker Man didn't eat nuts after all. After a half-century of referring to an ancient pre-human as "Nutcracker Man" (Paranthropus boisei) because of his large teeth and powerful jaw, scientists now conclude that he actually chewed grasses instead. “The study "reminds us that in paleontology, things are not always as they seem," commented Peter S. Ungar, chairman of anthropology at the University of Arkansas. The report, by Thure E. Cerling of the University of Utah and colleagues, was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. [Source: Randolph E. Schmid, Associated Press. May 3, 2011]

Cerling's team analyzed the carbon in the enamel of 24 teeth from 22 individuals who lived in East Africa between 1.4 million and 1.9 million years ago. One type of carbon is produced from tree leaves, nuts and fruit, another from grasses and grasslike plants called sedges. It turns out as Paranthropus boisei did not eat nuts but dined more heavily on grasses than any other human ancestor or human relative studied to date. Only an extinct species of grass-eating baboon ate more, they said. The study was funded by the National Science Foundation and the University of Colorado.

Alcohol Consumption May Be 10 Million Years Old, Study Says

A study published in 2014 suggests that primates may have begun drinking alcohol in the form of fermented fruit on the forest floor 10 million years ago. Sarah Knapton wrote in The Telegraph: “Alcohol was thought to have been first brewed by Neolithic farmers around 9,000 years ago when northern Chinese villagers made the happy discovery that fruit and honey could be fermented into an intoxicating liquor.But new evidence suggests our ancestors had become accustomed to drinking nearly 10 million years before. [Source: Sarah Knapton, The Telegraph, December 1, 2014 |||]

“Scientists now believe that when primates left the trees and began walking on two feet they also started scooping up mushy, fermented fruit which was lying on the ground. And over time their bodies learned to process the ethanol present. Experts at Santa Fe College in the US studied the gene ADH4 which produces an enzyme to break down alcohol in the body. It was hypothesised that the enzyme would not appear until the first alcohol was produced by early farmers. But scientists were amazed to find it 10 million years earlier, at the end of the Miocene epoch. |||

“The findings could explain why tree-dwelling orang-utans still cannot metabolize alcohol while humans, chimps and gorillas can. “This transition implies the genomes of modern human, chimpanzee and gorilla began adapting at least 10 million years ago to dietary ethanol present in fermenting fruit,” said Professor Matthew Carrigan, of Santa Fe College. “This conclusion contrasts with the relatively short amount of time – about 9,000 years – since fermentative technology enabled humans to consume beverages with higher ethanol content than fruit fermenting in the wild. Our ape ancestors gained a digestive enzyme capable of metabolizing ethanol near the time they began using the forest floor about 10 million years ago. Because fruit collected from the forest floor is expected to contain higher concentrations of fermenting yeast and ethanol than similar fruits hanging on trees this transition may also be the first time our ancestors were exposed to – and adapted to – substantial amounts of dietary ethanol.” |||

“Any primates unable to digest the fermented fruits would have died before passing on their genes, but those who could would have passed the drinking gene on to their offspring. The evolutionary history of the ADH4 gene was reconstructed using data from 28 different mammals, including 17 primates, collected from public databases or well-preserved tissue samples. |||

“The first evidence of man making alcohol comes from the Neolithic village Jiahu in China where clay pots were found containing residues of tartaric acid, one of the main acids present in wine. Some archaeologists have suggested that the entire Neolithic Revolution, which began about 11,000 years ago, was fueled by the quest for by drinking and intoxication. Archaeologist Patrick McGovern of the University of Pennsylvania claims that prehistoric communities cultivated wheat, rice, corn, barley, and millet primarily for the purpose of producing alcoholic beverages. He believes that early farmers supplanted their diet with a nutritious hybrid swill which was half fruit and half wine.” |||

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Nature, Scientific American. Live Science, Discover magazine, Discovery News, Ancient Foods ; Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, BBC, The Guardian, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2024

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