Isotopic Evidence of Early Hominin Diets
human evolution, hominid, paleocology
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)
Carbon isotope studies of early hominins from southern Africa showed that their diets differed markedly from the diets of extant apes. Only recently, however, has a major influx of isotopic data from eastern Africa allowed for broad taxonomic, temporal, and regional comparisons among hominins. Before 4 Ma, hominins had diets that were dominated by C3 resources and were, in that sense, similar to extant chimpanzees. By about 3.5 Ma, multiple hominin taxa began incorporating 13C-enriched [C4 or crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM)] foods in their diets and had highly variable carbon isotope compositions which are atypical for African mammals. By about 2.5 Ma, Paranthropus in eastern Africa diverged toward C4/CAM specialization and occupied an isotopic niche unknown in catarrhine primates, except in the fossil relations of grass-eating geladas (Theropithecus gelada). At the same time, other taxa (e.g., Australopithecus africanus) continued to have highly mixed and varied C3/C4 diets. Overall, there is a trend toward greater consumption of 13C-enriched foods in early hominins over time, although this trend varies by region. Hominin carbon isotope ratios also increase with postcanine tooth area and mandibular cross-sectional area, which could indicate that these foods played a role in the evolution of australopith masticatory robusticity. The 13C-enriched resources that hominins ate remain unknown and must await additional integration of existing paleodietary proxy data and new research on the distribution, abundance, nutrition, and mechanical properties of C4 (and CAM) plants.
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Citation / Publisher Attribution
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, v. 110, issue 26, p. 10513-10518
Scholar Commons Citation
Sponheimer, Matt; Alemseged, Zeresenay; Cerling, Thure E.; Grine, Frederick E.; Kimbel, William H.; Leakey, Meave G.; Lee-Thorp, Julia A.; Manthi, Fredrick K.; Reed, Kaye; Wood, Bernard A.; and Wynn, Jonathan G., "Isotopic Evidence of Early Hominin Diets" (2013). School of Geosciences Faculty and Staff Publications. 207.