Dental microwear and diets of African early Homo

Peter S. Ungar, Frederick E. Grine, Mark F. Teaford, Sireen El Zaatari

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

Conventional wisdom ties the origin and early evolution of the genus Homo to environmental changes that occurred near the end of the Pliocene. The basic idea is that changing habitats led to new diets emphasizing savanna resources, such as herd mammals or underground storage organs. Fossil teeth provide the most direct evidence available for evaluating this theory. In this paper, we present a comprehensive study of dental microwear in Plio-Pleistocene Homo from Africa. We examined all available cheek teeth from Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, and South Africa and found 18 that preserved antemortem microwear. Microwear features were measured and compared for these specimens and a baseline series of five extant primate species (Cebus apella, Gorilla gorilla, Lophocebus albigena, Pan troglodytes, and Papio ursinus) and two protohistoric human foraging groups (Aleut and Arikara) with documented differences in diet and subsistence strategies. Results confirmed that dental microwear reflects diet, such that hard-object specialists tend to have more large microwear pits, whereas tough food eaters usually have more striations and smaller microwear features. Early Homo specimens clustered with baseline groups that do not prefer fracture resistant foods. Still, Homo erectus and individuals from Swartkrans Member 1 had more small pits than Homo habilis and specimens from Sterkfontein Member 5C. These results suggest that none of the early Homo groups specialized on very hard or tough foods, but that H. erectus and Swartkrans Member 1 individuals ate, at least occasionally, more brittle or tough items than other fossil hominins studied.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)78-95
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Human Evolution
Volume50
Issue number1
DOIs
StatePublished - Jan 2006

Keywords

  • Feeding adaptations
  • Hominin
  • Homo erectus
  • Homo habilis
  • Homo rudolfensis

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Anthropology

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