Best of 2011 // 83: The Grazing Hominid


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Palaeontologist Mary Leakey removed a bone fragment from a gully in Tanzania in 1959 . The find turned out to be a small piece of Paranthropus boisei, an evolutionary cousin of ours, who had died out about 1.5 million years ago. The hard chin, smooth molars and bony backbone on top of the skull prompted palaeontologists to conclude he was eating nuts and seeds, earning him the moniker ‘Nutcracker Man’.

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Yet Thure Cerling, geochemist at the University of Utah, announced last May that P. boisei had some extra, unexplained dining habits. Analyzing carbon isotopes from 22 P. boisei individuals ‘ tooth enamel, Cerling found traces of grasses and grass like plants, not nuts. Approximately 80 percent of their food came from the fields where they were grazing alongside gazelles, horses and elephants.

“It’s long been thought that primate digestive physiology was not that adaptable, but clearly grass was an available resource and P. boisei took advantage of it…Even though it’s no longer around, P. boisei’s line lasted half a million years—twice as long as modern humans 
so far.”

– Thure Cerling

The diet differs markedly from that of other primates. Chimps and Gorillas find their food in the forests. Direct human ancestors ate a combination of meat and plants.

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