Nut-cracker man no more!

A curious paper found its way out from my “to read” pile today and to be honest I’m sad I hadn’t looked at it sooner. Paranthropus boisei is not my favourite hominid, so I shuffled this particular piece to the bottom of my priority list, shame on me. The paper titled “Diet of Paranthropus boisei in the early Pleistocene of East Africa” (not too interesting a title, perhaps why I neglected it) turned out to be something of a shocker. The last time I encountered P. boisei was in an undergraduate evolution unit where we briefly discussed its impressive dentition and prominent sagittal crest as adaptations to eating nuts. Guess we can be rid of that particular notion.

This study used isotope analysis to demonstrate that the staple of the P. boisei diet was neither nuts nor the other C3 staples of known primates like fruit or leaves but the much less nutritious C4 plant types; grasses or sedges. This is quite a find. It demonstrates that at least some ancient bipedal hominids occupied an econiche entirely different to what the last 50 years of anthropological thought would suggest. This means that P. boisei would have been competing for resources with other grazers like zebra ancestors or hippos, quite an unexpected evolutionary scenario. As for those large, flat teeth, it would seem they were used less for bite force and more for the continuous processing of large quantities of low quality fodder. I wonder what this means for robustus? Guess I’ll have to look into that.

Paranthropus boisei: would have enjoyed being your lawnmower.

Citation:

“Diet of Paranthropus boisei in the early Pleistocene of East Africa”

Thure E. Cerling, Emma Mbua, Francis M. Kirera, Fredrick Kyalo Manthi, Frederick E. Grine, Meave G. Leakey, Matt Sponheimer & Kevin T. Uno.

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, May, 2011

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~ by confusedious on May 17, 2011.

3 Responses to “Nut-cracker man no more!”

  1. So why the prominent sagittal crest then? What did he need those muscles for?

    I remember learning about Paranthropus boisei in my undergrad class, too. If I remember correctly, my professor hypothesized that P. boisei became extinct because of the narrowness of his food niche–just not enough of his favored diet. As opposed to H. erectus with his widely omnivorous diet.

    Did I remember that correctly?

    Fascinating read.

  2. That’s a very good question. Many C4 plants like millet or sorghum can be pretty tough to eat without cooking, perhaps that is the answer. Either that or it is simply an ancestral trait, evolved for something else, that eventually found usefulness in supplying the endurance to chew, chew and chew all day long. As for the aetiology of this particular biped’s demise I can only speculate. Perhaps it was simply not able to compete with new feeding strategies in competitors or maybe climate change was a factor, I will need to find out more about the climate of the time.

    Interesting to ponder.

  3. I’m still learning from you, as I’m trying to achieve my goals. I absolutely love reading everything that is written on your website.Keep the stories coming. I liked it!

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