Isotopic evidence of early hominin diets

Matt Sponheimer, Zeresenay Alemseged, Thure E. Cerling, Frederick E. Grine, William Kimbel, Meave G. Leakey, Julia A. Lee-Thorp, Fredrick Kyalo Manthi, Kaye Reed, Bernard A. Wood, Jonathan G. Wynn

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

142 Scopus citations

Abstract

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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)10513-10518
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Volume110
Issue number26
DOIs
StatePublished - Jun 25 2013

Keywords

  • Hominid
  • Human evolution
  • Paleocology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General

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    Sponheimer, M., Alemseged, Z., Cerling, T. E., Grine, F. E., Kimbel, W., Leakey, M. G., Lee-Thorp, J. A., Manthi, F. K., Reed, K., Wood, B. A., & Wynn, J. G. (2013). Isotopic evidence of early hominin diets. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 110(26), 10513-10518. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1222579110