Average diet versus extreme diet in robust australopithecines

I've followed the literature on early hominid diets from the beginning of the weblog. In 2005 I discussed Peter Ungar's analyses of dental occlusal morphology in A. afarensis versus Homo, concluding:

The contrast between Homo and A. afarensis is in the same direction as the contrast in occlusal morphology between primarily meat-eating carnivores like felids and canids as opposed to more omnivorous carnivores like bears. Another observation is that meat is a major food resource of chimpanzees, although this is hardly a fallback resource. Indeed, if meat eating was indeed an important component of the behavioral repertoire of early Homo, it probably is not fair to assert that the difference in diet between Homo and Australopithecus was primarily a difference in fallback resources. It may be true that australopithecines and early Homo overlapped in their food resources, particularly in plant species consumed. But considering the likely effectiveness of early humans as predators, I think it likely that the fallback foods of early humans--when hunting was ineffective--may well have been the preferred foods of australopithecines. And when australopithecines were forced to abandon their preferred foods by early humans, they were forced to fall back upon resources that either were common or were difficult for early Homo to exploit. The disappearance of early small-bodied Homo by around 1.6 million years ago, and the ultimate extinction of the robust australopithecines after a progressive increase in their molar sizes (Wood and Lieberman 2001) indicate that this fallback strategy could not be maintained in the face of increased hunting effectiveness by large-bodied Homo.

The concept of "fallback foods" has captured a large mindshare in explaining early hominid diets. The idea is that a species may depend on preferred, staple foods for most of the year, but adopt less preferred, "fallback" foods when their staple is not available -- for instance, during the dry season.

What can fallback foods explain about early hominids? For one thing, they could explain the difference between robust and non-robust australopithecines. We know from isotope data (reviewed in this 2005 post about Matt Sponheimer's work) that A. africanus and A. robustus had similar fractions of C3 and C4 plant source foods in their diets. Across the year, they may have eaten roughly the same mix of foods. A 2005 paper by Greg Laden and Richard Wrangham (discussed here) explored the idea of underground storage organs of plants, or tubers, as fallback foods for australopithecines. Later studies of isotope data using laser ablation of small segments of the enamel (discussed here) showed that diet proportions may have substantially varied across the time that teeth were developing -- possibly concordant with the idea of seasonal or longer-period fallback foods. An earlier analysis of dental microwear in the two hominids by Scott and colleagues (discussed here) came to a similar result: there was great variability in wear properties, especially within A. robustus, although the average in the two species showed a possibly greater fraction of brittle, hard foods consumed by the robust australopithecines.

So I've written about the topic a lot, and followed it closely.

Now, Peter Ungar, Frederick Grine and Mark Teaford have examined the wear properties of the molars of Australopithecus (Paranthropus) boisei. They find that -- unlike A. robustus -- none of the seven specimens showed any evidence of having eaten hard or brittle foods:

Comparisons with the extant baseline series suggest that none of the Paranthropus boisei individuals examined consumed extremely hard or extremely tough foods in the days before death. All of these specimens lacked the extremes of Asfc evinced by Lophocebus albigena and especially Cebus apella, both known to consume hard, brittle foods. Paranthropus boisei molars also lacked the extremes of epLsar seen in Trachypithecus cristata and Alouatta palliata, both known to consume tough leaves and stems. The P. boisei individuals examined evidently avoided such metabolically challenging foods, at least in the days before death. This is notably consistent with Walker's [23] early assertion that P. boisei microwear patterns resemble those of living frugivores, and differ from those of living grazers, leaf browsers, and bone feeders.
Comparisons with the South African hominins suggest that while Paranthropus boisei may have consumed foods with similar ranges of toughness as those eaten by Australopithecus africanus, the eastern African "robust" hominin did not eat harder and brittler foods than the South African "gracile" form. Further, the patterns for P. boisei and P. robustus are very different. Paranthropus robustus likely ate foods that were on average much harder and less tough than P. boisei. The differences in both central tendencies and ranges of variation suggest different feeding strategies, and by implication, that the two species of Paranthropus probably had markedly different diets or foraging strategies (Ungar et al. 2008, italics lost).

That is very interesting that A. robustus and A. boisei are so different in their microwear patterns. It makes me wonder whether there may have been substantial habitat variation in the use of hard foods -- maybe the extant A. robustus sample, mainly drawn from a small area of South Africa, had access to some food items that were rare or absent across the larger East African range of A. boisei. But if some A. boisei populations had also depended on such hard resources some of the time, you might expect that we would have found one, or at least a bit more variability. Yet the sampled specimens, drawn from a distance from Ethiopia to Tanzania and well over a half million years of time, are pretty uniform in their microwear, showing some variability in the anisotropy dimension (here, high values have mostly parallel striations, attributed to fibrous food consumption).

So we can return to the question: the major hominid competitor of A. boisei was Homo. Both lineages appeared in the period around 2.5 million years ago, and remained sympatric throughout the next million years. Some of the dynamics of that interaction must have involved diet (considering the different dietary adaptations of the two). We can speculate that A. boisei didn't get much meat, which would then be an important difference. But what else was A. boisei eating?

Meanwhile, the data are still consistent with the idea of fallback foods in A. robustus as a driver of dental morphology, but the story for A. boisei now seems less clear. With only seven specimens, there is almost certainly not enough data to test the hypothesis -- which after all predicts that the use of hard brittle foods may be rare. But that's not positive evidence either. Is there some other food that might explain the hyperrobust craniodental morphology?


Ungar PS, Grine FE, Teaford MF (2008) Dental Microwear and Diet of the Plio-Pleistocene Hominin Paranthropus boisei. PLoS ONE 3(4): e2044. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0002044