UNIVERSITY OF THE WITWATERSRAND, JOHANNESBURG

First direct proof of our ancestors' diet

28 June 2012

First plant material found on ancient hominins' teeth - remains of food found in 2 million-year-old dental plaqueHominins were consuming, bark, leaves, sedges, grasses, fruit, palm, parts of trees, shrubs and herbs

Johannesburg, South Africa. – The first direct evidence of what our earliest ancestors ate has been discovered due to a two million-year-old mishap that befell two early members of the human family tree. The find has provided the most robust evidence to date of what at least one pair of hominins consumed.

This remarkable research is published in the online edition of the prestigious journal Nature today, Wednesday, 27 June 2012, and will appear in the 5th July print edition.  

“The find is unprecedented in the human record outside of fossils just a few thousand years old.  It is the first truly direct evidence of what our early ancestors put in their mouths and chewed – what they ate,” says Prof. Lee Berger, Reader in Human Evolution and the Public Understanding of Science at the Institute for Human Evolution at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, who led the team comprising of nine leading scientists from across the globe.

The lead author is Amanda Henry of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, a specialist in dental calculus and tartar. Other specialists on the multidisciplinary team included dental micro-wear specialists, isotopic specialists and phytolith researchers – scientists whom study the physical remains of ancient plants. “We have been very lucky to bring together such a diverse group of talented individuals to conduct this study,” says Henry.

 

The story so far

Almost two million years ago, an elderly female and young male of the species Australopithecus sediba fell into a sinkhole, where their remains were quickly buried in sediment. As a result of this death, parts of  the teeth were extremely well-preserved which has now enabled scientists to analyse the teeth in three different ways.   

In 2010, Berger and his colleagues described the remains of these creatures. Berger also noticed what appeared to be stains on the teeth and realised they were probably dental plaque – tartar or calculus – mineralised material that forms on teeth.

 

Three types of analysis

Peter Ungar, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the University of Arkansas and the scientist responsible for conducting the dental micro-wear studies explains: “We have a very unusual type of preservation in this instance as the state of the teeth was pristine.”

This preservation enabled the researchers to analyse the teeth in three different ways. Dental micro-wear analyses of the tooth surfaces and high-resolution isotope studies of the tooth enamel were conducted on these remarkably well-preserved teeth. In addition, because the teeth had not been exposed to the elements since death, they also harboured areas of preserved tartar build-up around the edges of the teeth. In this plaque, the scientists found phytoliths, bodies of silica from plants eaten almost two million years ago by these early hominins.

“It is the first time that we have been able to look at these three elements in one or two specimens,” says Ungar. 

Using the isotope analysis, the dental micro-wear analysis and the phytolith analysis, the researchers closed in on the diet of these two individuals, and what they found differs from other early human ancestors from that period.

The micro-wear on the teeth showed more pits and complexity than most other australopiths before it. Like the micro-wear, the isotopes also showed that the animals were consuming mostly parts of trees, shrubs or herbs rather than grasses.

The phytoliths gave an even clearer picture of what the animals were consuming, including bark, leaves, sedges, grasses, fruit and palm. Tests were conducted on the surrounding sediments to ensure the samples from the plaque were really part of the diet, and not contamination. 

“By testing the sediments in which the hominid was buried we can be sure that the phytoliths in the calculus were not from post depositional contamination,” says Prof. Marion Bamford from the Bernard Price Institute for Palaeontology at the University of the Witwatersrand, who worked on the phytolith analysis.

 

Findings

“I found the evidence for bark consumption the most surprising,” says Berger. “While primatologists have known for years that primates, including apes, eat bark as a fallback food in times of need, I really had not thought of it as a dietary item on the menu of an early human ancestor.”

Matt Sponheimer, a Professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who worked on the isotopic research elaborates: “The results suggested a different diet than we have found in other early hominins, and were rather like what we find in living chimpanzees. We were not expecting Sediba to look unlike Australopithecus and Homo as various researchers have suggested affinities to one genus or the other, or both.”

Ungar adds: “These findings tell us a really nice story about these two individuals. We get a sense of an animal that looked like it was taking advantage of forest resources. This kind of food consumption differs from what has been seen in evidence from other australopiths. They come out looking like giraffes in terms of their tooth chemistry. A lot of the other creatures there were not eating such forest resources.”

“To think that we have direct evidence of what these near humans put in their mouths and chewed, still preserved in their mouths after two million years is pretty remarkable,” concludes Berger.

Media Coverage 

Business Day 28 June 2012 

Cape Times 28 June 2012 

Die Burger 28 June 2012 

The Mercury 28 June 2012 

The Star 28 June 2012 

The Star Africa 28 June 2012

Volksblad 28 June 2012 

Volksblad Noord-Kaap 28 June 2012 

The Times 28 June 2012 

Die Burger Kaap 28 June 2012 

The Witness Weekend 30 June 2012 

Saturday Dispatch 30 June 2012 

Rosebank Killarney Gazette 06 July 2012 

702 28 June 2012 

702 1 28 June 2012 

702 2 28 June 2012 

Highveld Stereo 28 June 2012 

Cape Talk 28 June 2012 

Online Coverage Local 

Online Coverage International June 2012 

Online Coverage International July 2012 

NOTE TO EDITORS

Lee Berger led the project.

Amanda Henry (lead author) of the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany; Marion Bamford of the University of Witwatersrand; and Lloyd Rossouw of the National Museum Bloemfontein in South Africa conducted the analysis of the phytoliths.

Peter Ungar conducted the micro-wear analysis.

Benjamin Passey of Johns Hopkins University, Matt Sponheimer and Paul Sandberg of the University of Colorado at Boulder, and Darryl de Ruiter of Texas A&M conducted the isotope analysis.

To view and download the media pack, click here

For media enquiries and photographs contact Vivienne.Rowland@wits.ac.za on 27 (0) 11 717-1017.

For interviews with Prof. Lee Berger, call him directly on 27 (0) 11 717-6604 or 27 (0) 83 454 6309