Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
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Stable isotopes in fossil hominin tooth enamel suggest a fundamental dietary shift in the Pliocene

Julia A. Lee-Thorp

Julia A. Lee-Thorp

Research Laboratory for Archaeology, Dyson Perrins Building, South Parks Road, Oxford OX1 3QY, UK

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Matt Sponheimer

Matt Sponheimer

Department of Anthropology, University of Colorado at Boulder, 233 UCB, Boulder, CO 80309, USA

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Benjamin H. Passey

Benjamin H. Passey

Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD 21218, USA

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Darryl J. de Ruiter

Darryl J. de Ruiter

Department of Anthropology, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX 77843, USA

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Thure E. Cerling

Thure E. Cerling

Department of Geology and Geophysics, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT 84112, USA

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    Accumulating isotopic evidence from fossil hominin tooth enamel has provided unexpected insights into early hominin dietary ecology. Among the South African australopiths, these data demonstrate significant contributions to the diet of carbon originally fixed by C4 photosynthesis, consisting of C4 tropical/savannah grasses and certain sedges, and/or animals eating C4 foods. Moreover, high-resolution analysis of tooth enamel reveals strong intra-tooth variability in many cases, suggesting seasonal-scale dietary shifts. This pattern is quite unlike that seen in any great apes, even ‘savannah’ chimpanzees. The overall proportions of C4 input persisted for well over a million years, even while environments shifted from relatively closed (ca 3 Ma) to open conditions after ca 1.8 Ma. Data from East Africa suggest a more extreme scenario, where results for Paranthropus boisei indicate a diet dominated (approx. 80%) by C4 plants, in spite of indications from their powerful ‘nutcracker’ morphology for diets of hard objects. We argue that such evidence for engagement with C4 food resources may mark a fundamental transition in the evolution of hominin lineages, and that the pattern had antecedents prior to the emergence of Australopithecus africanus. Since new isotopic evidence from Aramis suggests that it was not present in Ardipithecus ramidus at 4.4 Ma, we suggest that the origins lie in the period between 3 and 4 Myr ago.

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