News: New light on human ancestor`s

2012-07-09


A South African-led research team working on Australopithecus sediba, the 2-million-year-old human ancestor recently discovered in South Africa, have published new findings on what our early ancestors ate that are causing a stir in scientific circles.

It`s clear that these hominins didn`t brush their teeth on the morning nearly two-million years ago when they fell into a sinkhole not far from present-day Johannesburg. Remains of their meal have been found in plaque in their teeth.

The 1.9-million year old Australopithecus sediba, found in South Africa`s Cradle of Humankind by professor Lee Berger of Wits University in 2008, reveal that these hominins ate parts of trees, shrubs or herbs.

Berger, Reader in Human Evolution and the Public Understanding of Science at the Institute for Human Evolution at Wits, led the team, comprising nine leading scientists from across the globe, that published the latest findings on Australopithecus sediba.


A (very) long-overdue trip to the dentist ... While examining the teeth of the two individuals so far excavated, Berger noticed stains or plaque on the teeth - tartar or calculus, a mineralised material that forms on teeth.
"In this plaque, the scientists found phytoliths, bodies of silica from plants eaten almost two-million years ago by these early hominins," the research team said in a statement this week.

The well-preserved teeth were analysed in different ways. Dental micro-wear analyses of the tooth surfaces and high-resolution isotope studies of the tooth enamel were conducted. "We have a very unusual type of preservation in this instance as the state of the teeth was pristine," said Peter Ungar, distinguished professor of anthropology at the University of Arkansas and the scientist responsible for conducting the dental micro-wear studies of the teeth. 

The main 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 multi-disciplinary team included dental micro-wear specialists, isotopic specialists and phytolith researchers - scientists who 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," said Henry.

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. The phytoliths gave an even clearer picture of what the animals were consuming, including bark, leaves, sedges, grasses, fruit and palm," the statement reads.

Tests were conducted on the surrounding sediments in the area, to ensure the samples from the plaque were really part of the diet, and not contamination from elsewhere. "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," adds Ungar. "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."

The finding has been creating great excitement in the scientific world. "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," said Berger.

"I found the evidence for bark consumption the most surprising," said 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."

To read more on this story go to:

 http://www.southafrica.info/about/science/sediba-280612.htm#ixzz1zTHZoEWI

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