The Evolution of Hominin Diets

Part of the series Vertebrate Paleobiology and Paleoanthropology pp 15-29

The Energetics of Encephalization in Early Hominids

  • J. Josh SnodgrassAffiliated withDepartment of Anthropology, University of Oregon 1218 University of Oregon Eugene
  • , William R. LeonardAffiliated withDepartment of Anthropology, Northwestern University 1810 Hinman Ave. Evanston
  • , Marcia L. RobertsonAffiliated withDepartment of Anthropology, Northwestern University 1810 Hinman Ave. Evanston

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Bioenergetics, the study of the use and transfer of energy, can provide important insights into the ecology and evolution of early hominids. Despite a relatively large brain with high metabolic demands, contemporary humans and other primates have resting metabolic rates (RMRs) that are similar to those of other mammals. As a result, a comparatively large proportion of their resting energy budget is spent on brain metabolism among humans (~20–25%) and other primates (~8–10%) compared to other mammals (~3–5%). To understand this shift in energy budget, Aiello and Wheeler's Expensive Tissue Hypothesis (ETH) posits a metabolic trade-off — a reduction in gut size with brain size increase — to explain this phenomenon. Here, we explore the interrelationships between brain size, body size, diet, and body composition using comparative data for humans, non-human primates, and other mammals. Among living primates, the relative proportion of energy allocated to brain metabolism is positively correlated with dietary quality. Contemporary humans fall at the positive end of this relationship, having both a high quality diet and a large brain. Thus, high costs associated with the large human brain are supported, in part, by energy-rich diets. Although contemporary humans display relatively small guts, primates as a group have gut sizes that are similar to non-primate mammals. In contrast, humans and other primates have significantly less skeletal muscle for their size compared to other mammals. These comparative analyses suggest that alterations in diet quality and body composition were necessary conditions for overcoming the constraints on encephalization. Fossil evidence indicates that brain expansion with the emergence of Homo erectus at about 1.8 million years ago was likely associated with important changes in diet, body composition, and body size.


Bioenergetics ecology hominid evolution dietary quality body composition scaling