Dental Evidence for Diets of Early Homo

  • Peter S. Ungar
  • Robert S. Scott
Part of the Vertebrate Paleobiology and Paleoanthropology book series (VERT)

The evolution of diet in the earliest members of our genus, Homo rudolfensis, H. habilis and H. erectus has received increased attention over the past few years (see Ungar et al., 2006a for review). Many models have been constructed, based largely on nutritional studies combined with direct analogy (with living peoples or non-human primates) or on contextual evidence, such as archeological and paleoenvi-ronmental indicators. These models suggest hypotheses, some of which can be tested with the fossil evidence for the hominins themselves.

In this paper we review and evaluate some recent models for the dietary adaptations of early Homo. While there are real intractable limits to what we can learn, the dental remains of these hominins offer some clues to the diets of these species. Results of a recent study on molar occlusal functional morphology (Ungar, 2004) will be reviewed, along with results from a recent study of dental microwear of early Homo (Ungar et al., 2006b). In addition, new data on dental microwear textures for early Homo cheek teeth will be presented for comparison with results for extant primates and other fossil hominins.


Dental topographic analysis molars microweartexture analysis diet Homo habilis Homo erectus 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Aiello, L.C., Wheeler, P., 1995. The expensive-tissue hypothesis: the brain and the digestive system in human and primate evolution. Current Anthropology 36, 199–221.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Asfaw, B., Beyene, Y., Suwa, G., Walter, R.C., White, T.D., WoldeGabriel, G., Yemane, T., 1992. The earliest Acheulean from Konso-Gardula. Nature 360, 732–735.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Behrensmeyer, A.K., Todd, N.E., Potts, R., 1997. Paleoecological implications of faunas associated with hominids in the Turkana Basin, Kenya. Journal of Human Evolution 32, A2–A3.Google Scholar
  4. Blumenschine, R.J., 1995. Percussion marks, tooth marks, and experimental determinations of the timing of hominid and carnivore access to long nones at FLK Zinjanthropus, Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. Journal of Human Evolution 29, 21–51.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Blumenschine, R.J., Masao, F.T., 1991. Living sites at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania: preliminary landscape archaeology results in the basal Bed I lake margin zone. Journal of Human Evolution 21, 451–462.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bunn, H. T., 2001. Hunting, power scavenging, and butchering by Hadza foragers and by Plio- Pleistocene Homo. In: Stanford, C. B., Bunn, H. T. (Eds), Meat-Eating and Human Evolution. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 199–218.Google Scholar
  7. Cerling, T.E., 1992. Development of grasslands and savannas in East Africa during the Neogene. Global Planetary Change 97, 241–247.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Cook, R.J., Farewell, V.T., 1996. Multiplicity considerations in the design and analysis of clinical trials. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, Series A, 159, 93–110.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Coursey, D.G., 1973. Hominid evolution and hypogeous plant foods. Man 8, 634–635.Google Scholar
  10. Daegling, D.J., Grine, F.E., 1999. Terrestrial foraging and dental microwear in Papio ursinus. Primates 40, 559–572.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Dart, R.A., 1953. The predatory transition from ape to man. International Anthropology and Linguistics Review 1, 201–217.Google Scholar
  12. de Heinzelin, J., Clark, J.D., White, T., Hart, W., Renne, P., WoldeGabriel, G., Beyene, Y., Vrba, E., 1999. Environment and behavior of 2.5-million-year-old Bouri hominids. Science 284, 625–629.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Dennell, R.W., Rendell, H., Hailwood, E., 1988. Early tool making in Asia: two million year old artifacts in Pakistan. Antiquity 62, 98–106.Google Scholar
  14. Dennis, J.C., Ungar, P.S., Teaford, M.F., Glander, K.E., 2004. Dental topography and molar wear in Alouatta palliata from Costa Rica. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 125, 152–161.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Eaton, S. B., Eaton S.B., Cordain, L., 2002. Evolution, diet and health. In: Ungar, P.S., Teaford, M.F. (Eds), Human Diet: its Origin and Evolution. Bergen and Garvey, Westport, CT, pp. 7–18.Google Scholar
  16. Gabunia, L., Vekua, A., 1995. A Plio-Pleistocene hominid from Dmanisi, East Georgia, Caucasus. Nature 373, 509–512.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Grine, F.E., 1986. Dental evidence for dietary differences in Australopithecus and Paranthropus: a quantitative analysis of permanent molar microwear. Journal of Human Evolution 15, 783–822.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Grine, F.E., 2005. Early Homo at Swartkrans, South Africa: a review of the evidence and an evaluation of recently proposed morphs. South African Journal of Science 101, 43–52.Google Scholar
  19. Grine, F.E., Ungar, P.S., Teaford, M.F., 2002. Error rates in dental microwear quantifi cation using scanning electron microscopy. Scanning 24, 144–153.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Hatley, T., Kappelman, J., 1980. Bears, pigs, and Plio-Pleistocene hom-inids: a case for the exploitation of belowground food resources. Human Ecology 8, 371–387.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Hayden, B., 1981. Subsistence and ecological adaptations of modern hunter/gathers. In: Harding, R.S.O., Teleki, G. (Eds), Omnivorous Primates: Gathering and Hunting in Human Evolution. Columbia University Press, New York, pp. 344–421.Google Scholar
  22. Isaac, G., 1971. Diet of early man: aspects of archaeological evidence from lower and middle Pleistocene sites in Africa. World Archaeology 2, 278–299.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Kay, R. F., 1984. On the use of anatomical features to infer foraging behavior in extinct primates. In: Rodman, P.S., Cant, J.G.H. (Eds), Adaptations for Foraging in Nonhuman Primates: Contributions to an Organismal Biology of Prosimians, Monkeys and Apes. Columbia University Press, New York, pp. 21–53.Google Scholar
  24. Keeley, L.H., Toth, N., 1981. Microwear polishes on early stone tools from Koobi Fora, Kenya. Nature 293, 464–465.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. King, S.J., Arrigo-Nelson, S.J., Pochron, S.T., Semprebon, G.M., Godfrey, L.R., Wright, P.C., Jernvall, J., 2005. Dental senescence in a long-lived primate links infant survival to rainfall. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 102, 16579–16583.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Lambert, J.E., Chapman, C.A., Wrangham, R.W., Conklin-Brittain, N.L., 2004. The hardness of cercopithecine foods: implications for the critical function of enamel thickness in exploiting fallback foods. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 125, 363–368.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Leakey, L.S.B., Tobias, P.V., Napier, J.R., 1964. New species of genus Homo from Olduvai Gorge. Nature 202, 7–9.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Lee, R.B., DeVore, I., 1968. Man the Hunter. Aldine, Chicago, ILGoogle Scholar
  29. Leonard, W.R., Robertson, M.L., 1992. Nutritional requirements and human evolution - a bioenergetics model. American Journal of Human Biology 4, 179–195.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Leonard, W.R., Robertson, M.L., 1994. Evolutionary perspectives on human nutrition: the infl uence of brain and body size on diet and metabolism. American Journal of Human Biology 6, 77–88.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Linton, S., 1971. Woman the gatherer: male bias in anthropology. In: Jacobs, S. E. (Ed), Women in Cross-Cultural Perspective: a Preliminary Sourcebook. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, IL, pp. 9–21.Google Scholar
  32. Lucas, P.W., 2004. Dental Functional Morphology: How Teeth Work. Cambridge University Press, New York.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Lucas, P.W., Peters, C.R, 2000. Function of postcanine tooth shape in mammals. In: Teaford, M.F., Smith, M.M., Ferguson, M.W.J. (Eds), Development, Function, and Evolution of Teeth. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 282–289.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Mann, A.E., 1972. Hominid and cultural origins. Man 7, 379–386.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Meldrum, D.J., Kay, R.F., 1997. Nuciruptor rubricae, a new pitheciin seed predator from the Miocene of Colombia. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 102, 407–427.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Milton, K., 1987. Primate diets and gut morphology: implications for hominid evolution. In: Harris, M., Ross, E.B. (Eds), Food and Evolution: Toward a Theory of Human Food Habits. Temple University Press, Philadelphia, PA, pp. 93–115Google Scholar
  37. M'Kirera, F., Ungar, P.S., 2003. Occlusal relief changes with molar wear in Pan troglodytes troglodytes and Gorilla gorilla gorilla. American Journal of Primatology 60, 31–41.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. O'Connell, J.F., Hawkes, K., Jones, N.G.B., 1999. Grandmothering and the evolution of Homo erectus. Journal of Human Evolution 36, 461–485.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Panger, M.A., Brooks, A.S., Richmond, B.G., Wood, B., 2002. Older than the Oldowan? Rethinking the emergence of hominin tool use. Evolutionary Anthropology 11, 235–245.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Potts, R., 1983. Foraging for faunal resources by early hominids. In: Clutton-Brock, J., Grigson, C. (Eds), Animals and Archaeology, Volume 1. British Archaeological Reports, London, pp. 51–62.Google Scholar
  41. Potts, R., 1998. Variability selection in hominid evolution. Evolutionary Anthropology 7, 81–96.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Roche, H., Blumenschine, R.J., Shea, J., 2009. Origins and adaptations of early Homo: what archeology tells us. In: Grine, F.E., Fleagle, J.G., Leakey, R.E. (Eds), The First Humans: Origin and Early Evolution of the genus Homo. Springer, Dordrecht, pp. 135–147.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Rogers, M.J., Harris, J.W.K., Feibel, C.S., 1994. Changing patterns of land use by Plio-Pleistocene hominids in the Lake Turkana Basin. Journal of Human Evolution 27, 139–158.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Schick, K. D., Toth, N., 1993. Making Silent Stones Speak. Orion Books, Phoenix.Google Scholar
  45. Scott, E.C., 1979. Dental wear scoring technique. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 51, 213–217.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Scott, R.S., Ungar, P.S., Bergstrom, T.S., Brown, C.A., Grine, F.E., Teaford, M.F., Walker, A., 2005. Dental microwear texture analysis refl ects diets of living primates and fossil hominins. Nature 436, 693–695.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Scott, R.S., Ungar, P.S., Bergstrom, T.S., Brown, C.A., Childs, B.E., Teaford, M.F., Walker, A., 2006. Dental microwear texture analysis: technical considerations. Journal of Human Evolution 51, 339–349.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Semaw, S., Renne, P., Harris, J.W.K., Feibel, C.S., Bernor, R.L., Fesseha, N., Mowbray, K., 1–2 3–1997. 2.5-million-year-old stone tools from Gona, Ethiopia. Nature 385, 333–336.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Shipman, P., 1983. Early hominid lifestyle: Hunting and gathering or foraging and scavenging? In: Clutton-Brock, J., Grigson, C. (Eds), Animals and Archeology, Volume 1. British Archeological Reports, London, pp. 31–50.Google Scholar
  50. Spears, I.R., Crompton, R.H., 1996. The mechanical signifi cance of the occlusal geometry of great ape molars in food breakdown. Journal of Human Evolution 31, 517–535.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Speth, J.D., 1989. Early hominid hunting and scavenging: the role of meat as an energy source. Journal of Human Evolution 18, 329–343.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Stanford, C. B., 2001. A comparison of social meat-foraging by chimpanzees and human foragers. In: Stanford, C. B., Bunn, H. T. (Eds), Meat-Eating and Human Evolution. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 122–140.Google Scholar
  53. Strait, D.S., Grine, F.E., 2001. The systematics of Australopithecus garhi. Ludus Vitalis 9, 109– 135.Google Scholar
  54. Teaford, M.F., 1988. A review of dental microwear and diet in modern mammals. Scanning Microscopy 2, 1149–1166.Google Scholar
  55. Teaford, M.F., Runestad, J.A., 1992. Dental microwear and diet in Venezuelan primates. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 88, 347–364.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Teaford, M.F., Ungar, P.S., Grine, F.E., 2002. Paleontological evidence for the diets of African Plio-Pleistocene hominins with special reference to early Homo. In: Ungar, P.S., Teaford, M.F. (Eds), Human Diet: its Origin and Evolution. Bergin and Garvey, Westport, CT, pp. 143–166.Google Scholar
  57. Ungar, P.S., 2004. Dental topography and diets of Australopithecus afa-rensis and early Homo. Journal of Human Evolution 46, 605–622.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Ungar, P.S., 2005. Dental evidence for the diets of fossil primates from Rudabánya, northeastern Hungary with comments on extant primate analogs and “noncompetitive” sympatry. Paleontographica Italica 90, 97–111.Google Scholar
  59. Ungar, P.S., 2007a. Dental functional morphology: the known, the unknown and the unknowable. In: Ungar, P.S. (Ed), Early Hominin Diets: The Known, the Unknown and the Unknowable. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 39–55.Google Scholar
  60. Ungar, P.S., 2007b. Dental topography and human evolution: with comments on the diets of Australopithecus africanus and Paranthropusrobustus. In: Bailey, S., Hublin, J.J. (Eds), Dental Perspectives on Human Evolution: State of the Art Research in Dental Anthropology. Springer, New York, pp. 321–344.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Ungar, P.S., 2007c. Limits to knowledge on the evolution of hominin diet. In: Ungar, P.S. (Ed), Early Hominin Diets: the Known, the Unknown and the Unknowable. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 395–408.Google Scholar
  62. Ungar, P.S., M'Kirera, F., 2003. A solution to the worn tooth conundrum in primate functional anatomy. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 100, 3874–3877.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Ungar, P.S., Williamson, M., 2000. Exploring the effects of tooth wear on functional morphology: a preliminary study using dental topographic analysis. Paleontologia Electronica 3, 18 pp.Google Scholar
  64. Ungar, P.S., Brown, C.A., Bergstrom, T.S., Walkers, A., 2003. Quantifi cation of dental microwear by tandem scanning confocal microscopy and scale-sensitive fractal analyses. Scanning 25, 185–193.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Ungar, P.S., Grine, F.E., Teaford, M.F., 2006a. Diet in early Homo: a review of the evidence and a new model of adaptive versatility. Annual Reviews of Anthropology 35, 209–228.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Ungar, P.S., Grine, F.E., Teaford, M.F., El Zaatari, S., 2006b. Dental microwear and diets of African early Homo. Journal of Human Evolution 50, 78–95.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Ungar, P.S., Scott, R.S., Scott, J.R., Teaford, M.F., 2007. Dental microwear analysis: historical perspectives and new approaches. In: Irish, J.D., Nelson, G.C. (Eds), Dental Anthropology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 389–425.Google Scholar
  68. Walker, A., 1984. Mechanisms of honing in the male baboon canine. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 65, 47–60.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Washburn, S. L., 1963. Behavior and human evolution. In: Washburn, S.L. (Ed), Classifi cation and Human Evolution. Aldine, Chicago, IL, pp. 190–203.Google Scholar
  70. Wolpoff, M.H., 1973. Posterior tooth size, body size, and diet in South African gracile australopithecines. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 39, 375–393.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Wood, B.A., 1991. Hominid Cranial Remains. Koobi Fora Research Project, Volume 4. Clarendon Press, Oxford.Google Scholar
  72. Wood, B.A., Strait, D.S., 2004. Patterns of resource use in early Homo and Paranthropus. Journal of Human Evolution 46, 119–162.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Wood, B.A., Van Noten, F.L., 1986. Preliminary observations on the BK 8518 mandible from Baringo, Kenya. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 69, 117–127.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Wrangham, R.W., 2005. The Delta Hypothesis: hominoid ecology and hominin origins. In: Lieberman, D.E, Smith, R.J., Kelley, J. (Eds), Interpreting the Past: Essays on Human, Primate and Mammal Evolution in Honor of David Pilbeam. Brill Academic Publishers, Boston, MA, pp. 231–242.Google Scholar
  75. Wrangham, R.W., Jones, J.H., Laden, G., Pilbeam, D., Conklin-Brittain, N., 1999. The raw and the stolen: cooking and the ecology of human origins. Current Anthropology 40, 567–594.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Zihlman, A. and Tanner, N. M., 1978. Gathering and hominid adaptation. In: Tiger, L., Fowler, H.T. (Eds), Female Hierarchies. Beresford Food Service, Chicago, IL, pp. 163–194.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • Peter S. Ungar
    • 1
  • Robert S. Scott
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of ArkansasFayettevilleUSA
  2. 2.Department of AnthropologyRutgers University, The State University of New JerseyNew BrunswickUSA

Personalised recommendations