18 Hominin Paleodiets: The Contribution of Stable Isotopes

  • Matt Sponheimer
  • Julia Lee-Thorp
Reference work entry


Stable isotope ratio analysis is now regularly used to investigate early hominin diets based on the principle that “you are what you eat.” Analysis of collagen from Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans prior to 20 ka has shown them to be significantly enriched in 15N compared to contemporaneous carnivores and herbivores. This suggests that animal foods were a dominant component of their diets, although it must be borne in mind that collagen δ15N can underemphasize the importance of plant foods. Carbon isotope analysis of the enamel mineral of South African australopiths and early Homo has revealed that these taxa consumed ∼30% C4 foods such as tropical grasses, sedges, or animals that ate these foods. Moreover, the australopiths are characterized by remarkably variable δ13C values. Chimpanzees, in contrast, are nearly pure C3 consumers even in environments with abundant C4 vegetation. These data suggest that when confronted with increasingly open areas, chimpanzees continue to exploit the foods that are most abundant in forest environments, whereas australopiths utilized novel C4 resources in addition to forest foods.


Stable Isotope Stable Isotope Analysis Animal Food Bone Collagen Dietary Breadth 
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© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg New York 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • Matt Sponheimer
  • Julia Lee-Thorp

There are no affiliations available

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