Home » Human evolution, News » Researchers: “Nutcracker Man” mainly ate grass, it turns out

Researchers: “Nutcracker Man” mainly ate grass, it turns out

Formerly "Nutcracker Man"?/University of Colorado

Yeah, one of those types. Alfalfa Sprouts Man. Still extant, unfortunately, in any caf infested by health nuts.

From “New Technologies Challenge Old Ideas About Early Hominid Diets (ScienceDaily, Oct. 14, 2011), we learn:

By analyzing microscopic pits and scratches on hominid teeth, as well as stable isotopes of carbon found in teeth, researchers are getting a very different picture of the diet habitats of early hominids than that painted by the physical structure of the skull, jawbones and teeth. While some early hominids sported powerful jaws and large molars — including Paranthropus boisei, dubbed “Nutcracker Man” — they may have cracked nuts rarely if at all, said CU-Boulder anthropology Professor Matt Sponheimer, study co-author.

Well, it’s awful hard on the teeth, and there were no dentists back then.

The results for teeth from Paranthropus boisei, published earlier this year, indicated they were eating foods from the so-called C4 photosynthetic pathway, which points to consumption of grasses and sedges.

Like we said.

The analysis stands in contrast to our closest human relatives like chimpanzees and gorillas that eat foods from the so-called C3 synthetic pathway pointing to a diet that included trees, shrubs and bushes.

Crikey! Can we see that grass menu again?

“The bottom line is that our old answers about hominid diets are no longer sufficient, and we really need to start looking in directions that would have been considered crazy even a decade ago,” Sponheimer said. “We also see much more evidence of dietary variability among our hominid kin than was previously appreciated. Consequently, the whole notion of hominid diet is really problematic, as different species may have consumed fundamentally different things.”

Some of us have wondered why so little attention is given to ancient humans eating fish. Fish can often be trapped quite simply, and shellfish can often merely be gathered. And it’s equal opportunity, as between men, women, and children.

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2 Responses to Researchers: “Nutcracker Man” mainly ate grass, it turns out

  1. Hi News,

    I have an answer to your question about prehistoric people engaging in fishing. You asked:

    Some of us have wondered why so little attention is given to ancient humans eating fish. Fish can often be trapped quite simply, and shellfish can often merely be gathered. And it’s equal opportunity, as between men, women, and children.

    According to recent research, fishing goes back at least 750,000 years, to the time of Homo erectus. Evidence of fishing comes from an archaeological site in Israel, according to a report from National Geographic, entitled, Homo erectus invented “modern living”? (January 12, 2010). Here’s an excerpt:

    It’s long been thought that so-called modern human behavior first arose during the middle Stone Age, in “modern” humans — Homo sapiens.

    But a new study suggests modern living may have originated roughly 500,000 years earlier — courtesy of one of our hairy, heavy-browed ancestor species.

    At the prehistoric Gesher Benot Ya’aqov site in northern Israel, researchers have found the earliest known evidence of social organization, communication, and divided living and working spaces — all considered hallmarks of modern human behavior.

    The former hunter-gatherer encampment dates back as far as 750,000 years ago, and must have been built by Homo erectus or another ancestral human species, archaeologists say. Homo sapiens — our own species — emerged only about a couple hundred thousand years ago, fossil record suggest.

    At the site, researchers found artifacts including hand axes, chopping tools, scrapers, hammers and awls, animal bones, and botanical remains buried in distinct areas.

    “Different tasks” — from nut processing to seafood preparation — “were taking place in different locations in the site,” said archaeologist Naama Goren-Inbar, who led the excavation.

    “The modification of basalt tools was done in proximity to the fireplace but, on the other hand, flint [sharpening] was done on the other end of the site in association with where we found a lot of fish teeth,” said Goren-Inbar, of Hebrew University’s Institute of Archaeology in Mount Scopus, Israel…

    Camp Life

    Based on their finds and evidence from other sites and groups, the researchers assume there was a division of labor at Gesher Benot Ya’aqov.

    A visitor stumbling upon the Gesher Benot Ya’aqov encampment might have found women gathering nuts and processing small animals like fish, crabs, and turtles close to the communal hearth, Goren-Inbar speculated, based on ethnographic analogies and comparisons.

    The men would be off hunting or situated in farther corners of the site butchering larger game, including a long-extinct elephant species, she suggests.

    Basalt, limestone, and flint toolmaking would also be taking place in various locations around the encampment. And some people would just be chowing down on roasted nuts — still a local staple — or fish.

    “One of the highlights of our report is that people ate fish more than 750,000 years ago,” Goren-Inbar said.

    The encampment, located on an ancient lakeshore, holds some of the earliest evidence of fish eating ever found, according to the study, published in the journal Science. Bones at the site suggest a now extinct, yard-long (meter-long) carp species was a common meal, for example.

    Maybe Homo erectus was cleverer than we think. Personally I think he was a rational creature like ourselves.

  2. Thanks, vjtorley. However intelligent they were, or otherwise, it makes sense that they ate fish and shellfish for the reasons given: Catching them is not usually dangerous and the task can be assumed by either sex, and quickly taught to children.

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