New twist from teeth

Peter Ungar, Fred Grine and Mark Teaford recently reported in PLoS ONE on their results of studying the microwear on Australopithecus boisei molars. Their study showed that the microwear differs from that of A. robustus, arguably boisei‘s South African counterpart, and from A. africanus. Here’s the abstract:

The Plio-Pleistocene hominin Paranthropus boisei had enormous, flat, thickly enameled cheek teeth, a robust cranium and mandible, and inferred massive, powerful chewing muscles. This specialized morphology, which earned P. boisei the nickname “Nutcracker Man”, suggests that this hominin could have consumed very mechanically challenging foods. It has been recently argued, however, that specialized hominin morphology may indicate adaptations for the consumption of occasional fallback foods rather than preferred resources. Dental microwear offers a potential means by which to test this hypothesis in that it reflects actual use rather than genetic adaptation. High microwear surface texture complexity and anisotropy in extant primates can be associated with the consumption of exceptionally hard and tough foods respectively. Here we present the first quantitative analysis of dental microwear for P. boisei. Seven specimens examined preserved unobscured antemortem molar microwear. These all show relatively low complexity and anisotropy values. This suggests that none of the individuals consumed especially hard or tough foods in the days before they died. The apparent discrepancy between microwear and functional anatomy is consistent with the idea that P. boisei presents a hominin example of Liem’s Paradox, wherein a highly derived morphology need not reflect a specialized diet.

Note that they refer to boisei and robustus as “Paranthropus,” whereas I (and others) refer to them as Australopithecus. A. boisei and robustus are two “robust” australopithecines, described as such because their skulls and teeth suggest these guys were adapted for prolonged, powerful bouts of mastication (it means chewing, get your mind out of the gutter). Some people argue that these two taxa form a monophyletic group; that is, they share a last common ancestor that is not shared by any other taxon. If this is the case, the generic distinction (Paranthropus) can be made, separating them from the other australopithecines. Though I tend to lump groups, I really think that these taxa do not form a monophyletic group, that they have different ancestors (that their superficially similar masticatory apparati were independently evolved), and that they should stay in the genus Australopithecus. Right now, this issue (wherein I am very interested) has yet to be resolved.

Anywho, what’s important here is that the two robust austrlopithecines differ in their microwear patterns, which suggests that the two subsisted on different diets. Similarly, Wood and Constantino (2007) report that the stable carbon isotope signal from boisei (yet unpublished, but communicated to them personally by Matt Sponheimer) is different from the A. robustus and africanus. Together, these two data indicate that the robust australopitheciens (not to speak about A. aethiopicus…) were quite different in their diets (and possibly lifestyles?). Interestingly, A. robustus‘s molar microwear and stable isotope signals are very similar to that of A. africanus, who was present in the same regions as robustus but a bit earlier in time. This bolsters the scenario in which A. robustus is evolved from A. africanus, or something like it. Could this suggest also that A. boisei is not descendant from A. africanus? Or, is it simply that there were different foods available in the Plio-Pleistocene of South and East Africa?

Another important note that the authors bring up is the fact that of the seven specimens examined, none appeared to have eaten tough or hard foods that might necessitate the use of their (we assume) powerful masticatory muscles. Now why the hell would they have such a derived face, jaws and teeth if they were not eating things that would have required such an apparatus? One proposed scenario about the “hyper-robust” masticatory apparatus of A. boisei is that it is an adaptation for only the toughest of times, when survival might have hinged upon the ability to process and ingest the lowest quality (and hardest to eat) foods. Ungar et al.’s data suggest that this may well be the case, that the powerful masticatory apparatus came in handy only very rarely, and so the dietary signal from microwear reflects what these critters usually ate (and preferred to eat).

If this is really the case, then it might suggest that the robust face of boisei was almost completely genetically acquired, that epigenetic factors did not contribute greatly to produce boisei‘s face. This could be important for teasing out criteria (i.e. skeletal, craniofacial traits) useful in phylogenetic reconstruction. For example, it could be that certain robust features of boisei‘s face indicate a shared genetic ancestry, whereas those of robustus were more epigenetic in nature, acquired over a lifetime of experiencing high chewing forces. Contrariwise, these traits might be the result of these two taxa’s shared ancestry.

Either way, this paper presents interesting new information about the most bizarre hominin evolutionary dead-end, the robust australopithecines.


Ungar PS, Grine FE, and Teaford MF. 2008. Dental Microwear and Diet of the Plio-Pleistocene Hominin Paranthropus boisei. PLoS ONE 3(4):e2044.

Wood B, and Constantino P. 2007. Paranthropus boisei: Fifty years of evidence and analysis. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 134(S45):106-132.


One thought on “New twist from teeth

  1. Pingback: Dietary divergence of robust australopithecines | Lawn Chair Anthropology

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