That’s right. Scientists have found that one of our early ancestors, the Australopithecus sediba, South African species from two million years ago, used to have an unique diet of forest fruits and other woodland plants. Basically, all the other hominids, we currently know of, focused more on grasses and sedges. This makes A. sediba a truly unique relative in the evolutionary human tree.
The first fossils of Australopithecus sediba, discovered in South Africa in 2008, were hailed as a remarkable discovery. The hominid was pretty short, even by early human species standards, had long arms, could walk on two legs, despite most likely it still preferred climbing trees and had a very small brain. What’s the position of the Australopithecus sediba in the human lineage, though?
“The question is, is this a great great grandad or grandma or is it a cousin?
“They were eating bark and woody substances, which is quite a unique dietary mechanism; it hasn’t been reported for any other human relative before,” said Dr Louise Humphrey of the palaeontology department at London’s Natural History Museum.
Half-ape/half-human, the Australopithecus sediba was hailed as the missing link, but even now researchers are analyzing its fossils and genetic markup.
These findings were made after scientists analyzed the A. sediba diet by zapping fossilized teeth, from two individuals, with a laser. This allowed the researchers to sample carbon from the enamel of teeth, so researchers can pinpoint which types of plants the carbon comes from. Results showed that the A. sediba consumed two groups of plants: so-called “C3” plants like trees, shrubs and bushes, which were preferred by the South African hominid and “C4” plants like grasses and sedges consumed by many other early hominids.
“It is an important finding because diet is one of the fundamental aspects of an animal, one that drives its behavior and ecological niche. As environments change over time because of shifting climates, animals are generally forced to either move or to adapt to their new surroundings,” said Paul Sandberg of the University of Colorado Boulder, a co-author of the new study.
Hey buddy, you got some bark between your teeth.
Remarkably, the researchers also found fossilized particles of plant tissue known as phytoliths trapped in ancient tooth tarter. A unique aspect of the project was the analysis of microscopic, fossilized particles of plant tissue known as phytoliths trapped in ancient tooth tarter.
“The fact that these phytoliths are preserved in the teeth of two-million-year-old hominids is remarkable and speaks to the amazing preservation at the site,” said Sandberg. “The phytolith data suggest the A. sediba individuals were avoiding the grasses growing in open grasslands that were abundant in the region at the time.”
The findings were reported in the journal Nature.