Dental microwear and stable isotopes inform the paleoecology of extinct hominins

Frederick E. Grine, Matt Sponheimer, Peter S. Ungar, Julia Lee-Thorp, Mark F. Teaford

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

81 Scopus citations


Determining the diet of an extinct species is paramount in any attempt to reconstruct its paleoecology. Because the distribution and mechanical properties of food items may impact postcranial, cranial, mandibular, and dental morphologies related to their procurement, ingestion, and mastication, these anatomical attributes have been studied intensively. However, while mechanical environments influence skeletal and dental features, it is not clear to what extent they dictate particular morphologies. Although biomechanical explanations have been widely applied to extinct hominins in attempts to retrodict dietary proclivities, morphology may say as much about what they were capable of eating, and perhaps more about phylogenetic history, than about the nature of the diet. Anatomical attributes may establish boundary limits, but direct evidence left by the foods that were actually (rather than hypothetically) consumed is required to reconstruct diet. Dental microwear and the stable light isotope chemistry of tooth enamel provide such evidence, and are especially powerful when used in tandem. We review the foundations for microwear and biogeochemistry in diet reconstruction, and discuss this evidence for six early hominin species (Ardipithecus ramidus, Australopithecus anamensis, Au. afarensis, Au. africanus, Paranthropus robustus, and P. boisei). The dietary signals derived from microwear and isotope chemistry are sometimes at odds with inferences from biomechanical approaches, a potentially disquieting conundrum that is particularly evident for several species. Am J Phys Anthropol 148:285-317, 2012. © 2012 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)285-317
Number of pages33
JournalAmerican journal of physical anthropology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2012
Externally publishedYes


  • Ardipithecus ramidus
  • Australopithecus afarensis
  • Australopithecus africanus
  • Australopithecus anamensis
  • Paranthropus boisei
  • Paranthropus robustus
  • carbon isotopes
  • diet
  • dietary adaptation
  • occlusal microwear
  • oxygen isotopes
  • paleoecology
  • teeth
  • trace elements

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anatomy
  • Anthropology


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