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Studies give new clues to ancient diets

Oct. 13, 2011 at 6:37 PM

BOULDER, Colo., Oct. 13 (UPI) -- U.S. researchers using new technologies to examine early human fossils say their findings challenge long-held assumptions about what our ancestors ate.

Scientists at the University of Colorado at Boulder have analyzed microscopic pits and scratches on ancient teeth, as well as stable isotopes of carbon found in them, to study the diets of early hominids, a university release said Thursday.

The findings give a far different picture of the dietary habits of early hominids than had long been assumed from the physical structure of the skull, jawbones and teeth, CU-Boulder anthropologist Matt Sponheimer said.

The powerful jaws and large molars of one early hominid, Paranthropus boisei, had led to researchers to nickname him "Nutcracker Man," but Sponheimer said his finding show Paranthropus was essentially feeding on grasses and sedges rather than soft fruits or nuts preferred by chimpanzees.

"We can now be sure that Paranthropus boisei ate foods that no self-respecting chimpanzee would stomach in quantity," Sponheimer said. "It is also clear that our previous notions of this group's diet were grossly oversimplified at best, and absolutely backward at worst."

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