Study: Early humans had varied diets

Aug. 8, 2012 at 6:02 PM
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JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, Aug. 8 (UPI) -- Scientists reconstructing dietary preferences of early hominins in South Africa say our human ancestors had a more variable diet than previously thought.

South African and European researchers have studied the diet and home ranges of early hominins belonging to three different genera, Australopithecus, Paranthropus and Homo, discovered at sites in South Africa.

Australopithecus existed before the other two genera evolved about 2 million years ago.

An analysis of fossil teeth showed Australopithecus, a predecessor of early Homo, had a more varied diet than Homo or the distant human relative known as Paranthropus.

Paranthropus had a primarily herbivorous-like diet, while Homo had a greater consumption of meat, said Francis Thackeray, Director of the Institute for Human Evolution at University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

The greater consumption of meat in the diet of early forms of Homo could have contributed to the increase in brain size in this genus, he said.

Australopithecus probably ate both meat and the leaves and fruits of woody plants, researchers said, although the composition of their diet may have varied seasonally.

All the hominids lived in the same general area, researchers said, with Australopithecines being generalists who gave up their broad niche to Paranthropus and Homo, both being more specialized than their common ancestor.

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