GO IN DEPTH

Hominid Diet

Hominid Diet Photograph by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net). [CC-by-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Between one and two million years ago, several different groups of ape-men roamed the plains of Africa. The only clues we have as to how they lived and evolved come from fossils they left behind. This Science Update tells us what some of those fossils reveal about the unusual diet of early hominids.


Transcript

Ancient finger food. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

More than one and a half million years ago, ape-men stalked dinner in the South African plains. No one's certain what these hominids ate, but new research reveals they may have had a taste for termites.

Lucinda Backwell is at the University of Witwatersand in South Africa. She was part of a team that identified over a hundred fountain-pen sized fossils as tools for breaking into termite mounds.

Backwell:
I did all these comparative studies, and I looked at what hyenas do to bones, what wind does to bone, what water erosion does, all these different things. And I said, "What about digging in termite mounds?" And we took out bone tools, and we did some experiments, and within five minutes, we had matched the wear pattern.

She says the termites could have been a valuable source of nutrition for ancient hominids.

Backwell:
They are just full of fat and protein, so they're a wonderful resource. But the interesting thing is that termites are only available in the summer after the rains because that's when they come out of the colony, otherwise it's a sealed structure. But these hominids realized that if they had an implement to break down that barrier, there was a food resource that they could tap all year round.

And Backwell says these special tools are the first direct evidence of what hominids used for food.

For the American Association for the Advancement of Science, I'm Bob Hirshon.


Making Sense of the Research

Until now, there has been much speculation about the diet of early humans, but little direct evidence. Archaeologists use clues such as the pattern of scratches on the hominids' teeth or the discovery of tools or animal bones near campfires to hypothesize about what early humans actually ate. But thanks to a recent discovery, researchers are finally getting a glimpse into the lives of early humans.

A small bone tool, thought to be 1-1.8 million years old, piqued the interest of a team of archaeologists. A large number of striations led researchers to suspect that the tool was used to dig up tubers such as cassava, turnips, and potatoes. However, one researcher's hands-on experimentation led to a remarkable discovery that challenged this assumption. Her story helped us understand how archaeologists go about their daily research, and illustrated the fact that scientific findings are constantly being challenged by new information and new discoveries.

Now try to answer the following questions:

  1. What is the significance of this find?
  2. What information does it offer that has not been verified before?
  3. What possible uses did the archaeologists conclude the tools might have had? What was the tool actually used for?
  4. How did researchers go about proving the actual use of the tool?
  5. What does this finding reveal about hominids?

For Educators

Designed for grades 9-12, the Science NetLinks lesson titled Comparing Species through the Fossil Record helps students understand how physical features noted in the fossil record provide clues about the evolution of species.

Becoming Human, an online documentary, is an exciting and comprehensive resource for exploring human evolution.


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