Eats barks leaves nuts and fruits

English: The Malapa site valley, looking North...
The Malapa valley South Africa, where Australopithecus sediba was found. (Credit: Lee R. Berger via Wikipedia)

The first stone tools and bones that had been cut by them, found in rocks  dated at 2.5-2.6 Ma in the Bouri area of Ethiopia’s Afar Depression, have generally been taken as a sign that their invention was connected with more easily accessing meat for food. A corollary of this idea is that it was the introduction of meat into the hominin diet that helped ‘fuel’ the growth of their brains: meat-tools-brain interrelated in an evolutionary sense. There is a spatial link between such  tools and fossils of Australopithecus, but direct attribution of the tools to these australopithecines  has not been widely accepted. It is more generally accepted that a link to tools can be made with Homo habilis, but they lived, at the earliest, 200 to 300 ka later. The wear patterns on their teeth and association with animal bones bearing cut marks has been taken to indicate that at least part of their diet was meat.

Another approach to diet is to analyse the proportions of stable carbon isotopes (13C and 12C) in tooth enamel, which can discriminate between the ultimate plant source in their diet, i.e. between grasses that use  the C4 photosynthetic pathway and the C3 version used by woody and herbaceous plants. The isotopic ‘signature’ of plants is also passed on to animals, depending on what vegetation they eat, and so up the food chain to predators and the scavengers that depend on their leavings. South African Au. africanus of around 2.5 Ma ago show a definite  C4 preference as do local paranthropoids (‘robust’ australopithecine-like creatures) from around 1.8 Ma. The early humans H. habilis and H. ergaster also show the C4 isotopic proportions, which in both cases may be from a meaty diet or from a vegetarian component. The main point from these similar results, whatever the plant-meat proportions being consumed, is that these hominins were very different from chimpanzees in their eating habits, and probably as regards their habitats: savannah rather than woodlands respectively.

There are no reports of C-isotope research on Au. garhi teeth, but results from 2 Ma old Au. sediba found in South Africa have just been published (Henry, A.G and 8 others 2012. The diet of Australopithecus sediba, Nature, v. 487, p. 90-93) along with plant materials from dental plaque and tooth wear patterns. Au. sediba is notable for its very modern-looking hands and other ‘advanced’ features. Some believe it to have been closer to the direct line of human descent than a number of other hominin species, including the poor quality remains of H. habilis. So, did sediba eat meat? The forensic evidence suggests something unexpected. The C-isotope data points towards food dominated by C3 plants – less grasses and sedges, and more shrubbery. Tooth wear suggests bark was eaten, while plant remains from plaque indicate fruit leaves and wood. This is a feeding pattern more like that of chimpanzees than Homo species, Au. africanus and the paranthropoids  that are roughly contemporary with Au. sediba. Ecological analysis of the sediments which buried the hominin specimens suggest a seasonal climate and savannah biome with abundant C4 plants that supported grazing herds, mixed with possibly some denser woodland along drainages. This is a pattern familiar from living savannah chimpanzee bands.

English: The hand and forearm of Australopithe...
The hand and forearm of Australopithecus sediba (Credit: Peter Schmid, courtesy Lee R. Berger via Wikipedia)

So, despite being an ‘advanced’ hominin, by carrying clear signs of foods that were not consumed by meaty potential prey animals Au. sediba probably was not a meat eater. Yet species with strong C4 ‘signatures’ cannot be assigned to carnivory on C-isotope  evidence alone. One has to decide from other data, such as tooth-wear and plaque, whether this or that hominin ate grasses, those that clearly did not becoming candidates for dominantly meat-eating. How to detect a tool-using species with a mixed diet, akin to more modern humans, is a tough nut to crack.