Strontium isotope evidence for landscape use by early hominins

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Ranging and residence patterns among early hominins have been indirectly inferred from morphology1, 2, stone-tool sourcing3, referential models4, 5 and phylogenetic models6, 7, 8. However, the highly uncertain nature of such reconstructions limits our understanding of early hominin ecology, biology, social structure and evolution. We investigated landscape use in Australopithecus africanus and Paranthropus robustus from the Sterkfontein and Swartkrans cave sites in South Africa using strontium isotope analysis, a method that can help to identify the geological substrate on which an animal lived during tooth mineralization. Here we show that a higher proportion of small hominins than large hominins had non-local strontium isotope compositions. Given the relatively high levels of sexual dimorphism in early hominins, the smaller teeth are likely to represent female individuals, thus indicating that females were more likely than males to disperse from their natal groups. This is similar to the dispersal pattern found in chimpanzees9, bonobos10 and many human groups11, but dissimilar from that of most gorillas and other primates12. The small proportion of demonstrably non-local large hominin individuals could indicate that male australopiths had relatively small home ranges, or that they preferred dolomitic landscapes.

At a glance


  1. Map of Sterkfontein Valley showing the locations of Sterkfontein
and Swartkrans, geological zones and sampling areas.
    Figure 1: Map of Sterkfontein Valley showing the locations of Sterkfontein and Swartkrans, geological zones and sampling areas.

    Geological zones are represented by different colours and their ranges of biologically available 87Sr/86Sr are labelled. Sampling localities for biologically available 87Sr/86Sr are shown as red circles. The figure is drawn on the basis of 1:250,000 maps published by the Geological Survey, Republic of South Africa, 1981. One sampling locality for Bushveld gabbro and two for Black Reef quartzite are not shown. Topographic relief in the area is mostly gentle and geological substrates adjacent to the Malmani dolomite are readily accessible on foot.

  2. Strontium isotope ratios of australopith tooth enamel and biologically
available 87Sr/86Sr ratios across the Sterkfontein
    Figure 2: Strontium isotope ratios of australopith tooth enamel and biologically available 87Sr/86Sr ratios across the Sterkfontein Valley.

    Symbols represent the mean 87Sr/86Sr ratio of multiple laser scans made on each tooth (white, small tooth; black, large tooth; circle, canine; square, third molar). Whiskers show the intra-tooth range of laser scans. Internal (analytical) error for each laser scan was <0.0003 (2σ). Biologically available 87Sr/86Sr ratios are based on the minimum to maximum 87Sr/86Sr ratios of plants collected on each geological substrate. Ranges for Malmani dolomite, Hekpoort andesite/basalt, Witwatersrand (Wits) quartzite, Timeball Hill (TH) shale and Bushveld gabbro extend beyond the chart scale. Dasp,Daspoort quartzite; fm, formation.

  3. Proportions of non-local individuals among the fossil specimens.
    Figure 3: Proportions of non-local individuals among the fossil specimens.

    Bars represent proportions of fossil specimens for which the 87Sr/86Sr ratio falls outside the range of biologically available 87Sr/86Sr for the Malmani dolomite. The black bars include all non-local specimens of each group; black bars plus white areas indicate the proportions of non-local individuals when only hominin specimens less than or more than one standard deviation from mean tooth size for that category of tooth are considered (Supplementary Fig. 2 and Supplementary Discussion).

Change history

Corrected online 29 June 2011
Figure 2 has been corrected online in the HTML and the PDF versions; please see the corresponding Corrigendum.


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Author information


  1. Department of Human Evolution, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Deutscher Platz 6, 04103 Leipzig, Germany

    • Sandi R. Copeland,
    • Vaughan Grimes &
    • Michael P. Richards
  2. Department of Anthropology, University of Colorado at Boulder, 233 UCB, Boulder, Colorado 80309, USA

    • Sandi R. Copeland &
    • Matt Sponheimer
  3. Department of Anthropology, Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas 77843-4352, USA

    • Darryl J. de Ruiter
  4. Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art, Oxford University, Oxford OX1 3QY, UK

    • Julia A. Lee-Thorp
  5. AEON EarthLAB, Department of Geological Sciences, University of Cape Town, Rondebosch 7701, South Africa

    • Julia A. Lee-Thorp &
    • Petrus J. le Roux
  6. Clinic for Zoo Animals, Exotic Pets and Wildlife, Vetsuisse Faculty, University of Zurich, Winterthurerstrasse 260, 8057 Zurich, Switzerland

    • Daryl Codron
  7. Department of Archaeology, Memorial University, St John’s, Newfoundland A1C 5S7, Canada

    • Vaughan Grimes
  8. Department of Anthropology, University of British Columbia, 6303 NW Marine Drive, Vancouver, British Columbia V6T 1Z1, Canada

    • Michael P. Richards


M.S. and J.A.L.-T. conceived the project. S.R.C., M.S., D.J.d.R., J.A.L.-T. and D.C. conducted fieldwork. D.J.d.R. chose hominin tooth specimens and made occlusal measurements. S.R.C., D.J.d.R., J.A.L.-T. and P.J.l.R. performed laser ablation MC-ICP-MS analyses. S.R.C. and V.G. performed solution MC-ICP-MS analyses. M.P.R. directed analyses at MPI-EVA. S.R.C., M.S., D.J.d.R. and D.C. wrote the manuscript. All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript. M.S. was principal investigator for the project.

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  1. Supplementary Information (578K)

    This file contains a Supplementary Discussion, Supplementary Figures 1-2 with legends, Supplementary Tables 1-7 and additional references.

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