Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Strontium isotope evidence for landscape use by early hominins

A Corrigendum to this article was published on 29 June 2011

This article has been updated


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.

Your institute does not have access to this article

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Map of Sterkfontein Valley showing the locations of Sterkfontein and Swartkrans, geological zones and sampling areas.
Figure 2: Strontium isotope ratios of australopith tooth enamel and biologically available 87 Sr/ 86 Sr ratios across the Sterkfontein Valley.
Figure 3: Proportions of non-local individuals among the fossil specimens.

Change history

  • 29 June 2011

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


  1. Antón, S. C., Leonard, W. R. & Robertson, M. An ecomorphological model of the initial hominid dispersal from Africa. J. Hum. Evol. 43, 773–785 (2002)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Wheeler, P. E. The thermoregulatory advantages of large body size for hominids foraging in savanna environments. J. Hum. Evol. 23, 351–362 (1992)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Ambrose, S. H. Paleolithic technology and human evolution. Science 291, 1748–1753 (2001)

    CAS  ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  4. McGrew, W. C. in Woman the Gatherer (ed. Dahlberg, F. ) 35–73 (Yale Univ. Press, 1981)

  5. Moore, J. in Great Ape Societies (eds McGrew, W. C., Marchant, L. F. & Nishida, T. ) 275–292 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996)

    Book  Google Scholar 

  6. Ghiglieri, M. P. Sociobiology of the great apes and the hominid ancestor. J. Hum. Evol. 16, 319–357 (1987)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Wrangham, R. W. in The Evolution of Human Behavior: Primate Models (ed. Kinzey, W. G. ) 51–71 (State Univ. of New York Press, 1987)

    Google Scholar 

  8. Foley, R. & Gamble, C. The ecology of social transitions in human evolution. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 364, 3267–3279 (2009)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Goodall, J. The Chimpanzees of Gombe: Patterns of Behavior (Harvard Univ. Press, 1986)

    Google Scholar 

  10. Furuichi, T. Social interactions and the life history of female Pan paniscus in Wamba, Zaire. Int. J. Primatol. 10, 173–197 (1989)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Ember, C. R. Myths about hunter-gatherers. Ethnology 17, 439–448 (1978)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Robbins, M. M. et al. Social structure and life-history patterns in western gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla). Am. J. Primatol. 64, 145–159 (2004)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Copeland, S. R. et al. Strontium isotope ratios in fossil teeth from South Africa: assessing laser ablation MC-ICP-MS analysis and the extent of diagenesis. J. Archaeol. Sci. 37, 1437–1446 (2010)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Copeland, S. R. et al. Strontium isotope ratios (87Sr/86Sr) of tooth enamel: a comparison of solution and laser ablation MC-ICP-MS methods. Rapid Commun. Mass Spectrom. 22, 3187–3194 (2008)

    CAS  ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Hurst, R. W. & Davis, T. E. Strontium isotopes as tracers of airborne fly ash from coal-fired power plants. Environ. Geol. 3, 363–367 (1981)

    CAS  ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Gosz, J. R., Brookins, D. G. & Moore, D. I. Using strontium isotope ratios to estimate inputs to ecosystems. Bioscience 33, 23–30 (1983)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Graustein, W. C. in Stable Isotopes in Ecological Research (eds Rundel, P. W. Ehleringer, J. R. & Nagy, K. A. ) 491–512 (Springer, 1989)

    Book  Google Scholar 

  18. Faure, G. & Powell, T. Strontium Isotope Geology (Springer, 1972)

    Book  Google Scholar 

  19. Sillen, A., Hall, G., Richardson, S. & Armstrong, R. 87Sr/86Sr ratios in modern and fossil food-webs of the Sterkfontein Valley: implications for early hominid habitat preferences. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 62, 2463–2473 (1998)

    CAS  ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Beynon, A. D. & Dean, M. C. Distinct dental development patterns in early fossil hominids. Nature 335, 509–514 (1988)

    CAS  ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Price, T. D., Burton, J. H. & Bentley, R. A. The characterization of biologically available strontium isotope ratios for the study of prehistoric migration. Archaeometry 44, 117–135 (2002)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  22. McHenry, H. M. & Coffing, K. Australopithecus to Homo: transformations in body and mind. Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 29, 125–146 (2000)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Mahler, P. E. Metric Variation in the Pongid Dentition. PhD thesis, Univ. Michigan. (1973)

  24. Plavcan, J. M. & van Schaik, C. P. Interpreting hominid behavior on the basis of sexual dimorphism. J. Hum. Evol. 32, 345–374 (1997)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Lockwood, C. A., Menter, C. G., Moggi-Cecchi, J. & Keyser, A. W. Extended male growth in a fossil hominin species. Science 318, 1443–1446 (2007)

    CAS  ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Tooby, J. & DeVore, I. in The Evolution of Human Behavior: Primate Models (ed. Kinzey, W. G. ) 183–237 (State Univ. of New York Press, 1987)

    Google Scholar 

  27. Rodman, P. S. & McHenry, H. M. Bioenergetics and the origin of hominid bipedalism. Am. J. Phys. Anthropol. 52, 103–106 (1980)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  28. McHenry, H. M. & Berger, L. Body proportions in Australopithecus afarensis and A. africanus and the origin of the genus Homo . J. Hum. Evol. 35, 1–22 (1998)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Charlier, B. L. A. et al. Methods for the microsampling and high-precision analysis of strontium and rubidium isotopes at single crystal scale for petrological and geochronological applications. Chem. Geol. 232, 114–133 (2006)

    CAS  ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


Funding for this project was provided by the National Science Foundation, USA (grant 0609963), the Max Planck Society, a University of Colorado LEAP Associate Professor Growth Grant and the University of Colorado Dean’s Fund for Excellence. We are grateful to the Ditsong National Museum of Natural History (formerly the Transvaal Museum), including F. Thackeray, S. Potze and T. Kearny, for allowing us access to the Sterkfontein and Swartkrans fossil material and for granting permission for laser ablation MC-ICP-MS analysis. We thank S. Potze and T. Perregil for flying to Cape Town to allow laser ablation MC-ICP-MS sampling of the hominins. We also thank L. Berger, J. Brophy, J. Codron and J. Hancox for help in the field, J. Montgomery for useful discussions and J. Sealy and J. Lanham for help with plant preparation in the Archaeology Department, University of Cape Town. We thank A. Anderson, C. Campbell, B. Covert, D. Grimstead, F. Grine, J. Leichliter, O. Paine, J. Quade, P. Sandberg and P. Ungar for commenting on the manuscript. The research of A. Sillen and G. Hall inspired this study.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



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.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Sandi R. Copeland.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains a Supplementary Discussion, Supplementary Figures 1-2 with legends, Supplementary Tables 1-7 and additional references. (PDF 578 kb)

PowerPoint slides

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Copeland, S., Sponheimer, M., de Ruiter, D. et al. Strontium isotope evidence for landscape use by early hominins. Nature 474, 76–78 (2011).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing