Letter | Published:

Strontium isotope evidence for landscape use by early hominins

Nature volume 474, pages 7678 (02 June 2011) | Download Citation

  • A Corrigendum to this article was published on 29 June 2011

This article has been updated

Abstract

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.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

from$8.99

All prices are NET prices.

Change history

  • 29 June 2011

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

References

  1. 1.

    , & An ecomorphological model of the initial hominid dispersal from Africa. J. Hum. Evol. 43, 773–785 (2002)

  2. 2.

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

  3. 3.

    Paleolithic technology and human evolution. Science 291, 1748–1753 (2001)

  4. 4.

    in Woman the Gatherer (ed. ) 35–73 (Yale Univ. Press, 1981)

  5. 5.

    in Great Ape Societies (eds , & ) 275–292 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996)

  6. 6.

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

  7. 7.

    in The Evolution of Human Behavior: Primate Models (ed. ) 51–71 (State Univ. of New York Press, 1987)

  8. 8.

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

  9. 9.

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

  10. 10.

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

  11. 11.

    Myths about hunter-gatherers. Ethnology 17, 439–448 (1978)

  12. 12.

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

  13. 13.

    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)

  14. 14.

    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)

  15. 15.

    & Strontium isotopes as tracers of airborne fly ash from coal-fired power plants. Environ. Geol. 3, 363–367 (1981)

  16. 16.

    , & Using strontium isotope ratios to estimate inputs to ecosystems. Bioscience 33, 23–30 (1983)

  17. 17.

    in Stable Isotopes in Ecological Research (eds & ) 491–512 (Springer, 1989)

  18. 18.

    & Strontium Isotope Geology (Springer, 1972)

  19. 19.

    , , & 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)

  20. 20.

    & Distinct dental development patterns in early fossil hominids. Nature 335, 509–514 (1988)

  21. 21.

    , & The characterization of biologically available strontium isotope ratios for the study of prehistoric migration. Archaeometry 44, 117–135 (2002)

  22. 22.

    & Australopithecus to Homo: transformations in body and mind. Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 29, 125–146 (2000)

  23. 23.

    Metric Variation in the Pongid Dentition. PhD thesis, Univ. Michigan. (1973)

  24. 24.

    & Interpreting hominid behavior on the basis of sexual dimorphism. J. Hum. Evol. 32, 345–374 (1997)

  25. 25.

    , , & Extended male growth in a fossil hominin species. Science 318, 1443–1446 (2007)

  26. 26.

    & in The Evolution of Human Behavior: Primate Models (ed. ) 183–237 (State Univ. of New York Press, 1987)

  27. 27.

    & Bioenergetics and the origin of hominid bipedalism. Am. J. Phys. Anthropol. 52, 103–106 (1980)

  28. 28.

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

  29. 29.

    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)

Download references

Acknowledgements

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

Affiliations

  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

Authors

  1. Search for Sandi R. Copeland in:

  2. Search for Matt Sponheimer in:

  3. Search for Darryl J. de Ruiter in:

  4. Search for Julia A. Lee-Thorp in:

  5. Search for Daryl Codron in:

  6. Search for Petrus J. le Roux in:

  7. Search for Vaughan Grimes in:

  8. Search for Michael P. Richards in:

Contributions

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.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Sandi R. Copeland.

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

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

About this article

Publication history

Received

Accepted

Published

DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/nature10149

Further reading

Comments

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.