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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


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.

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  • 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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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


  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


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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.

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    Supplementary Information

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

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