Letter | Published:

The diet of Australopithecus sediba

Nature volume 487, pages 9093 (05 July 2012) | Download Citation



Specimens of Australopithecus sediba from the site of Malapa, South Africa (dating from approximately 2 million years (Myr) ago)1 present a mix of primitive and derived traits that align the taxon with other Australopithecus species and with early Homo2. Although much of the available cranial and postcranial material of Au. sediba has been described3,4,5,6, its feeding ecology has not been investigated. Here we present results from the first extraction of plant phytoliths from dental calculus of an early hominin. We also consider stable carbon isotope and dental microwear texture data for Au. sediba in light of new palaeoenvironmental evidence. The two individuals examined consumed an almost exclusive C3 diet that probably included harder foods, and both dicotyledons (for example, tree leaves, fruits, wood and bark) and monocotyledons (for example, grasses and sedges). Like Ardipithecus ramidus (approximately 4.4 Myr ago) and modern savanna chimpanzees, Au. sediba consumed C3 foods in preference to widely available C4 resources. The inferred consumption of C3 monocotyledons, and wood or bark, increases the known variety of early hominin foods. The overall dietary pattern of these two individuals contrasts with available data for other hominins in the region and elsewhere.

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A.G.H. was funded in part by the US National Science Foundation (NSF), the Smithsonian Institution, the Malapa Project at the Institute for Human Evolution of the University of the Witwatersrand, and the Max Planck Society. P.S.U. was funded by the US Department of State Fulbright Scholarship Program, the Malapa Project and the US NSF. B.H.P. was supported by the US NSF. M.S. was funded by the US NSF, the Leakey Foundation and the University of Colorado Dean's Fund for Excellence. The phytolith reference material and processing of M.B. was funded by the Palaeontological Scientific Trust, South Africa, and the South African Department of Science and Technology. P.S. was supported by the Wenner-Gren Foundation. D.J.d.R. was funded by the Ray A. Rothrock Fellowship and the International Research Travel Assistance Grant of Texas A&M University. Extensive funding for the Malapa Project comes from the Gauteng Provincial Government, the South African Department of Science and Technology, the South Africa National Research Foundation, the University of the Witwatersrand, and many private and public donors. We thank K. Krueger for running the microwear texture data through ToothFrax and SFrax, and J. Leichliter and O. Paine for their work with the Malapa roost rodents.

Author information


  1. Plant Foods and Hominin Dietary Ecology Research Group, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Deutscher Platz 6, 04103 Leipzig, Germany

    • Amanda G. Henry
  2. Department of Anthropology, University of Arkansas, Old Main 330, Fayetteville, Arkansas 72701, USA

    • Peter S. Ungar
  3. The Institute for Human Evolution, School of Geosciences, University of the Witwatersrand, Private Bag 3, WITS 2050, Johannesburg, South Africa

    • Peter S. Ungar
    • , Matt Sponheimer
    • , Darryl J. de Ruiter
    •  & Lee Berger
  4. Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Johns Hopkins University, 3400 North Charles Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21218, USA

    • Benjamin H. Passey
  5. Department of Anthropology, University of Colorado at Boulder, 233 UCB, Boulder, Colorado 80309-0233, USA

    • Matt Sponheimer
    •  & Paul Sandberg
  6. Department of Archaeology, National Museum Bloemfontein, PO Box 266, Bloemfontein 9300, South Africa

    • Lloyd Rossouw
  7. The Department of Plant Sciences, University of the Free State, PO Box 339, Bloemfontein 9300, South Africa

    • Lloyd Rossouw
  8. The Department of Biology, University of Washington, Box 351800, 24 Kincaid Hall, Seattle, Washington 98195-1800, USA

    • Lloyd Rossouw
  9. BPI Palaeontology, School of Geosciences, University of the Witwatersrand, Private Bag 3, WITS 2050, Johannesburg, South Africa

    • Marion Bamford
  10. Department of Anthropology, Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas 77843-4352, USA

    • Darryl J. de Ruiter


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A.G.H., P.S.U., M.S., D.J.d.R. and L.B. conceived the project. A.G.H. collected and processed sediment and calculus samples. P.S.U. performed the dental microwear analysis. B.H.P., M.S. and P.S. performed isotopic analyses. L.R. identified grass phytoliths in the calculus and examined grass silica short cells (GSSCs) in Facies D sediment sample. M.B. identified the non-grass phytoliths in the calculus and analysed sediment samples. All authors contributed to the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Amanda G. Henry.

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