Letter | Published:

Evidence for dietary change but not landscape use in South African early hominins

Nature volume 489, pages 558560 (27 September 2012) | Download Citation


The dichotomy between early Homo and Paranthropus is justified partly on morphology1,2. In terms of diet, it has been suggested that early Homo was a generalist but that Paranthropus was a specialist3. However, this model is challenged and the issue of the resources used by Australopithecus, the presumed common ancestor, is still unclear. Laser ablation profiles of strontium/calcium, barium/calcium and strontium isotope ratios in tooth enamel are a means to decipher intra-individual diet and habitat changes. Here we show that the home range area was of similar size for species of the three hominin genera but that the dietary breadth was much higher in Australopithecus africanus than in Paranthropus robustus and early Homo. We also confirm that P. robustus relied more on plant-based foodstuffs than early Homo. A South African scenario is emerging in which the broad ecological niche of Australopithecus became split, and was then occupied by Paranthropus and early Homo, both consuming a lower diversity of foods than Australopithecus.

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The authors thank F. Albarède, J. Blichert-Toft, B. Bourdon and G. Escarguel for helpful comments on the manuscript. This work was supported by the South African National Research Foundation, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the French Embassy in South Africa through the Cultural and Cooperation Services, and the French Institut National des Sciences de l'Univers through the programs ECLIPSE II and PALEO2. The authors are grateful to S. Potze and the Ditsong National Museum of Natural History (formerly Transvaal Museum, Northern Flagship Institution), and the South African Heritage Resources Agency for facilitating access to the fossil samples.

Author information


  1. Laboratoire de Géologie de Lyon, UMR 5276, CNRS, Ecole Normale Supérieure de Lyon, 15 parvis René Descartes BP 7000, 69342 Lyon Cedex 07, France

    • Vincent Balter
    •  & Philippe Télouk
  2. Computer-assisted Palaeoanthropology Team, UMR 5288, CNRS, Université de Toulouse Paul Sabatier, 37 Allées Jules Guesde, 31000 Toulouse, France

    • José Braga
  3. Institute for Human Evolution, University of the Witwatersrand, PO Wits, Johannesburg 2050, South Africa

    • J. Francis Thackeray


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V.B., J.B. and J.F.T. designed the study, V.B. and P.T. carried out the analysis, V.B. wrote the manuscript with J.B. and J.F.T. All authors discussed the results.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Vincent Balter.

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    Supplementary Information

    This file contains Supplementary Tables 1-3 and a Supplementary Appendix that contains Supplementary Text, Supplementary Table S1, and Supplementary Data.

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