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Comparative isotopic evidence from East Turkana supports a dietary shift within the genus Homo


It has been suggested that a shift in diet is one of the key adaptations that distinguishes the genus Homo from earlier hominins, but recent stable isotopic analyses of fossils attributed to Homo in the Turkana Basin show an increase in the consumption of C4 resources circa 1.65 million years ago, significantly after the earliest evidence for Homo in the eastern African fossil record. These data are consistent with ingesting more C4 plants, more animal tissues of C4 herbivores, or both, but it is also possible that this change reflects factors unrelated to changes in the palaeobiology of the genus Homo. Here we use new and published carbon and oxygen isotopic data (n = 999) taken from large-bodied fossil mammals, and pedogenic carbonates in fossil soils, from East Turkana in northern Kenya to investigate the context of this change in the isotope signal within Homo. By targeting taxa and temporal intervals unrepresented or undersampled in previous analyses, we were able to conduct the first comprehensive analysis of the ecological context of hominin diet at East Turkana during a period crucial for detecting any dietary and related behavioural differences between early Homo (H. habilis and/or H. rudolfensis) and Homo erectus. Our analyses suggest that the genus Homo underwent a dietary shift (as indicated by δ13Cena and δ18Oena values) that is (1) unrelated to changes in the East Turkana vegetation community and (2) unlike patterns found in other East Turkana large mammals, including Paranthropus and Theropithecus. These data suggest that within the Turkana Basin a dietary shift occurred well after we see the first evidence of early Homo in the region.

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We thank the National Museums of Kenya for their unwavering support, and T. Cerling, N. Levin, B. Passey, M. Fortelius, M. Leakey and F. Brown for thoughtful input and analytical assistance throughout the duration of this project. We also thank M. Sponheimer, I. Zliobaite, Z. Alemseged, E. Ndiema, K. Uno, P. Kiura, M. Kibunjia, J. Sealy, J. Kingston, J. T. Faith, R. Potts, A. Du, F. Bibi, C. Tryon, J. Harris, M. Grabowski, N. Blegen, J. Patterson, K. Hatala, R. Cutts, A. Zipkin, J. Rowan, D. Leslie, A. Brooks, J. Yellen, K. Chritz, S. Blumenthal, K. Ranhorn, S. McFarlin, S. Hlubik and the NMNH Evolution of Terrestrial Ecosystems Program for helpful discussions. We acknowledge the use of imagery from the NASA Worldview application ( This project was supported by an NSF-DDRI (1424203) and Wenner-Gren Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to D.B.P.

Author information

D.B.P., R.B., A.K.B., D.R.B. and B.W. designed the research. D.B.P., R.B., A.K.B., D.R.B., K.A., W.A.B., M.B., S.B.L., T.M., F.K.M., S.R.M., S.E.M., K.O. and J.S.R. collected and analysed the data. All authors participated in the interpretation of the results and wrote the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Correspondence to David B. Patterson.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Text, Supplementary References and Supplementary Figs. 1 and 2

Reporting Summary

Supplementary Dataset 1

Compilation of stable carbon isotope data from eastern African hominin taxa; see page one for raw data and page two for references

Supplementary Dataset 2

Compilation of stable carbon and oxygen isotope data from fossil mammal enamel from East Turkana dating to between 2.0 and 1.4 Ma

Supplementary Dataset 3

Compilation of stable carbon and oxygen isotope data from soil carbonates at East Turkana dating to between 2.0 and 1.4 Ma

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Fig. 1: Eastern African hominin carbon isotope values.
Fig. 2: The geographic and geologic context of East Turkana.
Fig. 3: New and previously published East Turkana δ18Opsol and δ13Cpsol values from between 2.0 and 1.4 Ma.
Fig. 4: New and previously published δ13Cena and δ18Oena values from the East Turkana mammal community between 2.0 and 1.4 Ma.