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Sponheimer M, J Lee-Thorp, D de Ruiter, D Codron, J Codron, ‡AT Baugh, F Thackeray
Journal of Human Evolution, Volume 48, Pages 301–312 (doi:10.1016/j.jhevol.2004.11.008)
Publication year: 2005

Abstract  Stable carbon isotope analyses have shown that South African australopiths did not have exclusively frugivorous diets, but also consumed significant quantities of C4 foods such as grasses, sedges, or animals that ate these foods. Yet, these studies have had significant limitations. For example, hominin sample sizes were relatively small, leading some to question the veracity of the claim for australopith C4 consumption. In addition, it has been difficult to determine which C4 resources were actually utilized, which is at least partially due to a lack of stable isotope data on some purported australopith foods. Here we begin to address these lacunae by presenting carbon isotope data for 14 new hominin specimens, as well as for two potential C4 foods (termites and sedges). The new data confirm that non-C3 foods were heavily utilized by australopiths, making up about 40% and 35% of Australopithecus and Paranthropus diets respectively. Most termites in the savanna-woodland biome of the Kruger National Park, South Africa, have intermediate carbon isotope compositions indicating mixed C3/C4 diets. Only 28% of the sedges in Kruger were C4, and few if any had well-developed rhizomes and tubers that make some sedges attractive foods. We conclude that although termites and sedges might have contributed to the C4 signal in South African australopiths, other C4 foods were also important. Lastly, we suggest that the consumption of C4 foods is a fundamental hominin trait that, along with bipedalism, allowed australopiths to pioneer increasingly open and seasonal environments.