Isotopic ecology of African mole rats and early hominin diets

From my alma mater comes a research study where African mole rats are used as a point of reference to understand the diets of Australopithecus africanus and Paranthropus robustus. I caught this new yesterday off of Nature but Yann has also shared it with us.

The basic method, isotopic analysis, is a tried and true method in paleoecology, archaeological chemistry, and other related sub disciplines. What’s cool about this study is how a living model, mole rats and their dietary habits are analogous to early hominin ones. See, its believed early hominins like australopithecines ate tubers which are primarily C4 plants – special plants that fix carbon differently from other plants. Many C4 plants in Africa are tubers, and australopithecines had gnarly molars, very robust and dense… made to literally chew on rock hard roots . Check out the following images:

A. afarensis Dentition

Australopithecine Teeth

Chimpanzee, Australopithecine, Human Teeth

This alternative form of carbon fixation leaves unique trace elements in the bones and skeletons of the animals that eat them. Since mole rats also consume these C4 tubers, comparing the isotopes yields some interesting conclusions about the diets of early hominins.

Pretty creative comparison, no?

The paper is titled, “The isotopic ecology of African mole rats informs hypotheses on the evolution of human diet.”

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