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Keywords:

  • Australopithecus;
  • Dentition;
  • Body size;
  • Megadontia;
  • Paleonutrition;
  • Allometry

Abstract

Until the discovery of Australopithecus afarensis, cheek-tooth megadontia was unequivocally one of the defining characteristics of the australopithecine grade in human evolution along with bipedalism and small brains. This species, however, has an average postcanine area of 757 mm2, which is more like Homo habilis (759 mm2) than A. africanus (856 mm2). But what is its relative cheek-tooth size in comparison to body size? One approach to this question is to compare postcanine tooth area to estimated body weight. By this method all Australopithecus species are megadont: they have cheek teeth 1.7 to 2.3 times larger than modern hominoids of similar body size. The series from A. afarensis to A. africanus to A. robustus to A. boisei shows strong positive allometry indicating increasing megadontia through time. The series from H. habilis to H. erectus to H. sapiens shows strong negative allometry which implies a sharp reduction in the relative size of the posterior teeth. Postcanine megadontia in Australopithecus species can also be demonstrated by comparing tooth size and body size in associated skeletons: A. afarensis (represented by A.L. 288–1) has a cheek-tooth size 2.8 times larger than expected from modern hominoids; A. africanus (Sts 7) and A. robustus (TM 1517) are over twice the expected size. The evolutionary transition from the megadont condition of Australopithecus to the trend of decreasing megadontia seen in the Homo lineage may have occurred between 3.0 and 2.5 m.y. from A. afarensis to H. habilis but other evidence indicates that it is more likely to have occurred between 2.5 to 2.0 m.y. from an A. africanus-like form to H. habilis.