Nut-like oil seeds: Food for monkeys, chimpanzees, humans, and probably ape-men



The hypothetical hyperrobust australopithecine gnathic nutcracker adaptation is reexamined in light of ecobotanical information on edible wild nuts provided by the flora of tropical and subtropical Africa.

The nut producing species are tree-forms. Those of the forest region do not as a rule produce fruits with edible mesocarps. In contrast, the woodland savanna species (particularly in the Zambezian region) characteristically provide an important whole fruit, i.e., a nutritious mesocarp in addition to edible oil-rich nut seeds. These fruits drop from the tree before they are fully mature and go through the final ripening phase on the ground. They are important seasonal foods for a variety of vertebrates, including primates, elephants, and antelope.

Altogether the nuts exhibit a broad range of toughness values, measured here as strength under compression. The woodland nuts are not as tough (177–934 kg force, breaking load) as those of the tropical forest (192–1,673 kg force). The seed-predators of the woodland species include squirrels, baboons, warthogs, and parrots.

Paleoecological analyses indicate that it was the woodland nuts that were probably available to Australopithecus boisei and A. robustus. Preliminary estimates of adult male gnathic nut-cracking capabilities suggest that A. boisei could have orally cracked a significant portion of the woodland nuts. In spite of this, ecobotanical data indicate that we can probably reject the hypothesis that these hominids were year-round gnathic nut-cracking specialists. Both the indirect and direct evidence support this conclusion.