Contributions of biogeochemistry to understanding hominin dietary ecology

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Abstract

Dietary ecology is one key to understanding the biology, lifeways, and evolutionary pathways of many animals. Determining the diets of long-extinct hominins, however, is a considerable challenge. Although archaeological evidence forms a pillar of our understanding of diet and subsistence in the more recent past, for early hominins, the most direct evidence is to be found in the fossils themselves. Here we review the suite of emerging biochemical paleodietary tools based on stable isotope and trace element archives within fossil calcified tissues. We critically assess their contribution to advancing our understanding of australopith, early Homo, and Neanderthal diets within the broader context of non-biogeochemical techniques for dietary reconstruction, such as morphology and dental microwear analysis. The most significant outcomes to date are the demonstration of high trophic-level diets among Neanderthals and Late Pleistocene modern humans in Glacial Europe, and the persistent inclusion of C4 grass-related foods in the diets of Plio–Pleistocene hominins in South Africa. Such studies clearly show the promise of biogeochemical techniques for testing hypotheses about the diets of early hominins. Nevertheless, we argue that more contextual data from modern ecosystem and experimental studies are needed if we are to fully realize their potential. Yrbk Phys Anthropol 49:131–148, 2006. © 2006 Wiley-Liss, Inc.

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