• wet savanna;
  • delta;
  • baboon;
  • USOs;
  • seasonality


Underground storage organs (USOs) have been proposed as critical fallback foods for early hominins in savanna, but there has been little discussion as to which habitats would have been important sources of USOs. USOs consumed by hominins could have included both underwater and underground storage organs, i.e., from both aquatic and terrestrial habitats. Shallow aquatic habitats tend to offer high plant growth rates, high USO densities, and relatively continuous USO availability throughout the year. Baboons in the Okavango delta use aquatic USOs as a fallback food, and aquatic or semiaquatic USOs support high-density human populations in various parts of the world. As expected given fossilization requisites, the African early- to mid-Pleistocene shows an association of Homo and Paranthropus fossils with shallow-water and flooded habitats where high densities of plant-bearing USOs are likely to have occurred. Given that early hominins in the tropics lived in relatively dry habitats, while others occupied temperate latitudes, ripe, fleshy fruits of the type preferred by African apes would not normally have been available year round. We therefore suggest that water-associated USOs were likely to have been key fallback foods, and that dry-season access to aquatic habitats would have been an important predictor of hominin home range quality. This study differs from traditional savanna chimpanzee models of hominin origins by proposing that access to aquatic habitats was a necessary condition for adaptation to savanna habitats. It also raises the possibility that harvesting efficiency in shallow water promoted adaptations for habitual bipedality in early hominins. Am J Phys Anthropol 140:630–642, 2009. © 2009 Wiley-Liss, Inc.