The Effect of Early Hominin Occlusal Morphology on the Fracturing of Hard Food Items



Tooth profile plays an important role in interpretations of the functional morphology of extinct species. We tested hypotheses that australopith occlusal morphology influences the fracture force required to crack large, hard food items using a combination of physical testing and finite element analysis (FEA). We performed mechanical experiments simulating both molar and premolar biting using metal replicas of four hominin specimens representing species that differ in occlusal relief (Praeanthropus afarensis, Australopithecus africanus, Paranthropus robustus, and P. boisei). The replicas were inserted into an Instron machine and used to fracture hollow acrylic hemispheres with known material properties. These hemispheres simulate a hard and brittle food item but exhibit far less variability in size and strength than actual nuts or seeds, thereby facilitating interpretations of tooth function. Fracture forces and fracture displacements were measured, and analysis of variance revealed significant differences in fracture force and energy between specimens and tooth types. Complementing the physical testing, a nonlinear contact finite element model was developed to simulate each physical test. Experimental and FEA results showed good correspondence in most cases, and FEA identified stress concentrations consistent with mechanical models predicting that radial/median fractures are important factors in the failure of nut and seed shells. The fracture force data revealed functional similarities between relatively unworn Pr. afarensis and P. robustus teeth, and between relatively unworn A. africanus and heavily worn P. boisei teeth. These results are inconsistent with functional hypotheses, and raise the possibility that the tooth morphology of early hominins and other hard object feeders may not represent adaptations for inducing fractures in large, hard food items, but rather for resisting fractures in the tooth crown. Anat Rec, 293:594–606, 2010. © 2010 Wiley-Liss, Inc.