Inferences regarding the diet of extinct hominins: structural and functional trends in dental and mandibular morphology within the hominin clade


Dr Peter Lucas, CASHP, Department of Anthropology, George Washington University, Washington DC, USA. T: +1 202 994 6964; F: +1 202 994 6097; E:


This contribution investigates the evolution of diet in the PanHomo and hominin clades. It does this by focusing on 12 variables (nine dental and three mandibular) for which data are available about extant chimpanzees, modern humans and most extinct hominins. Previous analyses of this type have approached the interpretation of dental and gnathic function by focusing on the identification of the food consumed (i.e. fruits, leaves, etc.) rather than on the physical properties (i.e. hardness, toughness, etc.) of those foods, and they have not specifically addressed the role that the physical properties of foods play in determining dental adaptations. We take the available evidence for the 12 variables, and set out what the expression of each of those variables is in extant chimpanzees, the earliest hominins, archaic hominins, megadont archaic hominins, and an inclusive grouping made up of transitional hominins and pre-modern Homo. We then present hypotheses about what the states of these variables would be in the last common ancestor of the PanHomo clade and in the stem hominin. We review the physical properties of food and suggest how these physical properties can be used to investigate the functional morphology of the dentition. We show what aspects of anterior tooth morphology are critical for food preparation (e.g. peeling fruit) prior to its ingestion, which features of the postcanine dentition (e.g. overall and relative size of the crowns) are related to the reduction in the particle size of food, and how information about the macrostructure (e.g. enamel thickness) and microstructure (e.g. extent and location of enamel prism decussation) of the enamel cap might be used to make predictions about the types of foods consumed by extinct hominins. Specifically, we show how thick enamel can protect against the generation and propagation of cracks in the enamel that begin at the enamel–dentine junction and move towards the outer enamel surface.