Disease Proof

The Diet of a Paranthropus

Okay, I admit it—I’m bit of an anthropology geek. Human evolution is an interest of mine. And an article in yesterday’s New York Times really got my nerd-juices flowing. It has long been believed that Paranthropus (one of our ancestors), a more ape-like species of hominin, was basically just a robust grass-chewing machine, and this over-specialization in one food source ultimately led to their demise. But new research challenges this belief. It seems Paranthropus’s diet may also included foods like nuts and fruit, more commonly associated with the Homo species of early humans. Reporter Henry Fountain has more:
The researchers used a laser to ablate small layers of enamel from the fossilized teeth of a 1.8-million-year-old P. robustus specimen. By analyzing the concentrations of carbon isotopes in the enamel they were able to determine whether P. robustus was eating grasses or the fruits and leaves of trees and bushes. Grasses use a different photosynthetic pathway than trees and bushes and have a higher concentration of carbon-13, which gets incorporated in animal tissue when the foods are eaten.
Dr. Matt Sponheimer, an anthropologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder, doesn’t appear too surprised by the results and made this remark, “Just because the morphology is specialized for just one thing, that doesn’t mean it can’t do other things.” Makes sense to me. I doubt our teeth and body make up were designed to eat processed foods, but many of us graze on it like cattle—introducing Standard American Robustus Obesitus!

The apparent tendency to eat other foods by early humans reminded me of something in Disease-Proof Your Child—ironically I blogged about it last week—the post about the human variety driver. Dr. Fuhrman believes that all primates, including humans, are driven to consume food from a variety of categories. So it wouldn’t surprise me if early humans shared the same instinct. According to Dr. Fuhrman our bigger brains lead us to diversify our diet:
Contrary to popular belief, a monkey does not sit under a banana tree eating bananas all day. He eats bananas and then may travel half a mile away to find a different type of food. He has an innate drive to consume variety; just satisfying the caloric drive is not enough. So as a higher-order animal with a bigger brain, we search for a variety of nutrient sources, and this variety assures that we get the broad assortment of nutrients that increases our immune function and longevity potential. I call this desire for different foods our variety driver.
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