Why Ancient Nutcracker Man Didn’t Eat Nuts

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Nut cracker manPhoto: Nicolle Rager Fuller, National Science FoundationResearchers examined the teeth of Paranthropus boisei, also called the
“Nutcracker Man,” an ancient hominin that lived between 2.3 and 1.2 million years ago. The “Nutcracker Man” had the biggest, flattest cheek teeth and the thickest enamel of any known human ancestor and was thought to have a regular diet of nuts and seeds or roots and tubers. But analysis of scratches on the teeth and other tooth wear reveal the pattern of eating for the “Nutcracker Man” was more consistent with modern-day fruit-eating animals.

Moving about softly in the undergrowth, foraging for food with which to feed himself, Nutcracker Man, it was believed, ate nuts and tough leaves. A new study has shown that thinking to be false, however – that even though he had the adaptation of teeth to eat such hard foodstuffs, the microwear on the teeth showed a preference for fruit and soft grasses.

Nut cracker manPhoto: The National Museums of Kenya

Paranthropus boisei, a hominid, roamed the earth a million years ago. He had huge molars and a strong jaw which led to the name “Nutcracker Man”. The new findings, therefore, came as something of a surprise. Anthropology professor Matt Sonheim, of the University of Colorado, Boulder, said: “Frankly, we didn’t expect to find the primate equivalent of a cow dangling from a remote twig of our family tree.”

This change in perspective about what one of our earliest ancestors ate is important for two reasons: one, it challenges assumptions that the Paranthropus line dead-ended due to picky eating habits; and secondly, as Peter Unger, co-author from the University of Arizona, puts it: “This challenges the fundamental assumptions of why such specializations occur in nature… It shows that animals can develop an extreme degree of specialization without the specialized object becoming a preferred resource.” Now where did we put that nutcracker?

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