Experimental perspective on fallback foods and dietary adaptations in early hominins.
The robust jaws and large, thick-enameled molars of the Plio-Pleistocene hominins Australopithecus and Paranthropus have long been interpreted as adaptations for hard-object feeding. Recent studies of dental microwear indicate that only Paranthropus robustus regularly ate hard items, suggesting that the dentognathic anatomy of other australopiths reflects rare, seasonal exploitation of hard fallback foods. Here, we show that hard-object feeding cannot explain the extreme morphology of Paranthropus boisei. Rather, analysis of long-term dietary plasticity in an animal model suggests year-round reliance on tough foods requiring prolonged postcanine processing in P. boisei. Increased consumption of such items may have marked the earlier transition from Ardipithecus to Australopithecus, with routine hard-object feeding in P. robustus representing a novel behaviour.