New research reveals that ‘The Nutcracker Man’ was not all that he was cracked up to be
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Johannesburg - Once he was our lantern jawed relative who had a set of gnashers that could chew through anything.
In fact his fat molars and strong jaw earned him the nickname the Nutcracker Man.
The story went that this distant relative of humans who lived 1.8 million years used his teeth and jaw to crunch on a diet of nuts, hardened tubers and seeds.
But now it appears that Nutcracker Man was not all that he was cracked up to be.
An analysis of 20 000 teeth found in museum collections from around the world, including South Africa has found that Nutcracker Man or Paranthropus boisei, didn’t have a taste for the hard things in life, but probably feasted on soft fruits and plants.
Nutcracker Man may be a layman’s term but to scientists he is simply OH5, the numbered skull that famed palaeoanthropologist Mary Leakey found at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania in 1959.
At the time it was thought that P. boisei was a direct ancestor of humans.
Now it is believed that the Paranthropus branch of the human tree was separate and withered away after these hominins became extinct.
Initially his big teeth and jaw had palaeoanthropologists suspecting for 60 years he had that hard tack diet.
But new research is adding more evidence that Nutcracker man and his close relative in South Africa Paranthropus robustus did not.
Dr Ian Towle, a biological anthropologist at the University of Otago in New Zealand with Dr Carolina Loch, of the Faculty of Dentistry began a forensic investigation of hominid and human teeth.
"By individually studying each tooth and recording the position and size of any tooth fractures, we show tooth chipping does not support regular hard food eating in Paranthropus robustus, therefore potentially putting an end to the argument that this group as a whole were hard food eaters,” he said.
The study was published in the Journal of Human Evolution.
It is a finding, believes Towle, that challenges our understanding of human evolution and with it all its dietary and behavioural changes.
“The results are surprising, with human fossils so far studied – those in our own genus Homo - showing extremely high rates of tooth fractures, similar to living hard object eating primates, yet Paranthropus show extremely low levels of fracture, similar to primates that eat soft fruits or leaves,” he added.
This is not the first time that palaeoanthropologists have found evidence that Nutcracker Man and other Paranthropus species favoured soft food.
In 2008 several South African scientists delved into the Nutcracker Man’s diet after they drilled into one of his teeth and extracted enamel the size of a grain of sugar.
Through carbon isotope analysis, the scientists were able to trace the changes in the ratios of two carbon isotopes that occur in the food change.
Nutcracker man showed a preference for eating grasses and it was only after the scientists in the study visited the Okavango Delta in Botswana did they get an idea of what this hominid might have been snacking on.
They believe he might have been eating papyrus, which is rich in carbohydrates and fat. Later Egyptians would use papyrus to make paper.
“The papyrus is consumable, but you have to eat it in bulk and you have to chew it,” says Professor Francis Thackeray, who wasn’t part of the Otago University study, but has worked on Paranthropus.
“So there is an advantage to having broad teeth that are relatively large for consuming those sedges that have a lot of fibre and require chewing."
Where Nutcracker Man was found, was believed to have once been a wetland.
There is evidence that P. robustus in South Africa might have been munching on something else.
“In the 1970s and 1980s, Dr Brain discovered remarkable bone tools which were probable digging implements. He suggested that they might have been used to dig up edible tubers,” explains Thackeray.
“From microscopic analysis of scratch marks on the bone surfaces, Dr Lucinda Backwell suggested that the tools might have been used to dig up termites, which are soft and a rich source of protein.”
Brain was also to find evidence of the controlled use of fire at Swartkrans that lies in the Cradle of Humankind. The evidence was burnt bones that were at least a million years old.
“Potentially the fire might have been used to cook meat, but it is uncertain to what extent this behaviour was characteristic of P. robustus or instead Homo erectus which lived in the Cradle of Humankind at the same time,” says Thackeray.
Towle now wants to focus on why humans evolved smaller teeth.
Still the search is on to understand the dietary habits of the Nutcracker Man and his kin.
Thackeray and his French colleague Professor José Braga are excavating at Kromdraai, in the Cradle of Humankind. They are excited by some new discoveries that include teeth that might just allow us another peek into what this distant relative was eating all that time ago.