Strontium isotope evidence for landscape use by early hominins

Strontium isotope evidence for landscape use by early hominins

Nature 474, 7349 (2011). doi:10.1038/nature10149

Authors: Sandi R. Copeland, Matt Sponheimer, Darryl J. de Ruiter, Julia A. Lee-Thorp, Daryl Codron, Petrus J. le Roux, Vaughan Grimes & Michael P. Richards

Ranging and residence patterns among early hominins have been indirectly inferred from morphology, stone-tool sourcing, referential models and phylogenetic models. However, the highly uncertain nature of such reconstructions limits our understanding of early hominin ecology, biology, social structure and evolution. We investigated landscape use in Australopithecus africanus and Paranthropus robustus from the Sterkfontein and Swartkrans cave sites in South Africa using strontium isotope analysis, a method that can help to identify the geological substrate on which an animal lived during tooth mineralization. Here we show that a higher proportion of small hominins than large hominins had non-local strontium isotope compositions. Given the relatively high levels of sexual dimorphism in early hominins, the smaller teeth are likely to represent female individuals, thus indicating that females were more likely than males to disperse from their natal groups. This is similar to the dispersal pattern found in chimpanzees, bonobos and many human groups, but dissimilar from that of most gorillas and other primates. The small proportion of demonstrably non-local large hominin individuals could indicate that male australopiths had relatively small home ranges, or that they preferred dolomitic landscapes.