It is perhaps intrinsically human, to wonder about your origins. Now, new research has emerged that has found that our ancestors' dietary habits had a hand in keeping some alive and driving others extinct. Specifically, research has found that ancestors who were vegetarians died out while their meat-eating counterparts – our ancestors – thrived.
There has been a fierce debate in the scientific community raging on about the food consumption of our ancestors. Some believed that they were carnivorous and others insisted that they chewed primarily on leafy greens. But now, findings suggest that our ancestors were rather omnivorous, with different species of hominids holding different eating habits. Unfortunately, those eating habits dictated their survival as species, with the herbivores dying out.
Vincent Balter, of the École Normale Supérieure in Lyon, and his colleagues in Toulouse, France and Johannesburg, South Africa studied the enamel in fossilized teeth. According to the study published in the most recent issue of Nature, "Laser ablation profiles of strontium/calcium, barium/calcium and strontium isotope ratios in tooth enamel are a means to decipher intra-individual diet and habitat changes." In other words, the researchers used lasers to quantify the amount of barium, calcium, and strontium, which allowed them to determine their diets and where they lived.
The researchers found that living on the southern horn of Africa was Australopithecus africanus, who lived from about 4 million years ago to 2 million years ago, and is widely seen as one of the precursors to the contemporary Homo sapiens. Australopithecus consumed a wide range of foods, like meat, vegetables and fruits. At the same time, Paranthropus robustus ate primarily plants; that much can be confirmed by analysis of the wear patterns of teeth and their massive jaw structure. But Paranthropus lived from 2.7 million to 1 years ago, dying out more quickly than their meat-eating brethren.
The investigators postulate that Paranthropus went extinct because of an inflexible diet or limited habitat, particularly in light of climate changes. In other words, because Australopithecus had a more varied diet, they had a lot more choices than their vegetarian brethren did. Later Homo species chose to pursue more meat-heavy diets, aided by new tools.
Don't buy yourself a steak to celebrate just yet. In contemporary humans, studies have shown that processed red meat has been linked to a shorter lifespan. So remember – the key to survival is variety, not merely more meat.