Potential hominin plant foods in northern Tanzania: semi-arid savannas versus savanna chimpanzee sites

Department of Human Evolution, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Deutscher Platz 6, D-04103 Leipzig, Germany.
Journal of Human Evolution (Impact Factor: 3.73). 10/2009; 57(4):365-78. DOI: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2009.06.007
Source: PubMed


Savanna chimpanzees are useful as referential models for early hominins, and here potential differences between chimpanzee and early hominin ecology is the focus. Whereas chimpanzees inhabit only a handful of modern African savannas, there is evidence that early hominins occupied relatively more open and arid savannas than those in which chimpanzees live. In order to help expand potential models of early hominin palaeoecology beyond savanna chimpanzee-like scenarios, and to provide a basis for future modeling and testing of actual hominin diets, this study compares the types of plant foods available in modern semi-arid savannas of northern Tanzania to plant foods at savanna chimpanzee sites. The semi-arid savannas are not occupied by modern chimpanzees, but are potentially similar to environments occupied by some early hominins. Compared to savanna chimpanzee habitats, the northern Tanzania semi-arid savanna has a lower density and fewer species of trees that produce fleshy fruits. Additionally, the most abundant potential hominin plant foods are seasonally available Acacia seeds/pods and flowers, grass seeds, and the underground parts of marsh plants, as evidenced by vegetation surveys and by studies of the diets of baboons that forage in similar areas. The information from this study should be useful for framing hypotheses about hominin diets for sites with palaeoenvironmental contexts similar to those of the northern Tanzania semi-arid savannas and for contextualising tests of actual hominin diets (e.g., those based on dental microwear or isotopes).

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    • "Furthermore, such work can assist in the identification of habitat types utilized for food resources within their home range, which may then assist conservation efforts. Moreover , increased knowledge of the omnivorous diet of our closest living relatives (Pan troglodytes and P. paniscus), who range and forage in different habitats may provide a greater understanding of hominin diet and its evolution from our last common ancestor (when used as referential models to determine both similarities and differences in plant availability and food‐intake [Copeland, 2009; Hohmann, 2009]). Direct observation of feeding by primates reveals crucial aspects of their diet. "
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    • "preferred soft fruit and fall back on terrestrial herbs, leaves, pith, and even termites when favored foods are not available (Yamagiwa et al., 1996; Doran et al., 2002; Cipolletta et al., 2007; Masi, 2008; Doran-Sheehy et al., 2009). The common chimpanzee, P. troglodytes, has been studied at several heavily forested sites (Hladik, 1977b; Wrangham, 1977; Nishida and Uehara, 1983; Goodall, 1986; Tutin et al., 1991, 1997; Wrangham et al., 1991; Newton-Fisher, 1999; Hunt and McGrew, 2002; Tweheyo et al., 2004; Morgan and Sanz, 2006) and also at some more open localities (Suzuki, 1969; McGrew et al., 1981, 1988; Moore, 1992, 1994; Hunt and McGrew, 2002; Pruetz, 2006; Copeland, 2009). Across this range of habitats , however, chimps prefer soft fruits as a mainstay in their diet, even increasing foraging ranges during times of fruit scarcity to pursue them (Wrangham et al., 1998). "
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