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60-Second Science

Nutcracker Man Preferred Soft Fruits

Analysis of the fossil teeth of an early human ancestor finds that even though they could have handled harder fare, they preferred soft fruits. Karen Hopkin reports.

Podcast Transcript: Some people lie through their teeth. Some lie about their teeth. Our early human cousins seem to have lied with their teeth. Or they at least misled scientists into first thinking that their diet was something other than it was. See, one of our East African relatives had chompers that looked so powerful, scientists nicknamed him “Nutcracker man.” With teeth and jaws so big and strong, everyone assumed that Paranthropus boisei was partial to nuts and seeds and other crunchy fare.
 
But first impressions can be misleading. Or so say scientists in the current issue of the Public Library of Science journal, PLoS One. Using high-powered microscopes, they took a closer look at this hominid’s teeth. And they compared the microscopic wear-and-tear they saw on its molars with that of living primates. Their conclusion? That Paranthropus was capable of eating harder foods, but generally didn’t do so. “Looks more like they were eating Jell-O,” says one of the researchers. Okay, there was no Jell-O two million years ago. But Paranthropus, like many apes and monkeys, probably preferred nice soft fruits. When you think about it, any other choice would be nuts.

—Karen Hopkin

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