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Archive for Sunday, May 5, 2002

Ancestors’ diet probably included termites, raw meat

May 5, 2002

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"A couple of things in this exhibit will floor you," David Frayer says, "unless you don't have blood going through your veins."

Frayer is a Kansas University professor of anthropology, and we are at the KU Museum of Anthropology, eyeballing an exhibit that's up until late August.

It's all about the extinct cousins of Homo sapiens, the not-quite-human beings called hominids.

The most successful of our cousins was Australopithecus.

If you gambled, Frayer says, you wouldn't bet these little fellows could last nearly 5 million years. They walked upright in a world where most everything else was four-legged and faster. They were small a female maybe 3 feet tall, a male a bit more than 4. Dark and hairy, they had faces as big and flat as plates and small brain cases.

One cute display contains a table set for dinner and a couple of chairs and some probable elements of an Australopithecus banquet: for appetizers, eggs of birds, reptiles and insects; for a salad, flowers, leaves and seeds; a daily catch of grubs, insects, small lizards, tortoises; and dead animal tartare hominids didn't cook until 2 million years ago.

The picture is more than guesswork, Frayer says. Termites were probably a dietary component, given their plentifulness. A bone tool from 2 million years ago shows marks much like those that appear on similar bone today if you use it to dig into termite mounds.

In general, the diet of Australopithecus was no picnic. It was hard and required crushing. The big molars of these hominids resemble in size and pattern of wear the big teeth at the back of the mouth of today's Panda bears, which chew bamboo.

Now about those parts of the exhibit that tickle the heartbeat. I won't give away the evidence of some Hannibal Lecter-like behavior on the part of our ancestors. Check that out for yourself.

But the human footprints preserved in volcanic ash there's a cast of a few of them in the exhibit do get into your head.

They're about 3.5 million years old. Their preservation required a precise and unlikely sequence of events: first, a fall of volcanic ash; then a rain to wet the ash; then hominids to slosh through the ashy muck; then sunshine to dry the muck; then another fall of volcanic ash.

And get this: The discovery of these footprints occurred as anthropologists were playfully heaving elephant dung balls around at lunchtime.

The footprints tell Frayer the following story.

A larger hominid is walking beside a smaller, perhaps a female. Her foot sinks deeper into the mud than his. Is that because she was carrying a baby? Frayer wonders.

Within the larger hominid footprints are smaller ones. It's as if, Frayer says, a kid today were following in his dad's footsteps as they made their way through a snowstorm.

Then something happens. The footprints show the smaller individual turning to look back. What did she turn around to see? Frayer wonders.

Australopithecus had quite a run. These hominids lasted from 6 million years ago to almost 1 million years ago. And then they vanished, and no one knows why.

If our proud species lasts another 10,000 years, we will have achieved 1 percent of the longevity of these hairy, dark-skinned, flat-faced, slow-footed, termite-eating midget cousins of ours who lived, on average, less than 20 years.

Chew on that a while.




Roger Martin is a research writer and editor for the Kansas University Center for Research and editor of Explore, KU's research magazine Web site, which can be found at www.research.ku.edu. Martin's e-mail address is rmartin@kucr.ku.edu.

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