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Toothsome research: Deducing the diet of a prehistoric hominid
Date:2/11/2009

In an unusual intersection of materials science and anthropology, researchers from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and The George Washington University (GWU) have applied materials-science-based mathematical models to help shed light on the dietary habits of some of mankinds prehistoric relatives. Their work forms part of a newly published, multidisciplinary analysis* of the early hominid Australopithecus africanus by anthropologists at the State University of New York at Albany and elsewhere.

In the new study, Albany researcher David Strait and his colleagues** applied finite element analysisan engineers modeling tool that employs an intricate geometric mesh to calculate the stresses and strains at play in complex shapesto the teeth and jaws of A. africanus, an African hominid that lived 2 to 3 million years ago. Their goal was to determine just how, and with how much force, the animal chomped and chewed its food. Such analyses are of great importance to anthropologists. Teeth are the hardest parts of the body, and so are the parts most likely to be found after millions of years. Careful examination of subtle features of teeth and jaws can reveal what an animal could eat, which implies what it did eat, which implies a host of things about its environment, habits and survival strategies.

A. africanus presented a puzzle. Classical analysis of the skulllarge molars and premolars with thick enamel, thick heavy jawbones, strong chewing muscles as evidenced by their anchor points on the bonepointed to a diet of small, hard seeds. The finite-element analysis threw a spanner in the works. It suggested that A. africanuss facial and jaw anatomy was optimized to handle stress on the premolars, teeth located farther forward in the mouth and most useful for chewing larger hard objects. But recent studies had shown that the teeth lacked the microscopic wear patterns characteristic of chewing hard objects, a
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Contact: Michael Baum
michael.baum@nist.gov
301-975-2763
National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)
Source:Eurekalert  

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