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

contradiction.

Here, work by NIST researcher Brian Lawn and a group at GWU headed by Peter Lucas came in handy. Driven by an interest in tooth restoration materials, they had been studying teeth using fracture mechanics, a field that considers how materials fail under excessive loads. Our analytical approach produces equations that predict how each mode of damage will occur under different conditions and this enables us to determine trends for different tooth sizes, different food sizes, different food hardness and so on, explained Lawn. What they show is that, under some conditions, teeth will actually fracture before they wear. This explained the absence of microwear patterns in the teeth, which would normally not be used for chewing small hard seeds. A lot of people have thought the most important part of the survival of the tooth is wear, but its now becoming evident that the fracture properties are also very important because theres a limit to the force that you can apply. Wear is important, but when you start to bite on harder, larger objects, fracture becomes more important, Lawn said.

This is a neat example of how really basic materials sciencefracture mechanicshas important implications for biological sciences and anthropology, Strait observed. In the bigger picture, said Strait, the new understanding about A. africanuss diet may help to explain its successful adaptation to changing climates. A large hard nut that had to be cracked with the premolars may not have been a preferred meal, but it could be something to fall back on when other foods were scarce.


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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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