What Insights Can Baboon Feeding Ecology Provide for Early Hominin Niche Differentiation?

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Abstract

Several authors have proposed that papionin baboons provide appropriate analogs for early hominin niche differentiation. Savanna-dwelling baboons and australopiths both radiated around the same time after Neogene expansion of C4 grasslands, likely experiencing similar environmental changes and faced with solving similar ecological problems. We explore the insights baboons may provide into dietary ecology of savanna-occupying hominins. We compare dietary information from stable isotope data for feces, hair, and tooth dentine collagen of modern chacma baboons (Papio ursinus) with dietary data for Plio-Pleistocene papionins and hominins from South African savannas. Results confirm that, like the australopiths, baboons consume substantial amounts of C4 food sources. However, the magnitude of inter- and intraindividual variation in baboon diets across different seasons and habitats is less than that from specimens of Australopithecus africanus and Paranthropus robustus analyzed to date. Hominins also consumed greater amounts of C4 resources. Thus, though the data demonstrate that the radiation of both primate groups was closely linked with the spread of C4 grasslands, hominins were even more extreme ecological generalists than baboons were. The absence of a fixed-diet in papionins implies that it was unlikely that the more ecologically flexible hominins evolved specializations for any one food type, an interpretation consistent with recent carbon isotope, dental microwear, and ecomorphological studies. We propose that researchers place less emphasis on resolving the foods that were most important for hominin differentiation; instead, future research should focus on questions related to ecological generalism.

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