The African Plio-Pleistocene hominins known as australopiths evolved derived craniodental features frequently interpreted as adaptations for feeding on either hard, or compliant/tough foods. Among australopiths, Paranthropus boisei is the most robust form, exhibiting traits traditionally hypothesized to produce high bite forces efficiently and strengthen the face against feeding stresses. However, recent mechanical analyses imply that P. boisei may not have been an efficient producer of bite force and that robust morphology in primates is not necessarily strong. Here we use an engineering method, finite element analysis, to show that the facial skeleton of P. boisei is structurally strong, exhibits a strain pattern different from that in chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and Australopithecus africanus, and efficiently produces high bite force. It has been suggested that P. boisei consumed a diet of compliant/tough foods like grass blades and sedge pith. However, the blunt occlusal topography of this and other species suggests that australopiths are adapted to consume hard foods, perhaps including grass and sedge seeds. A consideration of evolutionary trends in morphology relating to feeding mechanics suggests that food processing behaviors in gracile australopiths evidently were disrupted by environmental change, perhaps contributing to the eventual evolution of Homo and Paranthropus.
feeding biomechanics, functional morphology, geometric morphometrics
Smith AL, Benazzi S, Ledogar JA, Tamvada K, Pryor Smith LC, Weber GW, Spencer MA, Lucas PW, Michael S, Shekeban A, Al-Fadhalah K, Almusallam AS, Dechow PC, Grosse IR, Ross CF, Madden RH, Richmond BG, Wright B, Wang Q, Byron C, Slice DE, Wood S, Dzialo C, Berthaume MA, van Casteren A, Strait DS. The Feeding Biomechanics and Dietary Ecology of Paranthropus boisei. Anatomical Record. 2015; 298(1). doi: 10.1002/ar.23073.