Human Ancestors Ate Bark—Food in Teeth Hints at Chimplike Origins


Chew on this: Bits of food stuck in the two-million-year-old teeth of a human ancestor suggest some of our forebears ate tree bark, a new study says.

A first ever find for early human ancestors, the bark evidence hints at a woodsier, more chimplike lifestyle for the Australopithecus sediba species. Other so-called hominins alive at the time are thought to have dined mostly on savanna grasses.

A. sediba was identified from stunningly preserved fossils of a female and a young male discovered in a South African cave in 2008 by scientists led by paleoanthropologist and National Geographic Society grantee Lee Berger. 

“We think these two individuals fell down a sinkhole … and were quickly covered in very fine-grained sediment that created an environment of very little oxygen,” explained Amanda Henry, lead author of the new study.

“So there wasn’t a lot whole lot of bacteria or decomposition, and there certainly wasn’t any interaction with the air,” said Henry, a paleobiologist at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

That airless entombment resulted in a rare state of preservation—to the point that even microscopic, fossilized particles of plant tissue remain trapped in dental plaque.

By comparing isotopes and other properties of the ancient particles, called phytoliths, with modern examples, the team was able to identify which plant parts individual specks came from—revealing a diet that included fruit, leaves, and bark.

In some cases the researchers could even pinpoint the type of plant.

For example, “we had a palm [tree] phytolith,” Henry said. “We weren’t able to tell whether it came from the fruit or the leaf or another part of the palm, but we could definitely identify that it came from that family of plants.”

Written By: Ker Than
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  1. There are articles and links about the Malpa fossils, some of which we have discussed before.

    The lineage diagram and pictures add to the interesting explanations about  Australopithecus sediba.As usual some comments below the articles illustrate the assertive deep ignorance of some  posters.

  2. I’m always appalled when I read some of the comments on, it’s supposed to be an educational channel, and yet it’s always bombarded by creationists and global warming deniers; the worst thing is that those comments do usually have lots of “likes”. Is it because it’s owned primarily by Fox Cable Networks? It always happens one very news-article related to evolution or global warming, and I think it’s a bit concerning.

  3. I really enjoyed reading this article. What is the difference between A. afarensis and A. sediba? 

  4. Yes and it’s also concerning that I literally just had a debate of that nature with a friend who is interested in biology yet does not “believe” in evolution. 

  5.  There are further links to various articles, but the lineage diagram is the clearest brief explanation of the different evolutionary branches..

  6.  Every now and thenover the years, there is a letter published in the hard copy magazine from some cretinist who is going to stop subscribing if they keep publishing this “evolution stuff”!  It’s circulated in the US so we must expect ignorant comments to be posted.

  7. Maybe they were gnawing on a stick to sharpen it all the time? shrug

    I’m not going to lie, I tried bark as a kid. Not bad… Better than dirt to a starving ape. What’s the nutritional value of bark anyway? I’m sure it varies.

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