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European scientists crack the mystery of why we eat nuts

Hunger will drive people to eat foods they've never consumed before. This seems to be the case for our ancestors who lived more than 2 million years ago, new research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) shows. An international team of scient...
European scientists crack the mystery of why we eat nuts
Hunger will drive people to eat foods they've never consumed before. This seems to be the case for our ancestors who lived more than 2 million years ago, new research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) shows. An international team of scientists has discovered that feeding and dietary adaptations potentially played a pivotal role in the evolution of Earth's earliest humans. The findings are part of the EVAN ('European virtual anthropology network') project, funded under the Marie Curie Actions - Human resources and mobility programme of the EU's Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) to the tune of EUR 3.3 million.

Led by Professor Gerhard W. Weber from the Department of Anthropology at the University of Vienna in Austria, the researchers discovered that our ancient ancestors probably decided to consume large nuts and seeds because it was the only food they could get their hands on. Their PNAS article is the first of a series investigating the mechanics of feeding in primates and Australopithecines (extinct humanlike primates of the genus Australopithecus, known primarily from Pleistocene fossil remains).

According to the scientists, being able to consume foods that were hard to process could have been an ecologically important adaptation. Their findings revealed that the facial skeleton of Australopithecus africanus, a 2 million-year-old human relative from South Africa, was well suited to such foods and could withstand premolar bites.

However, the researchers hinted that the consumption of either small objects or large volumes of food does not fully explain the evolution of the facial form in A. africanus. 'Rather, key aspects of australopith craniofacial morphology are more likely to be related to the ingestion and initial preparation of large, mechanically protected food objects like large seeds and nuts,' the research showed.

The researchers from Austria, Germany and the US used state-of-the-art technology for their investigation. Professor Weber and his team provided a tool kit from their 'Virtual Anthropology' (VA) workgroup, and Finite Element Analysis (FEA), a method developed in 1943 to determine how objects of complex geometry respond to loads, was provided by the University of Albany in the US.

The team initially reconstructed an accurate 3D (three-dimensional) model of the fossil's skull in Vienna. Computer tomography was used to scan the fossil and produce digital copies that could be handled and measured electronically, according to the researchers. An interesting feature of this method is that structures such as embedded stone matrices can be removed without harming the originals.

'In this case we were lucky to have teeth available from a very similar other specimen so that we could reconstruct the edentulous face of 'Mrs Ples', as the fossil is called,' Professor Weber explained.

On the whole, the study showed that the foods consumed by A. africanus may have broadened the species' diet because their regular choice of foods was in short supply. 'Our analysis reconciles apparent discrepancies between dietary reconstructions based on biomechanics, tooth morphology and dental microwear [the study of microscopic signs of wear and tear on teeth],' the authors wrote.

The EVAN project is coordinated by Professor Weber and brings together researchers and industry actors from Austria, Germany, Greece, Spain, France and the UK. Key aims of the EVAN project include spreading this kind of technology across Europe and training young researchers.

The research will be used to improve implant technology and medical diagnosis and treatment planning, as well as to fuel understanding of human growth. Ultimately, the quality of life for Europeans will improve.

Source: University of Vienna; Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

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  • Austria, Germany, United States
Record Number: 31733 / Last updated on: 2010-02-05
Category: Other
Provider: EC