June 01, 2011
The researchers show that a high proportion of small, but not large, hominin teeth had non-local strontium isotope compositions. Given the relatively high levels of sexual dimorphism in early hominins, the smaller teeth probably represent females, indicating that females were more likely than males to disperse from their natal (i.e. where they were born) groups. This is similar to the dispersal pattern found in chimpanzees, bonobos, and many human groups, but dissimilar to that of most gorillas and other primates.
Established paleontological and archaeological techniques provide little tangible evidence for how early hominins used and moved across landscapes. For example, home range size has been estimated based on a rough correlation with body mass, and models of early hominin dispersal have relied on behaviors common among hominoids and presumed to be present in a common ancestor. “However, the highly uncertain nature of such reconstructions limits our understanding of early hominin ecology, biology, social structure, and evolution”, says Sandi Copeland of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.
Copeland and colleagues have now used a geochemical proxy, strontium isotope analysis of tooth enamel, to investigate early hominin landscape use. Strontium is ingested and incorporated in trace quantities into mammalian teeth. First, the researchers determined strontium isotopes in plant specimens that were collected within a 50 km radius of the Sterkfontein and Swartkrans caves in order to establish the background of biologically available strontium across the region. They then sampled a series of hominin tooth crowns by employing a relatively new method for measuring strontium isotopes in teeth that is called laser ablation multicollector inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (LA-MC-ICP-MS). This method is almost non-destructive as it leaves only tiny traces on the enamel surface. The researchers found that although there is no significant difference between the proportion of non-locals in P. robustus (36 %) and A. africanus (25 %), there are significant differences between subsets of hominins defined by tooth size.