The Hadropithecus conundrum reconsidered, with implications for interpreting diet in fossil hominins

Elizabeth R. Dumont, Timothy M. Ryan, Laurie R. Godfrey

Abstract

The fossil ‘monkey lemur’ Hadropithecus stenognathus has long excited palaeontologists because its skull bears an astonishing resemblance to those of robust australopiths, an enigmatic side branch of the human family tree. Multiple lines of evidence point to the likelihood that these australopiths ate at least some ‘hard’, stress-limited food items, but conflicting data from H. stenognathus pose a conundrum. While its hominin-like craniofacial architecture is suggestive of an ability to generate high bite forces, details of its tooth structure suggest that it was not well equipped to withstand the forces imposed by cracking hard objects. Here, we use three-dimensional digital reconstructions and finite-element analysis to test the hard-object processing hypothesis. We show that Archaeolemur sp. cf. A. edwardsi, a longer-faced close relative of H. stenognathus that lacked hominin convergences, was probably capable of breaking apart large, stress-limited food items, while Hadropithecus was better suited to processing small, displacement-limited (tougher but more compliant) foods. Our suggestion that H. stenognathus was not a hard-object feeder has bearing on the interpretation of hominin cranial architecture; the features shared by H. stenognathus and robust australopiths do not necessarily reflect adaptations for hard-object processing.

  • Received March 10, 2011.
  • Accepted April 4, 2011.
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