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Tooth chipping patterns in Paranthropus do not support regular hard food mastication

By Ian Towle, Joel D Irish, Carolina Loch

Posted 14 Feb 2021
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2021.02.12.431024

The paranthropines, including Paranthropus boisei and Paranthropus robustus, have often been considered hard-food specialists. The large post-canine teeth, thick enamel, and robust craniofacial features are often suggested to have evolved to cope with habitual mastication of hard foods. Yet, direct evidence for Paranthropus feeding behaviour often challenges these morphological interpretations. The main exception being antemortem tooth chipping which is still regularly used as evidence of habitual mastication of hard foods in this genus. In this study, data were compiled from the literature for six hominin species (including P. boisei and P. robustus) and 17 extant primate species, to analyse Paranthropus chipping patterns in a broad comparative framework. Severity of fractures, position on the dentition, and overall prevalence were compared among species. The results indicate that both Paranthropus species had a lower prevalence of tooth fractures compared to other fossil hominin species (P. boisei: 4%; P. robustus: 11%; Homo naledi: 37%; Australopithecus africanus: 17%; Homo neanderthalensis: 45%; Epipalaeolithic Homo sapiens: 29%); instead, their frequencies are similar to apes that masticate hard items in a non-regular frequency, including chimpanzees, gibbons, and gorillas (4%, 7% and 9% respectively). The prevalence is several times lower than in extant primates known to habitually consume hard items, such as sakis, mandrills, and sooty mangabeys (ranging from 28% to 48%). Comparative chipping analysis suggests that both Paranthropus species were unlikely habitual hard object eaters, at least compared to living durophage analogues.

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