Nutcracker Man

by Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell on May 14, 2011
Featured in News to Know

“Nutcracker Man” was neither man nor nutcracker.

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Paranthropus boisei, an extinct non-human primate, has undergone dental work to determine what it ate. Long thought to be a nut-eater because of its massive jaw and big molars, studies in 2008 failed to find the scratches nuts should have left on its teeth. Now carbon isotope analysis adds credence to the idea that the creature munched grass. Researchers drilled P. boisei’s teeth to collect enamel and assayed the enamel for carbon isotopes left over from its meals. The proportion of carbon-13 isotope found was more consistent with tropical grasses than with nuts.

Most carbon in nature is carbon-12. A tiny amount is carbon-13, a non-radioactive form having one extra neutron per atom. Plants utilize carbon dioxide for photosynthesis, but the first step varies. Most plants, including those that make nuts, first form a three-carbon compound. Others, such as tropical grasses, start with a four-carbon compound. Plants utilizing the three-carbon approach discriminate against carbon dioxide containing carbon-13.

The findings defy the conventional view of “early hominid diets.” “Frankly, we didn’t expect to find the primate equivalent of a cow dangling from a remote twig of our family tree,” said researcher Matt Sponheimer. Another paleoanthropologist, Peter Ungar, commented that this study “reminds us that in paleontology, things are not always as they seem.”

On the evolutionary version of the human family tree, P. boisei is considered a distant relation, an evolutionary dead-end that branched off of the australopithecines and became extinct. (The surviving Homo branch supposedly progressed to evolve into humans.) This study claims therefore to give us insight into the diet of “early human lineages.”

The shared ancestral branch has not been found. This does not surprise us, since God made man in His image rather than from ancestral primates.

Increasingly, research on hominid skeletal remains has revealed that some (like Nutcracker Man and Lucy) are fully apes, whereas others (like Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal) are fully human. The shared ancestral branch has not been found. This does not surprise us, since God made man in His image rather than from ancestral primates.

In fact, the word hominid is actually an evolutionary term used to group humans and our supposed primate relatives. But no matter how much we anthropomorphize primates, they’re not people. Indeed, “in paleontology, things are not always as they seem.”

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