The carbon isotope ecology and diet of Australopithecus africanus at Sterkfontein, South Africa

J Hum Evol. 2003 May;44(5):581-97. doi: 10.1016/s0047-2484(03)00050-2.


The stable carbon isotope ratio of fossil tooth enamel carbonate is determined by the photosynthetic systems of plants at the base of the animal's foodweb. In subtropical Africa, grasses and many sedges have C(4)photosynthesis and transmit their characteristically enriched 13C/(12)C ratios (more positive delta13C values) along the foodchain to consumers. We report here a carbon isotope study of ten specimens of Australopithecus africanus from Member 4, Sterkfontein (ca. 2.5 to 2.0Ma), compared with other fossil mammals from the same deposit. This is the most extensive isotopic study of an early hominin species that has been achieved so far. The results show that this hominin was intensively engaged with the savanna foodweb and that the dietary variation between individuals was more pronounced than for any other early hominin or non-human primate species on record. Suggestions that more than one species have been incuded in this taxon are not supported by the isotopic evidence. We conclude that Australopithecus africanus was highly opportunistic and adaptable in its feeding habits.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Anatomy, Comparative
  • Animals
  • Carbon Isotopes / analysis*
  • Dental Enamel / chemistry*
  • Diet*
  • Ecology*
  • Feeding Behavior
  • Fossils
  • Hominidae*
  • Humans
  • Mammals
  • Paleontology
  • South Africa


  • Carbon Isotopes