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Ancient ‘nutcracker’ man preferred salad: study

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WASHINGTON (AFP) – He had the powerful jaws and big chompers to crack the toughest of shells, but a new study has shown that the ancient human relative known as “Nutcracker Man” actually preferred to munch on grass.

“It most likely was eating grass, and most definitely was not cracking nuts,” said University of Utah geochemist Thure Cerling, lead author of the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

With molars about triple the size of a modern man’s, the human ancestor, Paranthropus boisei, is believed to have roamed the Earth between 1.2 million and 2.3 million years ago.

A skull found in Tanzania in 1959 quickly drew the nickname “Nutcracker Man” because of its giant teeth, but US and Kenyan researchers now say the species grazed on the same wild fields as the ancestors of zebras, pigs and hippos.

“They were competing with them,” said Cerling. “They were eating at the same table.”

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Researchers used a drill to pulverize tooth enamel, taken from already broken tooth samples from 22 individuals who lived in that period, and examined carbon isotope ratios that revealed what kind of food they were eating.

They could see that the specimens ate tropical grasses and herbs that use C4 photosynthesis, and not leaves, nuts and fruits that use C3 photosynthesis, the study said.

Only one similar diet has been seen in an extinct species of grass-eating baboon, the researchers said.

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“The high proportion of C4 vegetation in the diet of Paranthropus boisei makes it different from any other hominin to date,” said co-author Kevin Uno of the University of Utah.

“The results make an excellent case for isotope analysis of teeth from other members of our family tree, especially from East Africa.”


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Fifty years after Moon mission, Apollo astronauts meet at historic launchpad

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Fifty years ago on Tuesday, three American astronauts set off from Florida for the Moon on a mission that would change the way we see humanity's place in the universe.

The crew's surviving members, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, are set to reunite at the same launchpad on Tuesday, the start of a week-long series of events commemorating Apollo 11.

Their commander and the first man on the Moon, Neil Armstrong, passed away in 2012.

But Aldrin and Collins, 89 and 88 respectively, will meet Tuesday at precisely 9:32 am (1332 GMT) at the Kennedy Space Center's pad 39A to kick off the festivities.

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At 82, NASA pioneer Sue Finley still reaching for the stars

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Sue Finley began work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as the US prepared to launch its first satellite into orbit in 1958, racing to match the Soviet Union, which had accomplished the feat months earlier.

Now 82, she is one of NASA's longest-serving women, starting out as one of its "human computers," whose critical yet long-hidden contributions to the space program, including the Apollo missions to the Moon, are finally being recognized.

Finley had dropped out of college and joined a group of mathematically gifted individuals, overwhelmingly women, whose job it was to solve the complex equations thrown at them by rocket scientists before electronic computing became affordable and reliable.

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Fireflies’ glow could soon be extinguished by human actions

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Species’ extinction rates are accelerating on a global scale. We need solutions that match the severity of the problem.

Say goodbye to one of the dreamiest things about childhood. In the Midwest, fireflies are dying off.

For many Americans, it’s hard to imagine summer nights without the magical glow of dozens of bioluminescent bodies fluttering above the grasses and fields, and lighting up the dark skies above.

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