The 81st Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2012)

Termites and bone tools: implications of termite genera on the foraging behavior of the Swartkrans hominins


Department of Anthropology, Northeastern Illinois University

Saturday 11:00-11:15, Galleria South Add to calendar

Evidence of South African hominin termite foraging has been reported based on analyses of wear patterns on the ends of bone tools from sites in the Sterkfontein valley. This conclusion has been credited by some to be a plausible explanation for unexpected carbon isotope signatures present in South African hominin teeth that suggest the diet was different from that of extant non-human great apes. Grass-eating termites such as the genus Trinervitermes are one potential resource that could contribute to the carbon signature. However, not all termites forage for grasses, and in fact, Macrotermes, the termites most widely consumed by chimpanzees and by many present-day human populations, almost exclusively forage on the remains of woody plants, and therefore would not contribute to the signature.

This study reviews evidence gathererd from the bone tool assemblages and addresses the desirability and nutritional value of termites likely present on the Plio-Pleistocene South African savanna. Wear pattern analyses on tools used to dig mounds constructed by different termite genera were inconclusive, and the best support for which termites would have been consumed comes from behavioral and ethnographic data. Termites of the genus Macrotermes may be the most likely resource for hominins since they are highly selected by both chimpanzees and humans. These termites would not contribute to the surprising carbon isotope signature, but if both the soldiers and alates were being consumed, they would provide a reliable source of protein and fat, which are valuable for larger-brained hominins navigating the South African savanna.

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