Research Articles

Hominin palaeoecology in Late Pliocene Malawi: First insights from isotopes (13C, 18O) in mammal teeth

Hervé Bocherens, Oliver Sandrock, Ottmar Kullmer, Friedemann Schrenk
South African Journal of Science | Vol 107, No 3/4 | a331 | DOI: | © 2011 Hervé Bocherens, Oliver Sandrock, Ottmar Kullmer, Friedemann Schrenk | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 28 June 2010 | Published: 07 March 2011

About the author(s)

Hervé Bocherens, Universität Tübingen, Germany
Oliver Sandrock, Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt, Germany
Ottmar Kullmer, Forschungsinstitut Senckenberg, Palaeoanthropologie, Germany
Friedemann Schrenk, Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität, Germany

Share this article

Bookmark and Share


Carbon-13 and oxygen-18 abundances were measured in large mammal skeletal remains (tooth enamel, dentine and bone) from the Chiwondo Beds in Malawi, which were dated by biostratigraphic correlation to ca. 2.5 million years ago. The biologic isotopic patterns, in particular the difference in carbon-13 abundances between grazers and browsers and the difference in oxygen-18 abundances between semi-aquatic and terrestrial herbivores, were preserved in enamel, but not in dentine and bone. The isotopic results obtained from the skeletal remains from the Chiwondo Beds indicate a dominance of savannah habitats with some trees and shrubs. This environment was more arid than the contemporaneous Ndolanya Beds in Tanzania. The present study confirms that robust australopithecines were able to live in relatively arid environments and were not confined to more mesic environments elsewhere in southern Africa.


carbon-13; Chiwondo Beds; enamel; Homo; Malawi; mammals; oxygen-18; palaeoecology; Paranthropus; Pliocene


Total abstract views: 1188
Total article views: 2074


Foley RA. Speciation, extinction and climatic change in hominid evolution. J Hum Evol. 1994;26:275–289. doi:10.1006/jhev.1994.1017

Vrba ES. Ecological and adaptive changes associated with early hominid evolution. In: Delson E, editor. Ancestors: The hard evidence. New York: Alan R Liss Inc., 1985; p. 63–71.

Potts R. Environmental hypotheses of Pliocene human evolution. In: Bobe R, Alemseged Z, Behrensmeyer AK, editors. Hominin environments in the East African Pliocene: An assessment of the faunal evidence. Dordrecht: Springer, 2007; p. 25–49. doi:10.1007/978-1-4020-3098-7_2

Schrenk F, Kullmer O, Sandrock O, Bromage TG. Early hominid diversity, age and biogeography of the Malawi-Rift. Hum Evol. 2002;17:113–122. doi:10.1007/BF02436432

Schrenk F, Sandrock O, Kullmer O. The “open source” perspective of earliest hominid origins. Collegium Anthropologicum. 2004;28:113–119. PMid:15571086

Trauth MH, Maslin MA, Deino AL, Strecker MR, Bergner AGN, Dühnforth M. High- and low-latitude forcing of Plio-Pleistocene East African climate and human evolution. J Hum Evol. 2007;53:475–486. doi:10.1016/j.jhevol.2006.12.009, PMid:17959230

Lee-Thorp JA, van der Merwe NJ. Carbon isotope studies of Swartkrans fauna and hominids. Transvaal Mus Mon. 1993;8:251–256.

Bocherens H, Koch PL, Mariotti A, Geraads D, Jaeger J-J. Isotopic biogeochemistry (13C, 18O) of mammal enamel from African Pleistocene hominid sites: Implications for the preservation of paleoclimatic isotopic signals. Palaios. 1996;11:306–318. doi:10.2307/3515241

Lee-Thorp JA, Thackeray JF, van der Merwe NJ. The hunters and the hunted revisited. J Hum Evol. 2000;39:565–576. doi:10.1006/jhev.2000.0436, PMid:11102267

Sponheimer M, Lee-Thorp JA, de Ruiter D, et al. Diets of southern African Bovidae: Stable isotope evidence. J Mammal. 2003;84:471–479. doi:10.1644/1545-1542(2003)084<0471:DOSABS>2.0.CO;2

Kingston JD, Harrison T. Isotopic dietary reconstructions of Pliocene herbivores at Laetoli: Implications for early hominin paleoecology. Palaeogeogr Palaeoclimatol Palaeoecol. 2007;243:272–306. doi:10.1016/j.palaeo.2006.08.002

Levin NE, Simpson SW, Quade J, Cerling TE, Frost SR. Herbivore enamel carbon isotopic composition and the environmental context of Ardipithecus at Gona, Ethiopia. Geol Soc Am Spec Pap. 2008;446:215–234.

Van der Merwe NJ, Masao FT, Bamford MK. Isotopic evidence for contrasting diets of early hominins Homo habilis and Australopithecus boisei of Tanzania. S Afr J Sci. 2008;104:153–155.

Plummer TW, Ditchfield PW, Bishop LC, et al. Oldest evidence of toolmaking hominins in a grassland-dominated ecosystem. PLoS ONE. 2009;4(9):e7199. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0007199, PMid:19844568, PMCid:2746317

Sponheimer M, Lee-Thorp JA. Biogeochemical evidence for the environments of early Homo in South Africa. In: Grine FE, Fleagle JG, Leakey RE, editors. The first humans: Origin and early evolution of the genus Homo. Dordrecht: Springer, 2009; p. 185–194. doi:10.1007/978-1-4020-9980-9_16

White TD, Ambrose SH, Suwa G, et al. Macrovertebrate paleontology and the Pliocene habitat of Ardipithecus ramidus. Science. 2009;326:87–93. doi:10.1126/science.1175822

Bedaso Z, Wynn JG, Alemseged Z, Geraads D. Paleoenvironmental reconstruction of the Asbole fauna (Busidima Formation, Afar, Ethiopia) using stable isotopes. Geobios. 2010;43:165–177. doi:10.1016/j.geobios.2009.09.008

Kullmer O, Sandrock O, Schrenk F, Bromage TG. The Malawi Rift: Biogeography, ecology and coexistence of Homo and Paranthropus. J Sci Man Anthropol. 1999;37:221–231.

Kullmer O, Sandrock O, Abel R, Schrenk F, Bromage TG, Juwayeyi YM. The first Paranthropus from the Malawi Rift. J Hum Evol. 1999;37:121–127. doi:10.1006/jhev.1999.0308, PMid:10375478

Kullmer O. The Plio-Pleistocene suids (Suidae; Artiodactyla) of the Chiwondo Beds, northern Malawi. J Vert Paleontol. 2008;28:208–216. doi:10.1671/0272-4634(2008)28[208:TFSFTP]2.0.CO;2

Sandrock O, Kullmer O, Schrenk F, Juwayeyi YM, Bromage TG. Fauna, taphonomy, and ecology of the Plio-Pleistocene Chiwondo Beds, northern Malawi. In: Bobe R, Alemseged Z, Behrensmeyer AK, editors. Hominin environments in the East African Pliocene: An assessment of the faunal evidence. Dordrecht: Springer, 2007; p. 315–332. doi:10.1007/978-1-4020-3098-7_12

Sandrock O, Dauphin Y, Kullmer O, Abel R, Denys C. Malema: Preliminary taphonomic analysis of an African hominid locality. C R Acad Sci Paris. 1999;328:133–139.

Schrenk F, Bromage TG, Betzler CG, Ring U, Juwayeyi YM. Oldest Homo and Pliocene biogeography of the Malawi Rift. Nature. 1993;365:833–836. doi:10.1038/365833a0, PMid:8413666

Kimbel W. Hominid speciation and Pliocene climatic change. In: Vrba ES, Denton GH, Partridge TC, Burckle LH, editors. Paleoclimate and evolution, with emphasis on human origins. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995; p. 425–437.

Bobe R, Behrensmeyer AK. The expansion of grassland ecosystems in Africa in relation to mammalian evolution and the origin of the genus Homo. Palaeogeogr Palaeoclimatol Palaeoecol. 2004;207:399–420. doi:10.1016/S0031-0182(04)00049-5

Robinson JT. The genera and species of the Australopithecinae. Am J Phys Anthrop. 1954;12:181–200. doi:10.1002/ajpa.1330120216, PMid:13188956

Wood B, Strait D. Patterns of resource use in early Homo and Paranthropus. J Hum Evol. 2004;46:119–162. doi:10.1016/j.jhevol.2003.11.004, PMid:14871560

Lee-Thorp JA. Stable carbon isotopes in deep time: The diets of fossil fauna and hominids. PhD thesis, Cape Town, University of Cape Town, 1989.

Cerling TE, Harris JM, Leakey MG. Browsing and grazing in elephants: The isotope record of modern and fossil proboscideans. Oecologia. 1999;120:364–374. doi:10.1007/s004420050869

Cerling TE, Harris JM, Passey BH. Diets of east African Bovidae based on stable isotopic analysis. J Mammal. 2003;84:456–470. doi:10.1644/1545- 1542(2003)084<0456:DOEABB>2.0.CO;2

Codron D, Codron J, Lee-Thorp JA, et al. Diets of savanna ungulates from stable carbon isotope composition of faeces. J Zool. 2007;273:21–29. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7998.2007.00292.x

Bocherens H, Jacques L, Ogle N, et al. Reply to the comment by A. Zazzo, W.P Patterson and T.C. Prokopiuk on ‘Implications of diagenesis for the isotopic analysis of Upper Miocene large mammalian herbivore tooth enamel from Chad’ by Jacques et al. in Palaeogeogr Palaeoclimatol Palaeoecol. 2008;266:200–210. Palaeogeogr Palaeoclimatol Palaeoecol. 2009;277:269–271.

Boisserie JR, Zazzo A, Merceron G, et al. Diets of modern and late Miocene hippopotamids: Evidence from carbon isotope composition and microwear of tooth enamel. Palaeogeogr Palaeoclimatol Palaeoecol. 2005;221:153–174. doi:10.1016/j.palaeo.2005.02.010

Cerling TE, Harris JM, Hart JA, et al. Stable isotope ecology of the common hippopotamus. J Zool. 2008;276:204–212. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7998.2008.00450.x

Brachert TC, Brügmann GB, Mertz DF, et al. Stable isotope variation in tooth enamel from Neogene hippopotamids: Monitor of meso and global climate and rift dynamics on the Albertine Rift, Uganda. Int J Earth Sci. (Geol Rundsch). 2010;99:1663–1675. doi:10.1007/s00531-010-0518-1

Fricke HC, O’Neil JR. The correlation between 18O/16O ratios of meteoric water and surface temperature: Its use in investigating terrestrial climate change over geologic time. Earth Planet Sci Lett. 1999;170:181–196. doi:10.1016/S0012-821X(99)00105-3

Levin NE, Cerling TE, Passey BH, Harris JM, Ehleringer JR. A stable isotope aridity index for terrestrial environments. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2006;103:11201–11205. doi:10.1073/pnas.0604719103, PMid:16840554, PMCid:1544065

Quade J, Cerling TE, Andrews P, Alpagut B. Paleodietary reconstruction of Miocene faunas from Pasalar, Turkey using stable carbon and oxygen isotopes of fossil tooth enamel. J Hum Evol. 1995;28:373–384. doi:10.1006/jhev.1995.1029

Clementz MT, Holroyd PA, Koch PL. Identifying aquatic habits of herbivorous mammals through stable isotope analysis. Palaios. 2008;23:574–585. doi:10.2110/palo.2007.p07-054r

Lee-Thorp JA, van der Merwe NJ. Aspects of the chemistry of modern and fossil biological apatites. J Archaeol Sci. 1991;18:343–354. doi:10.1016/0305- 4403(91)90070-6

Bocherens H, Sen S. Pliocene vertebrate locality of Çalta, Ankara, Turkey. 11. Isotopic investigation. Geodiversitas. 1998;20:487–495.

Lee-Thorp JA, Sponheimer M. Three case studies used to reassess the reliability of fossil bone and enamel isotope signals for paleodietary studies. J Anthropol Archaeol. 2003;22:208–216. doi:10.1016/S0278-4165(03)00035-7

Franz-Odendall TA, Solounias N. Comparative dietary evaluations of an extinct giraffid (Sivatherium hendeyi) (Mammalia, Giraffidae, Sivatheriinae) from Langebaanweg, South Africa (early Pliocene). Geodiversitas. 2004;26:675–685.

Lee-Thorp JA, van der Merwe NJ, Brain CK. Diet of Australopithecus robustus at Swartkrans from stable carbon isotopic analysis. J Hum Evol. 1994;27:361–372. doi:10.1006/jhev.1994.1050

Vrba ES. Chronological and ecological implications of the fossil Bovidae at the Sterkfontein Australopithecine site. Nature. 1974; 250:19–23. doi:10.1038/250019a0

Vrba ES. Some evidence of chronology and paleoecology of Sterkfontein, Swartkrans and Kromdraai from the fossil Bovidae. Nature. 1975; 254:301–304. doi:10.1038/254301a0

Avery DM. The Plio-Pleistocene vegetation and climate of Sterkfontein and Swartkrans, South Africa, based on micromammals. J Hum Evol. 2001;41:113–132. doi:10.1006/jhev.2001.0483, PMid:11437522

Lee-Thorp JA, Sponheimer M, Luyt J. Tracking changing environments using stable carbon isotopes in fossil tooth enamel: An example from the South African hominin sites. J Hum Evol. 2007;53:595–601. doi:10.1016/j.jhevol.2006.11.020, PMid:17920103

Kovarovic K, Andrews P, Aiello L. The palaeoecology of the Upper Ndolanya Beds at Laetoli, Tanzania. J Hum Evol. 2002;43:395–418. doi:10.1006/ jhev.2002.0580, PMid:12234550

Andrews P. Taphonomic effects of faunal impoverishment and faunal mixing. Palaeogeogr Palaeoclimatol Palaeoecol. 2006;241:572–589. doi:10.1016/j. palaeo.2006.04.012

Kovarovic K, Andrews P. Bovid postcranial ecomorphological survey of the Laetoli paleoenvironment. J Hum Evol. 2007;52:663–680. doi:10.1016/j. jhevol.2007.01.001, PMid:17353031

Harrison T. The first record of fossil hominins from the Ndolanya Beds, Laetoli, Tanzania. Am J Phys Anthropol. 2002;34(Suppl):83.

Wood B, Constantino P. Paranthropus boisei: Fifty years of evidence and analysis. Am J Phys Anthropol. 2007;134(S45):106–132. doi:10.1002/ajpa.20732, PMid:18046746

Shipman P, Harris JM. Habitat preference and paleoecology of Australopithecus boisei in Eastern Africa. In: Grine FE, editor. Evolutionary history of the “robust” australopithecines. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1988; p. 343–381.

Reed K. Early hominid evolution and ecological change through the African Plio-Pleistocene. J Hum Evol. 1997;32:289–322. doi:10.1006/jhev.1996.0106, PMid:9061560

Peters CR, Vogel JC. Africa’s wild C4 plant foods and possible early hominid diets. J Hum Evol. 2005;48:219–236. doi:10.1016/j.jhevol.2004.11.003, PMid:15737391

Sponheimer M, Lee-Thorp JA, de Ruiter D, et al. Hominins, sedges, and termites: New carbon isotope data from the Sterkfontein valley and Kruger National Park. J Hum Evol. 2005;48:301–312. doi:10.1016/j.jhevol.2004.11.008, PMid:15737395

Ungar PS, Grine FE, Teaford MF. Dental microwear and diet of the Plio-Pleistocene hominin Paranthropus boisei. PLoS One. 2008;3(4):e2044. doi:10.1371/ journal.pone.0002044, PMid:18446200, PMCid:2315797

Frost S, Kullmer O. Cercopithecidae from the Pliocene Chiwondo Beds, Malawi-rift. Geobios. 2008;41:743–749. doi:10.1016/j.geobios.2008.01.005

Reader Comments

Before posting a comment, read our privacy policy.

Post a comment (login required)

Crossref Citations

No related citations found.