Dietary options and behavior suggested by plant biomarker evidence in an early human habitat

Clayton Magill, Gail M. Ashley, Manuel Domínguez-Rodrigo, Katherine H. Freeman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

50 Citations (Scopus)


The availability of plants and freshwater shapes the diets and social behavior of chimpanzees, our closest living relative. However, limited evidence about the spatial relationships shared between ancestral human (hominin) remains, edible resources, refuge, and freshwater leaves the influence of local resources on our species’ evolution open to debate. Exceptionally well-preserved organic geochemical fossils—biomarkers—preserved in a soil horizon resolve different plant communities at meter scales across a contiguous 25,000 m2 archaeological land surface at Olduvai Gorge from about 2 Ma. Biomarkers reveal hominins had access to aquatic plants and protective woods in a patchwork landscape, which included a spring-fed wetland near a woodland that both were surrounded by open grassland. Numerous cut-marked animal bones are located within the wooded area, and within meters of wetland vegetation delineated by biomarkers for ferns and sedges. Taken together, plant biomarkers, clustered bone debris, and hominin remains define a clear spatial pattern that places animal butchery amid the refuge of an isolated forest patch and near freshwater with diverse edible resources.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2874-2879
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2016


  • Biomarker
  • Leaf wax
  • Carbon isotope
  • Paleoecology
  • Human evolution


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