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Report suggests early hominid ate bark

PARIS--A short, gangly relative of man that lived in South Africa two million years ago ate bark and wood, the only early hominid known to have done so, a report said Wednesday.

While its ancient relations opted for softer grasses and shrubs, Australopithecus sediba, an upright-walking tree climber, “included quite a large amount of hard food in its diet,” anthropologist Amanda Henry told AFP.

Henry, from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany led an international team that examined fossilized plaque, known as calculus, on the teeth of A. sediba to determine its diet.

“Just like a dentist does, I used a dental pick to remove this calculus from the surface of the tooth and then, after some processing, I looked under a microscope for the phytoliths,” she explained.

The phytoliths, tiny silica remains of plants, were then compared to those of modern plants to identify what A. sediba ate, said the study published in Nature.

“This is the first time anyone has looked for phytoliths in the dental calculus” to determine the diet of a species of hominin — a sub-grouping of hominids most closely related to man, added Henry.

Remains of four A. sediba skeletons have been discovered in South Africa's Malapa cave, north of Johannesburg, since 2008. The individuals are believed to have fallen into a pit in the cave and died.

It is not certain whether the species, which had long arms, a small brain and a thumb possibly used for precision gripping, was a direct ancestor of our genus, Homo, or simply a close relative.

Henry said its strange diet was just one of A. sediba's many oddities.

It walked upright on two legs, but its foot structure suggests it probably also spent a lot of time climbing trees.

“So there seems to be a mix of very modern and somewhat primitive features in the skeleton of this species.”

Scientists had expected A. sediba's diet to more closely resemble that of other species in the genus Australopithecus, said Henry.

“However, what we see is that A. sediba is really not like any other hominin.”

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