Archaeologists test teeth to discover humans had rainforest food diet 12,000 years earlier than we thought

By Culture24 Reporter | 20 March 2015

Early humans lived almost entirely on food found in rainforests, say archaeologists studying Sri Lankan teeth

A photo of a lush green rainforest under a blue and white sky with mountains visible
Archaeologists say they have created a timeline showing the "deep level of interaction" early humans had with the rainforest in South Asia© Patrick Roberts
Using the fossilised teeth of 26 ancient humans – the oldest of whom lived 20,000 years ago – archaeologists say early people in Sri Lanka lived almost entirely on food foraged in rainforests, predating previous estimates by 12,000 years.

Tropical forests, according to researchers in Oxford and Bradford working at three archaeological sites, were occupied by humans long before the Early Holocene of 8,000 years ago.

Experts had previously thought these open landscapes might have been too difficult for early man to navigate. But almost all of the teeth suggested a diet from an “intermediate rainforest” environment, supporting some previous theories which hinted that humans could have settled in rainforests for short periods as long as 45,000 years ago.

“Our earliest human ancestors were clearly able to successfully adapt to different extreme environments,” says Patrick Roberts, the Lead Author from Oxford’s Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art.

A photo of a cave in a rainforest
Two of the teeth, from the start of the Iron Age, showed a diet from open grassland© Patrick Roberts
“The results are significant in showing that early humans in Sri Lanka were able to live almost entirely on food found in the rainforest without the need to move into other environments.”

The focus could now turn to similar environments in Melanasia, Australasia and Africa.

“This is the first time scientists have investigated ancient human fossils in a tropical forest context to see how our earliest ancestors survived in such a habitat,” says Professor Julia Lee-Thorp, from Oxford University.

“The isotopic methodology applied in our study has already been successfully used to study how primates, including African great apes, adapt to their forest environment.”

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