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Viewpoints: Feeding mechanics, diet, and dietary adaptations in early hominins
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Inference of feeding adaptation in extinct species is challenging, and reconstructions of the paleobiology of our ancestors have utilized an array of analytical approaches. Comparative anatomy and finite element analysis assist in bracketing the range of capabilities in taxa, while microwear and isotopic analyses give glimpses of individual behavior in the past. These myriad approaches have limitations, but each contributes incrementally toward the recognition of adaptation in the hominin fossil record. Microwear and stable isotope analysis together suggest that australopiths are not united by a single, increasingly specialized dietary adaptation. Their traditional (i.e., morphological) characterization as "nutcrackers" may only apply to a single taxon, Paranthropus robustus. These inferences can be rejected if interpretation of microwear and isotopic data can be shown to be misguided or altogether erroneous. Alternatively, if these sources of inference are valid, it merely indicates that there are phylogenetic and developmental constraints on morphology. Inherently, finite element analysis is limited in its ability to identify adaptation in paleobiological contexts. Its application to the hominin fossil record to date demonstrates only that under similar loading conditions, the form of the stress field in the australopith facial skeleton differs from that in living primates. This observation, by itself, does not reveal feeding adaptation. Ontogenetic studies indicate that functional and evolutionary adaptation need not be conceptually isolated phenomena. Such a perspective helps to inject consideration of mechanobiological principles of bone formation into paleontological inferences. Finite element analysis must employ such principles to become an effective research tool in this context. © 2013 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.