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Nutcracker Man’ Ate Nuts of a Different Kind

A strong-jawed extinct relative of humans called "Nutcracker Man" might have lived up to its name by munching on tiger nuts — grass bulbs that are still eaten in parts of the world today.

The extinct creature, officially called Paranthropus boisei, roamed across East Africa 1.4 million to 2.4 million years ago. It earned its nickname because of its massive jaw and huge molars.

Scientists long assumed that P. boisei ate nuts, seeds and other hard items. Damage to the tooth enamel showed that it came into contact with abrasive substances. But a recent study of the teeth did not turn up the kind of pitting one would expect from hard meals, suggesting instead that Nutcracker Man fed on softer fare.

Image: Jaw
This image shows the palate and maxillary teeth of Paranthropus boisei, also called Nutcracker Man. Donald C. Johanson

To help solve this mystery, Oxford paleontologist Gabriele Macho investigated modern-day baboons in Amboseli National Park in Kenya, an environment similar to that inhabited by P. boisei. Year-old baboons there eat large quantities of the nutritious tiger nuts.

Macho determined that Nutcracker Man could have gathered tiger nuts twice as quickly as the yearling baboons. But tiger nuts are rich in starches that are abrasive, so Nutcracker Man would need to chew for a long time. That might explain why the creature had such an unusual anatomy: The wear and tear on its jaws and teeth resulted from repetitive chewing, not from eating hard objects.

"The most important, exciting aspect for me is that the diet proposed reconciles all apparent inconsistencies," Macho told LiveScience.

Macho detailed her findings online Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE.

— Charles Q. Choi, LiveScience contributor

This is a condensed version of a report published by LiveScience. Read the full report, and follow LiveScience on Twitter, Facebook and Google+.