You may have heard of the Greek saying “You’re going to eat wood,” which really means that someone is about to get a beat down. It turns out this comical saying could be based on reality. In 2012, researchers claimed wood residue was found on teeth that were two million years old. Although it would have been cool to have ancestors who had super human teeth that were capable of eating wood, it has recently been uncovered that it may not have been wood scientists were looking at after all.
Scientists first started to doubt the research from 2012 when they began examining the jaw structure of South Africa’s Australopithecus sediba, who are believed to be some of our earliest ancestors. Originally, it was believed these people ate things like tree bark and leaves (yum!). However, after studying their jaws, scientists deemed it impossible that the A. sediba would have been able to chew such hard objects. Understandably, eating wood would have broken their jaws. Justin Ledogar, one of the researchers on the project, says that the A. sediba are very similar to Homo sapiens. However, one aspect that separates us is the A. sediba’s lack of ability to bite with much power. For instance, if an A. sediba were to bite as hard as it could while eating wood, he or she probably would have ended up with a dislocated jaw.
The scientists examining the jaw generated a digital model of an A. sediba skull that was found in 2008. The digitized version of the skull allowed them to simulate chewing and general jaw movement, as well as actually being able to look inside of the mouth, things they wouldn’t have been able to do with the physical skull. What they found was, not only would the jaw structure have prevented these ancient people from eating wood, but their teeth would have as well.
The overarching question is ‘who cares?’ Well, scientists have believed for a long time that the A. sediba or another group who behaved a lot like them, are who humans evolved from. It’s important to understand what these people ate because their diet could lead to vital evolutionary clues. It is thought that some ancient groups did evolve to develop strong jaws for purposes such as eating wood, but the A. sediba seem to have gone in the opposite direction, relying on softer foods for nutrition. Are you starting to understand why you like ice cream so much now?
Research like this is crucial for humankind because it could lead us to a roadmap of what our future may look like. And, if it ends up being theorized that we, in fact, didn’t come from the A. sediba, we need to continue searching for evidence imperative to our existence.