Mighty Bites

It’s been thought for some time that human diet might have something to do with evolution. That big brain is expensive and it needs to be paid for. One idea was proposed a few years ago. It turns out that the gene for salivary amylase, an enzyme that turns starch into sugar, has a variation in humans. We have multiple copies of that gene. This means we have significantly more amylase in our saliva which means significantly more starch is predigested. Hence, more calories for less effort.

One would expect it, then, to show up in older hominids by its absence; that is, by more robust jaws and teeth.

This was an interesting sidelight to the discovery of a new human species: Homo gautengensis. This hominid emerged about 2 MYears ago and died out about 600k years go. It is a robust species with large teeth and a small brain. It produced and used stone tools and could have made fire. Likely it was a close answer but not a direct descendant.

So, we think. Big teeth. Strong jaw. Maybe it had the amylase variations. Or did it have to digest with brute force.

Not so fast, I say.

It turns out those weak humans have a mighty bite– better than chimps or orangutans. How? You may ask.

It turns out the big jaws and tough teeth of our ancestors aren’t necessarily the best way to get a good bite. A new study suggests that though we are not so heavily muscled in our jaws are efficiency in biting is considerably greater than we might have otherwise considered.

A team in Australia found that the human skull does not have to be robust because it transmitted more of the muscle force to the teeth than our relatives. The teeth are highly adapted to a strong bite with a thick enamel– which has been a bit of anomaly since we were considered wimpy biters.

One of the interesting features of great ape anatomy is the saggital crest. This ridge of bone across the center of the top of the skull is the place were big jaw muscles attach, the other end being the jaw. Big muscles mean more force to the teeth.

However, they may also restrict increase of cranial size since that increase would have to be at the cost of those muscles.

The new study suggests that humans found another way to apply that force, reducing the need for the big jaw muscles that covered the skull– possibly another enabling change to allow increase in brain size.

You are what your ancestors ate.




Mighty Bites — 3 Comments

  1. Did you see the book that came out recently, about cooking? In which cooking drives our evolution, allowing us to eat things that were formerly inedible and to extract lots more nutrition out of our food?

  2. I haven’t read the book although I have read several articles.

    It turns out that many animals prefer at least some cooked food even though they can’t cook it themselves. John Hawks blog, which I recommend, has a good discussion of it here:


    There’s also an interesting article on food neophobia in chimps here, something an early hominid would have to get over:


    Since we’ve had fire for a very long time, one wonders what Lucy and her cohorts thought about such things. How did they get over their food neophobia? Were they able to think abstractly enough to consider fire as a purifying agent?

    Humans eat pretty much anything but we can succumb to poisoning. But indigenous people know the plants and animals that will kill you (poison arrow frogs, for example.) How did they discover them?

    Food for thought.

  3. Wasn’t it Twain who said, “It was a brave man who first ate an oyster”? (More probably, a -starving- man.)
    There are also foods which are poisonous unless prepared correctly — cassava is one staple starch which, unless pounded and soaked, will kill you, and most of us know not to eat rhubarb greens or potato foliage but only the stalk or tuber. It was a brave man, or probably a woman, who tasted the prepared cassava.