Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Get to Know a Hominid: Part 2 - Paranthropus boisei

by Richard Peacock

Welcome to Part 2 of my thrilling Science Rocks series, Get to Know a Hominid. A few weeks ago you may have been thrilled and/or aroused by my coverage of Homo habilis. But for this week, we shall peek a little earlier in time at Paranthropus boisei (pronounced "boy-see-aye"), which is known to biologists as our grumpiest ancestor, as the following recreation demonstrates:

P. boisei lived mostly in woodland areas, rather than the jungles and dangerous "low-income" apartment buildings inhabited by his less civilized progenitors of genus Australopithecus. Because of his abnormally large flat teeth, it was long believed that P. boisei's diet consisted mostly of roots and nuts, earning him the nickname "Nutcracker Man." But we now know that he actually earned this nickname due to his sterling performance in the Russian ballet classic, The Nutcracker, in the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy. This is why some modern paleontologists refer to P. boisei as "sugar tits."

This ancestor to modern humans lived around two million years ago, and was sexually dimorphic. No, that doesn't mean he swung both ways. Lacking a tail, it would have been difficult to swing through trees while maintaining proper balance. Instead, sexual dimorphism refers to the fact that the males were larger than the females. Also, they were bisexual.

It was once believed that P. boisei was the first hominid to use stone tools. But modern research shows that P. boisei was simply the wacky neighbor of Australopithecus robustus, and as such was always borrowing his tools and never giving them back. He was also known to pop in on A. robustus unexpectedly and at inopportune times, often uttering his well-worn catch phase: "Sorry neighbor! My cranial capacity is only 89% that of H. habilis!"

Though he may have been annoying and his evolutionary line just sort of petered-out, we should never forget our friend and colleague, P. boisei.

Extra insight

Science Rocks is written by Richard Peacock, inventor of the communication satellite. He now lives in Sri Lanka where he ponders the riddles of this, and other worlds. Email him at richard@amateurscientist.org.

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