What Did “Nutcracker Man” Eat?

An article in Live Science attempts to explain the diet of “Nutcracker Man”, a supposed extinct relative of humans. This creature has had several names over the years, and is now known as Paranthropus boisei (formerly called Zinjanthropus boisei). Scientists once thought that this creature ate nuts, seeds and other hard items, but new research has demonstrated that the teeth lack the kind of pitting expected from hard meals. Now scientists believe “Nutcracker Man” ate softer food, such as a grass bulb known as a tiger nut.

Nutcracker Man

(Credit: Francois Fieldtripp)

There were a number of inconsistencies concerning this creature’s diet that researchers wanted to resolve. The teeth had damage to the enamel, suggesting that it ate abrasive food like grasses and sedges, however they weren’t sure if such food would have been nutritious enough.

Paleoanthropologist Gabriele Macho from the University of Oxford in England set out to solve the mystery by studying baboons living in Kenya, a similar environment “Nutcracker Man” would have lived in. Macho found that the baboons dug up these tiger nuts, a source found to be high in nutrition. The tiger nuts are also abrasive and rich in starches, and would require chewing for a long time. Mystery solved!

This research is all well and good, but it underscores a number of evolutionary problems. While it explains a mystery and reconciles all apparent inconsistencies, this is not settled science. Macho and her fellow researchers could very well be correct, but there’s no way to verify their conclusions. No one can travel back in time to observe these creatures feasting in their natural habitat. The results of the study are purely circumstantial, and further research could provide other solutions that are just as consistent with the evidence, if not more so. No one would be able to prove that their findings actually happened.

One important thing to know about science is that nothing in science is proven. Science deals with evidence and predictive modeling, not with proofs. That means anytime a scientist tries to convince us about what happened in the past, we need to be skeptical and ask the right questions. We need to realize that their conclusions, while valid and consistent with what we know about science, may not be correct. I think a lot of people make the mistake of accepting everything they hear in the name of science and don’t think critically, and this study demonstrates the need to think critically about such conclusions no matter how trivial. In this case newer research has overthrown older conclusions that were once accepted by scientists, demonstrating how important it is to question such conclusions in the first place.

Another problem I have is with the evolutionary assumption that “Nutcracker Man” is a relative of humans. Some scientists believe that it is, however others believe it’s just an extinct ape-like creature. The very name “Nutcracker Man” suggests that the creature is a man, or at least an ancestor of man, even though no one believes that anymore. The article doesn’t expressly mention that this creature is not considered a direct ancestor of man, but I think most people reading it might be confused and assume that it is. Paranthropus boisei, as the article states, supposedly lived alongside the direct ancestors of humans. But not all scientists agree with this. Nonetheless, P. boisei is no longer considered an ancestor of man despite the early hype in 1959 when National Geographic first made such a claim.

In the end, nobody really knows what this creature ate, although we’re free to speculate. I think the important thing to take away from this article is our understanding of scientific discoveries about the past; it’s all speculation that’s open to revision and overhaul.

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