Project Details


Modern humans exhibit small teeth, lightly built jaws and weak chewing muscles - anatomical features which have been shaped by evolutionary processes related to dietary intake and the processing of foods. The fossil record demonstrates that our morphology stands in contrast to that of our ancestors, who evolved to have large, strong teeth, massive jaws and powerful chewing muscles. Evolutionary explanations for this change include competing hypotheses as to how natural selection on diet drove adaptation over the course of human evolution. These hypotheses suggest that the presence or absence of either very hard or very tough foods may have been a critical factor influencing the evolution of our ancestors. Alternatively, the hardness or toughness of foods may have been less important than the behaviors (i.e., biting, puncturing, crushing, twisting, grinding) used to process foods of various shape and size with the jaws and teeth. This project will provide evidence to differentiate between these selective scenarios, thereby contributing to a fuller understanding of the evolutionary processes that have shaped this important aspect of modern human anatomy.This research will require focus on a primate model, South American capuchins, which exhibit the relevant diversity in musculoskeletal anatomy and diet requisite to testing hypotheses regarding how food properties (i.e., hardness, toughness) or feeding behaviors influence the evolution of feeding adaptations. The study integrates observations of capuchin feeding behavior in the wild with laboratory experiments, advanced computer modeling using engineering methods, examination of the microscopic damage done to teeth by food and other items (i.e., dental microwear), the determination of the material properties (i.e., hardness, toughness) of food resources in the wild, and the collection and analysis of abrasive particles adhering to those foods (that might be influencing microwear patterns). Collectively, these data in capuchins will allow us to evaluate the assumptions underlying our interpretations of the interrelationships between dietary behavior, food resources, and the biology of our human ancestors, thereby transforming our understanding of human evolutionary history.The broader impacts of this research are considerable. In relation to the public understanding of science, the research provides information that will address a topic of great public interest; namely, our own evolutionary history. As a related benefit, the project illustrates how ecological factors affecting other animals may be equally relevant and impactful for our own species. In terms of STEM training, research training opportunities are provided for high school students, undergraduates, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows, many of whom are expected (based on past history at the collaborating institutions) to be young female scientists. The project also contributes to environmental awareness by collecting basic ecological data relevant to rainforest conservation. In the process of doing so, it further develops collaborative ties with international counterparts and institutions. Lastly, the project illustrates to the engineering community how their methods can be used to answer evolutionary questions.
Effective start/end date9/15/148/31/17


  • National Science Foundation (National Science Foundation (NSF))


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