AAAS Annual Meeting news: Dining habits of early humans

February 12, 2009

With obesity on the rise and popular diet gurus claiming to understand the dining preferences of prehistoric people, speakers at the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) will attempt to help sort fact from fiction -- or at least identify areas of scientific uncertainty.

The 2009 AAAS Annual Meeting will take place 12-16 February 2009 in Chicago, Illinois.

How did our culinary tastes evolve? Recent findings have challenged conventional views of early human diets, says Peter Ungar, a professor of anthropology at University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.

In particular, one prevailing view has been that early humans "were like chimpanzees on steroids, eating really hard foods," explains Matthew Sponheimer, associate professor of anthropology, University of Colorado, Boulder

After analyzing fossilized teeth, however, Ungar concluded that the "Nutcracker Man" (Paranthropus boisei), so-named for his powerful choppers, mostly ate the ancient equivalent of gelatin. Now, Ungar proposes that the physical adaptation for chewing hard foods may be triggered by crisis situations, rather than everyday dietary needs.

"Just because you own a fast sports car doesn't mean you drive 200 miles per hour every day," he explains. "But if you get chased every now and then, the extra power comes in handy." Sponheimer's latest isotopic studies, meanwhile, may call into question the notion that a narrowly specialized diet contributed to the extinction of early hominids.

Ungar and other speakers will take part in a AAAS Annual Meeting Seminar on "The Evolution of Human Diets," which is scheduled for Friday, 13 February 2009, from 8:30 a.m. CST until 11:30 a.m. CST in the Hyatt Regency Chicago, Crystal Ballroom B.

Ungar also offered remarks for a AAAS podcast, which is being made available through EurekAlert!, and symposium speakers will participate in a related press briefing at 2:00 p.m. CST on 12 February.

In addition to Ungar and Sponheimer, other press briefing speakers will be William Leonard, professor of anthropology, Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill.; Anne Stone, associate professor, School of Human Evolution and Social Change, Arizona State University, Tempe; and Richard Wrangham, professor of biological anthropology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.
Media Note

Additional information on AAAS Annual Meeting news can be provided in advance to reporters who ensure adherence to the embargo policy. Reporters, please contact Earl Lane or Molly McElroy, (202) 326-6440, or; or Ginger Pinholster, (202) 326-6421,, before 12 February. After 12 February, call (312) 239-4811 to reach the AAAS Annual Meeting Newsroom on-site in the Hyatt Regency Chicago, Acapulco Room, West Tower. Embargoed news will be available to reporters via the AAAS virtual newsroom online at EurekAlert!,, beginning Monday, 9 February. To register as press, credentialed journalists can log onto

About AAAS

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is the world's largest general scientific society, and publisher of the journal, Science ( AAAS was founded in 1848, and serves 262 affiliated societies and academies of science, reaching 10 million individuals. Science has the largest paid circulation of any peer-reviewed general science journal in the world, with an estimated total readership of 1 million. The non-profit AAAS ( is open to all and fulfills its mission to "advance science and serve society" through initiatives in science policy, international programs, science education and more. For the latest research news, log onto EurekAlert!,, the premier science-news Web site, a service of AAAS.

American Association for the Advancement of Science

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