Site of Batadomba-lena in Sri Lanka, where the oldest 20,000-year-old teeth were discovered.
An international research team has shed new light on the diet of some of the earliest recorded humans in Sri Lanka. The researchers from Oxford University, working with a team from Sri Lanka and the University of Bradford, analysed the carbon and oxygen isotopes in the teeth of 26 individuals, with the oldest dating back 20,000 years and found that nearly all the teeth analysed suggest a diet largely sourced from the rainforest.
This study, published in the early online edition of the journal, Science, shows that early modern humans adapted to living in the rainforest for long periods of time. Previously it was thought that humans did not occupy tropical forests for any length of time until 12,000 years after that date, and that the tropical forests were largely 'pristine', human-free environments until the Early Holocene, 8,000 years ago. Scholars reasoned that compared with more open landscapes, humans might have found rainforests too difficult to navigate, with less available food to hunt or catch.
The Science paper also notes, however, that previous archaeological research provides 'tantalising hints' of humans possibly occupying rainforest environments around 45,000 years ago. This earlier research is unclear as to whether those early human dwellers of the rainforest were engaging in a specialised activity or whether they entered the rainforest for only limited periods of time in certain seasons rather than remaining there all year round.
Co-author Professor Julia Lee-Thorp from Oxford University said: 'The isotopic methodology applied in our study has already been successfully used to study how primates, including African great apes, adapt to their forest environment. However, this is the first time scientists have investigated ancient human fossils in a tropical forest context to see how our earliest ancestors survived in such a habitat.'