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Paranthropus (from Greek παρα, para "beside"; άνθρωπος, ánthropos "human") is a contested genus of extinct hominins that lived between 2.6 and 1.1 million years ago (mya). Also known as robust australopithecines, they were bipedal and probably descended from Australopithecus 2.7 mya.[1] However, Paranthropus is sometimes considered synonymous with Australopithecus.

Temporal range: Pliocene-Pleistocene, 2.7–1.2 Ma
Smac Paläolithikum 013.jpg
Skull of P. boisei
Scientific classification e
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Primates
Suborder: Haplorhini
Infraorder: Simiiformes
Family: Hominidae
Subfamily: Homininae
Tribe: Hominini
Subtribe: Australopithecina
Genus: Paranthropus
Broom, 1938
Type species
Paranthropus robustus

Paranthropus is characterised by robust skulls, with a prominent gorilla-like sagittal crests along the midline–which suggest strong chewing muscles–and broad, grinding herbivorous teeth. P. robustus was likely a generalist omnivore, whereas P. boisei seems to have specialized on grasses and sedges. Paranthropus likely were polygamous, but it is unknown if they lived in a harem or multi-male society. They could possibly be associated with tools and fire usage.

Research historyEdit

From top to bottom, P. robustus (SK 48), P. boisei (OH 5) and P. aethiopicus (KNM WT 17000)

The genus Paranthropus was first erected by Scottish South African palaeontologist Robert Broom in 1938, with the type species P. robustus. The type specimen, a male braincase, TM 1517, was discovered by schoolboy Gert Terblanche at the Kromdraai fossil site, about 70 km (43 mi) southwest of Pretoria, South Africa. By 1988, at least 6 individuals were unearthed.[2]

In 1948, at Swartkrans Cave, in about the same vicinity as Kromdraai, Broom and South African paleontologist John Talbot Robinson described P. crassidens based on a subadult jaw, SK 6. Many other Paranthropus specimens discovered earlier at Swartkrans were then placed into P. crassidens. However, this has since been synonymized with P. robustus.[2]

Locations of Paranthropus finds

In 1959, P. boisei was discovered by Mary Leakey at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania (specimen OH 5). Her husband Louis named it Zinjanthropus boisei, deriving from "Zinj", an ancient Arabic word for the coast of East Africa, and "boisei", referring to their financial benefactor Charles Watson Boise.[3] However, this genus was rejected at Mr. Leakey's presentation before the 4th Pan-African Congress on Prehistory as it was based on a single specimen, and was subsumed into Paranthropus. Austrian anthropologist Raymond Dart made his now famous remark, "…what would have happened if [the A. africanus specimen] Mrs. Ples had met Dear Boy [OH 5] one dark night."[4]

In 1951, American anthropologists Sherwood Washburn and Bruce D. Patterson were the first to suggest that Paranthropus should be considered a synonym of Australopithecus as the former was only known from fragmentary remains at the time, and dental differences were too minute to serve as justification.[5] In face of echoing support, Leakey[3] and Robinson[6] continued defending its validity. In 1967, South African paleontologist Phillip V. Tobias considered Paranthropus to be a junior synonym of Australopithecus, but various other authors were unsure until more complete remains were found.[2]

In 1985, Paraustralopithecus aethiopicus, first described by French paleontologists Camille Arambourg and Yves Coppens in 1968, was subsumed into Paranthropus as P. aethiopicus. It was originally based on a mandible with teeth from the Shungura Formation, Ethiopia (Omo 18), but was reclassified by after the discovery of the skull KNM WT 17000.[7]

There is currently no clear consensus on the validity of Paranthropus. In 2004, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins noted "perhaps several different species" of robust australopithecines, and "as usual their affinities, and the exact number of species, are hotly disputed."[1]

Phylogeny according to a 2015 study:[8]



A. afarensis

A. africanus


P. robustus

P. aethiopicus

P. boisei



Reconstruction of P. boisei at the Museum of Human Evolution, Spain

Paranthropus had a massively built skull, with a prominent gorilla-like sagittal crest on the midline of the skull which anchored massive temporalis muscles used in chewing.[9] Most species had a brain about 40% the size of that of a modern human.[citation needed]

In comparison to the large, robust head, the body was rather petit. At Swartkrans Members 1 and 2, about 35% of the individuals are estimated to have weighed 28 kg (62 lb), 22% about 43 kg (95 lb) comparable to a human, and the remaining 43% less than 54 kg (119 lb). At Member 3, all individuals were about 45 kg (99 lb).[10]

Paranthropus were bipeds, and their hips, legs, and feet resemble both its ancestor, Australopithecus afarensis, and modern humans.[11] There was some size variation between the different species, but most stood roughly 1.3 to 1.4 m (4 ft 3 in to 4 ft 7 in) tall and were quite well muscled.[citation needed] The pelvis is similar to A. afarensis, but the hip joints are smaller in Paranthropus. The similar hip structure between A. afarensis and Paranthropus implies that they had a similar walking gait.[12] However, their human-like big toe, well developed plantar aponeurosis, and more distal ankle joint show more support to the foot bones,[9] and a human "toe-off" gait cycle.


Paranthropus seems to have had notably high rates of pitting enamel hypoplasia (PEH), where tooth enamel formation is spotty instead of mostly uniform. In P. robustus, about 47% of baby teeth and 14% of adult teeth were affected, in comparison to respectively 6.7% and 4.3% in any other hominin species. The condition of these holes covering the entire tooth is consistent with the human ailment amelogenesis imperfecta. However, since circular holes in enamel coverage are uniform in size, only present on the molar teeth, and have the same severity across individuals, the PEH may have been a genetic condition. It is possible that the coding-DNA concerned with thickening enamel also left them more vulnerable to PEH.[13]


P. boisei bust at the Westphalian Museum of Natural History, Germany

Diet seems to have ranged dramatically with location. The East African P. robustus appears to have been a generalist omnivore, with a diet similar to contemporaneous Homo[14] and nearly identical to the later H. ergaster,[15] and subsisted on mainly C4 savanna plants and C3 forest plants, which could indicate either seasonal shifts in diet or seasonal migration from forest to savanna.[16] The South African P. boisei, on the other hand, was a specialist feeder on C4 grasses and sedges, much like modern geladas, likely competing with horses, pigs, hippos, and bovines for food in a very restricted wetland habitat.[17] Paranthropus likely did not use its enhanced jaw muscles for cracking open nuts and seeds as was previously thought,[18][19] and relied more on its molars than its incisors for eating compared to A. africanus.[20]

Paranthropus is associated with stone tools in both southern and eastern Africa, although these tools are generally attributed to early Homo.[21] However, hand fossils from the 1.5–1 Ma South African Swartkrans Cave indicate that the hand of P. robustus was adapted for precision grasping, which could indicate tool use. Tools would have been used to cut or process vegetation.[22] Bones burnt to a temperature consistent with campfires were also associated with P. robustus, which could indicate some of the earliest fire usage.[23]

Paranthropus had pronounced sexual dimorphism between males and females, which is commonly correlated with a male-dominated polygamous society. P. robustus may have had a harem society similar to modern forest-dwelling silverback gorillas, where one male has exclusive breeding rights to a group of females, as male-female size disparity is comparable to gorillas (based on facial dimensions), increased mortality in males may have occurred due to greater risk of predation in lone males, and P. robustus is thought to have experienced delayed maturity like gorillas.[24] However, delayed maturity is typically characteristic of multi-male societies, and savanna baboons are known to live in multi-male societies to better protect the troop from predation in their more exposed environment.[25]


Paranthropus are thought to have lived in wooded areas rather than the grasslands of Australopithecus.[citation needed] Paranthropus first appeared roughly 2.7 million years ago (mya),[9] and Australopithecus had mostly disappeared by this time.[9] Paranthropus is known to have coexisted with H. habilis, and possibly H. erectus.[9]

The left foot of a P. boisei individual seems to have been bitten off by a crocodile,[26] possibly Crocodylus anthropophagus,[27] and another's leg shows evidence of leopard predation.[26] Other likely predators of great apes include the hunting hyena Chasmaporthetes nitidula, and the saber-toothed cats Dinofelis and Megantereon.[15]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b Dawkins, Richard (2004). The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage To the Dawn of Life. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. p. 77. ISBN 978-0-297-82503-6.
  2. ^ a b c Constantino, P. J.; Wood, B. A. (2004). "Paranthropus Paleobiology". Miscelanea en Homenaje a Emiliano Aguirre. Paleoantropologia. III. Museo Arqueológico Regional.
  3. ^ a b Leakey, L. (1959). "A New Fossil Skull from Olduvai". Nature. 184 (4685): 491–493.
  4. ^ Morell, V. (2011). Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind's Beginnings. Touchstone. p. 193. ISBN 978-1-4391-4387-2.
  5. ^ Washburn, S. L.; Patterson, B. D. (1951). "Evolutionary Importance of the South African 'Man-apes'". Nature. 167 (4251): 650–651. doi:10.1038/167650a0. PMID 14826894.
  6. ^ Robinson, J. T. (1965). "Homo 'habilis' and the Australopithecines". Nature. 205: 121–124.
  7. ^ Chamberlain, A. T.; Wood, B. A. (1985). "A reappraisal of variation in hominid mandibular corpus dimensions". American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 66 (4): 399–405. doi:10.1002/ajpa.1330660408.
  8. ^ Saylor, Beverly Z.; Scott, Gary; Levin, Naomi E.; Deino, Alan; Alene, Mulugeta; Ryan, Timothy M.; Melillo, Stephanie M.; Gibert, Luis; Haile-Selassie, Yohannes (2015). "New species from Ethiopia further expands Middle Pliocene hominin diversity". Nature. 521 (7553): 483–488. doi:10.1038/nature14448. ISSN 1476-4687. PMID 26017448.
  9. ^ a b c d e Wood, B. & Strait, D. (2004). "Patterns of resource use in early Homo and Paranthropus". Journal of Human Evolution. 46 (2): 119–162. doi:10.1016/j.jhevol.2003.11.004. PMID 14871560.
  10. ^ McHenry, H. M. (1991). "Petite bodies of the "robust" australopithecines". 86 (4): 445–454. doi:10.1002/ajpa.1330860402. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  11. ^ Wood B, Richmond BG (July 2000). "Human evolution: taxonomy and paleobiology". Journal of Anatomy. 197 (1): 19–60. doi:10.1046/j.1469-7580.2000.19710019.x. PMC 1468107. PMID 10999270.
  12. ^ Macchiarelli R, Bondioli L, Galichon V, Tobias PV (February 1999). "Hip bone trabecular architecture shows uniquely distinctive locomotor behaviour in South African australopithecines". Journal of Human Evolution. 36 (2): 211–32. doi:10.1006/jhev.1998.0267. PMID 10068067.
  13. ^ Towle, I.; Irish, J. D. (2019). "A probable genetic origin for pitting enamel hypoplasia on the molars of Paranthropus robustus". Journal of Human Evolution. 129: 54–61. doi:10.1016/j.jhevol.2019.01.002.
  14. ^ Wood, B.; Strait, D. (2004). "Patterns of resource use in early Homo and Paranthropus". Journal of Human Evolution. 46 (2): 119–162. doi:10.1016/j.jhevol.2003.11.004.
  15. ^ a b Lee-Thorp, J.; Thackeray, J. F.; der Merwe, N. V. (2000). "The hunters and the hunted revisited". Journal of Human Evolution. 39 (6): 565–576. doi:10.1006/jhev.2000.0436.
  16. ^ Sponheimer, M.; Passey, B. H.; de Ruiter, D. J.; et al. (2006). "Isotopic Evidence for Dietary Variability in the Early Hominin Paranthropus robustus". Science. 314 (5801): 980–982. doi:10.1126/science.1133827.
  17. ^ Cerling, T. E.; Mbua, E.; Kirera, F. M.; et al. (June 2011). "Diet of Paranthropus boisei in the early Pleistocene of East Africa". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 108 (23): 9337–41. doi:10.1073/pnas.1104627108. PMC 3111323. PMID 21536914.
  18. ^ Towle, Ian; Irish, Joel D.; Groote, Isabelle De (2017). "Behavioral inferences from the high levels of dental chipping in Homo naledi" (PDF). American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 164 (1): 184–192. doi:10.1002/ajpa.23250. ISSN 1096-8644. PMID 28542710.
  19. ^ Sponheimer, Matt; Lee-Thorp, Julia; De Ruiter, Darryl; Codron, Daryl; Codron, Jacqui; Baugh, Alexander T.; Thackeray, Francis (2005-03-01). "Hominins, sedges, and termites: new carbon isotope data from the Sterkfontein valley and Kruger National Park". Journal of Human Evolution. 48 (3): 301–312. CiteSeerX doi:10.1016/j.jhevol.2004.11.008. ISSN 0047-2484. PMID 15737395.
  20. ^ Ungar, P. S.; Grine, F. E. (1991). "Incisor size and wear in Australopithecus africanus and Paranthropus robustus". Journal of Human Evolution. 20 (4): 313–340. doi:10.1016/0047-2484(91)90013-L.
  21. ^ Klein, R. (1999). The Human Career. University of Chicago Press.[page needed]
  22. ^ Susman RL (May 1988). "Hand of Paranthropus robustus from Member 1, Swartkrans: fossil evidence for tool behavior". Science. 240 (4853): 781–4. doi:10.1126/science.3129783. PMID 3129783.
  23. ^ Brain, C. K.; Sillent, A. (1988). "Evidence from the Swartkrans cave for the earliest use of fire". Nature. 336 (6198): 464–466. Bibcode:1988Natur.336..464B. doi:10.1038/336464a0.
  24. ^ Lockwood, C. A.; Menter, C. G.; Moggi-Cecchi, J.; Keyser, A. W. (2007). "Extended Male Growth in a Fossil Hominin Species". Science. 318 (5855): 1443–1446. doi:10.1126/science.1149211.
  25. ^ Kaszycka, K. A. (2016). "Australopithecus robustus societies - one-male or multimale?". South African Journal of Science. 112 (1–2): 124–131. doi:10.17159/sajs.2016/20150165.
  26. ^ a b Njau, J. K.; Blumenschine, R. J. (2012). "Crocodylian and mammalian carnivore feeding traces on hominid fossils from FLK 22 and FLK NN 3, Plio-Pleistocene, Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania". Journal of Human Evolution. 63 (2): 408–417. doi:10.1016/j.jhevol.2011.05.008.
  27. ^ Christopher A. Brochu, Jackson Njau, Robert J. Blumenschine and Llewellyn D. Densmore (2010). "A New Horned Crocodile from the Plio-Pleistocene Hominid Sites at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania". PLoS ONE. 5 (2): e9333. Bibcode:2010PLoSO...5.9333B. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0009333. PMC 2827537. PMID 20195356.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)

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