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J Hum Evol. 2014 Jun;71:94-104. doi: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2013.07.015. Epub 2014 Mar 5.

Termites in the hominin diet: a meta-analysis of termite genera, species and castes as a dietary supplement for South African robust australopithecines.

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Department of Anthropology, University of Illinois-Chicago, Chicago, IL, USA. Electronic address:


Termite foraging by chimpanzees and present-day modern humans is a well-documented phenomenon, making it a plausible hypothesis that early hominins were also utilizing this resource. Hominin termite foraging has been credited by some to be the explanation for the unexpected carbon isotope signatures present in South African hominin teeth, which suggest the diet was different from that of extant non-human great apes, consisting of a significant amount of resources that are not from woody-plants. Grass-eating termites are one potential resource that could contribute to the carbon signature. However, not all termites eat grasses, and in fact, the termites that are most widely consumed by chimpanzees and by many present-day human populations at best have a mixed diet that includes small amounts of grasses. Here I review the ecology of termites and how it affects their desirability as a food resource for hominins, and conduct a meta-analysis of nutritional values for various genera, species and castes from the literature. Termites are very diverse, even within species, and this variability affects both their carbon signatures and nutritional value, hindering generalizations regarding the contribution of termites to the hominin diet. It is concluded here that a combination of soldiers and alates of the genus Macrotermes be used to model the insectivory component of the Plio-Pleistocene hominin diet due to their significant amounts of energy-yielding nutrients and potential role as a critical resource for supporting larger-brained hominins.


Insectivory; Macronutrients; Macrotermes; Micronutrients; Paleo-nutrition; Paranthropus (Australopithecus) robustus; Pleistocene

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