Micro-wear patterns found on the teeth of long-extinct specimens of the primate species australopithecine may provide evidence about their diets. For example, on the basis of tooth micro-wear patterns, Walker dismisses Jolly’s hypothesis that australopithecines ate hard seeds. He also disputes Szalay’s suggestion that the heavy enamel of australopithecine teeth is an adaptation to bone crunching, since both seed cracking and bone crunching produce distinctive micro-wear characteristics on teeth. His conclusion that australopithecines were frugivores (fruit eaters) is based upon his observation that the tooth micro-wear characteristics of east African australopithecine specimens are indistinguishable from those of chimpanzees and orangutans, which are commonly assumed to be frugivorous primates.
However, research on the diets of contemporary primates suggests that micro-wear studies may have limited utility in determining the foods that are actually eaten. For example, insect eating, which can cause distinct micro-wear patterns, would not cause much tooth abrasion in modern baboons, who eat only soft-bodied insects rather than hard-bodied insects. In addition, the diets of current omnivorous primates vary considerably depending on the environments that different groups within a primate species inhabit; if australopithecines were omnivores too, we might expect to find considerable population variation in their tooth micro-wear patterns. Thus, Walker’s description of possible australopithecine diets may need to be expanded to include a much more diverse diet.