The wear of teeth is a major factor limiting mammalian lifespans in the wild. One method of describing worn surfaces, dental microwear texture analysis, has proved powerful for reconstructing the diets of extinct vertebrates, but has yielded unexpected results in early hominins. In particular, although australopiths exhibit derived craniodental features interpreted as adaptations for eating hard foods, most do not exhibit microwear signals indicative of this diet. However, no experiments have yet demonstrated the fundamental mechanisms and causes of this wear. Here, we report nanowear experiments where individual dust particles, phytoliths and enamel chips were slid across a flat enamel surface. Microwear features produced were influenced strongly by interacting mechanical properties and particle geometry. Quartz dust was a rigid abrasive, capable of fracturing and removing enamel pieces. By contrast, phytoliths and enamel chips deformed during sliding, forming U-shaped grooves or flat troughs in enamel, without tissue loss. Other plant tissues seem too soft to mark enamel, acting as particle transporters. We conclude that dust has overwhelming importance as a wear agent and that dietary signals preserved in dental microwear are indirect. Nanowear studies should resolve controversies over adaptive trends in mammals like enamel thickening or hypsodonty that delay functional dental loss.
- Received November 10, 2012.
- Accepted December 10, 2012.
- © 2013 The Author(s) Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.