Comparative primate energetics and hominid evolution

William R. Leonard*, Marcia L. Robertson

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

221 Scopus citations


There is currently great interest in developing ecological models for investigating human evolution. Yet little attention has been given to energetics, one of the cornerstones of modern ecosystem ecology. This paper examines the ecological correlates of variation in metabolic requirements among extant primate species, and uses this information to draw inferences about the changes in energy demands over the course of human evolution. Data on body size, resting metabolism, and activity budgets for selected anthropoid species, and human hunter-gatherers are used to estimate total energy expenditure (TEE). Analyses indicate that relative energy expenditure levels and day ranges are positively correlated with diet quality; that is, more active species tend to consume more energy-rich diets. Human foragers fall at the positive extremes for modern primates in having high expenditure levels, large ranges, and very high quality diets. During hominid evolution, it appears that TEE increased substantially with the emergence of Homo erectus. This increase is partly attributable to larger body size as well as likely increases in day range and activity level. Assuming similar activity budgets for all early hominid species, estimated TEE for H. erectus is 40- 45% greater than for the australopithecines. If, however, it is assumed that the evolution of early Homo was also associated with a shift to a more 'human-like' foraging strategy, estimated expenditure levels for H. erectus are 80-85% greater than in the australopithecines. Changing patterns of resource distribution associated with the expansion of African savannas between 2.5 and 1.5 mya may been the impetus for a shift in foraging behavior among early members of the genus Homo. Such ecological changes likely would have made animal foods a more attractive resource. Moreover, greater use of animal foods and the resulting higher quality diet would have been important for supporting the larger day ranges and greater energy requirements that appear to have been associated with the evolution of a human-like hunting and gathering strategy.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)265-281
Number of pages17
JournalAmerican Journal of Physical Anthropology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 1997


  • Homo erectus
  • activity patterns
  • diet quality
  • ecosystem ecology
  • energy metabolism
  • foraging behavior

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anthropology
  • Anatomy


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