The analysis of fossil ungulate cheek teeth has long been one of the main sources of information about the terrestrial environments of the Cenozoic, but the methods used to extract this information have been either imprecise or prohibitively laborious. Here we present a method based on relative facet development that is quantitative, robust, and rapid. This method, which we term mesowear analysis, is based on the physical properties of ungulate foods as reflected in the relative amounts of attritive and abrasive wear that they cause on the dental enamel of the occlusal surfaces. Mesowear was recorded by examining the buccal apices of molar tooth cusps. Apices were characterized as sharp, rounded, or blunt, and the valleys between them either high or low. The method has been developed only for selenodont and trilophodont molars, but the principle is readily extendable to other crown types. Mesowear analysis is insensitive to wear stage as long as the very early and very late stages are excluded.
Cluster analysis of the mesowear variables produces clusters reflecting four main groups from abrasion-dominated to attrition-dominated: grazers, graze-dominated mixed feeders, browse-dominated mixed feeders, and browsers. Most of the relatively few apparent anomalies are explained by more detailed dietary information. Mesowear analysis provides resolution within the main dietary classes and the clustering is virtually identical with and without the index of hypsodonty. Discriminant analysis using all mesowear variables and hypsodonty showed an overall correct classification of 76% of 64 species of living ungulates into the conventional dietary categories of browser, grazer, and mixed feeder, while a smaller set of 27 “typical” species was correctly classified at 96%. Alternative “conservative” and “radical” dietary classifications that were employed to accommodate cases where dietary information was controversial or unclear produced only marginally different results. Mesowear analysis successfully resolved a test case using the Serengeti grazing succession and appears to be superior to microwear analysis in two cases where the diet of fossil ungulates has been previously studied by microwear and other conventional methods.