What Hunted Ancient 'Humans'?

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Modern humans have the minds of prey and the powers of superpredators. We're flighty, anxious, and fearful, yet readily capable of hunting entire species to extinction. What explains this paradox? After all, most humans have never been safer than they are today. The answer arrives through the lens of evolutionary history. For millions of years, as the hominid brain was developing, our ancestors were less the hunters and more the hunted. In our present epoch, the Holocene, the Earth is essentially humanity's playground. The Pleistocene was far more terrifying.


Near the dawn of the Pleistocene, roughly 2.8 million years ago, a young child belonging to the early hominin species Australopithecus africanus was killed. The child's worn and scratched skull was discovered in 1924 along with the mangled bones of other small to medium-sized animals. Archaeologists dubbed the skeleton "Taung Child" owing to its proximity to Taung, South Africa. Today, the best explanation for the skull and the accompanying collection of skeletons is that they were gathered by an ancient, large bird of prey. – the leftovers of many, many meals. This realization evokes a horrifying scenario: after being plucked from the ground and carried off into the sky, this was where the young Australopithecus child was eaten.

As adults, our ancestors were big enough that they probably didn't have to worry too much about winged predators. Still, the ground presented its own array of horrors. One concern was ancient crocodiles, which launched ambush attacks from bodies of water. An individual of the species Homo habilis dubbed OH8 may have fallen victim to such an attack 1.8 million years ago in what is now Tanzania. OH8's left foot was discovered with its toe bones, or phalanges, completely missing. Moreover, the metatarsals were conspicuously broken. A team of scientists determined that the damage seen at those break sites matched that of bone damage characteristic of a crocodile attack. It seems that OH8 lost half of its left foot to a ravenous crocodile.

More dangerous than crocodiles or birds were leopards. Today, the streamlined and powerful cats predate on baboons, monkeys, chimpanzees, and even occasionally gorillas. Their taste for hominids almost certainly extended to our ancestors over the past three million years. Direct evidence comes from the cranium of a Paranthropus robustus, an early hominin discovered in South Africa. The skull cap, which belonged to a juvenile, has two distinct puncture marks that scientist C.K. Brain matched to the mandible of an ancient African leopard. Unfortunately for this ancient hominin, it was very likely ambushed by a leopard then dragged over some distance before being consumed.

Aside from giant birds, crocodiles, and leopards, early humans likely had to contend with bears, sabertooth cats, snakes, hyenas, Komodo dragons, and even other hominins. As prey, the past was not a pleasant place for humans and our ancestors.

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