20,000_Year_Old_Cave_Paintings_Hyena1

Tooth marks found on the 500,000-year-old femur of an early hominin show that humans haven’t always been top of the food chain…

In Ice Age North Africa, our prehistoric ancestors had a lot to contend with. The modern day predators that we know today, had bigger, badder older brothers, who could make life for our predecessors pretty tough. Sabre-tooth cats, giant baboons and cave hyenas all roamed the land, along with prehistoric species of bears, leopards, and other wild cats.

Although our Pleistocene ancestors were skilled at hunting and protecting their habitats from these large carnivores, they were by no means top dog! The animals they encountered were killers, and, at a famous cave site in Morocco, archaeologists have now found evidence to prove that humans could be a tasty treat for these prehistoric predators.

In the Hyena’s den

The human femur was found inside the Grotte à Hominidés, an important archaeological site known to have been used as a den by both large and small carnivores during the Ice Age. The bone’s location within the carnivores’ refuse assemblage, along with the fractures and tooth marks on the bone, indicate that the individual had fallen prey to one of these creatures.

The most likely culprits, in this case, are hyenas, as feline or ursid (bears) teeth are less efficient at cracking into the bone. The femur shows distinctive pits and tooth marks, along with severe cracks at either end of the bone, leading to the conclusion that they were caused by a canine.

Carnivore marks on the distal end of the Femur. Picture Credit: C. Daujeard

Carnivore marks on the distal end of the Femur. Picture Credit: C. Daujeard

Carian or prey?

The tooth-marks on the bone alone, though, aren’t necessarily enough to demonstrate predation, there’s also the possibility that they could have resulted from post-mortem consumption by scavengers; but the sheer amount of human remains found scattered amongst the carnivores’ other food waste does strongly support the idea that they were hunted. Whichever is the case, the evidence shows that humans were a feasible resource for prehistoric carnivores.

A competitive environment

During the Pleistocene period the human diet changed, seeing a rise in the amount of fat and meat consumed. This increase would have resulted in more frequent interaction with large carnivores, as the humans either preyed on the predators themselves, or directly competed with them for food and living space. The discovery of the gnawed human bone represents the first piece of evidence for direct conflict between the two, and for the consumption of human remains by carnivores in this cave.

Significantly, the finding shows that our ancestors’ status on the food chain wasn’t as certain as it is today, and that humans could easily alternate between being ‘the hunter’ or ‘the hunted’.

 

H/T: PLOS ONE

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Rosanna Ring

Rosanna is one of DigVentures' intrepid Community Archaeologists. She's busy turning Barrowed Time (our dig at Morecambe's Bronze Age burial mound) into a real seaside adventure, and getting the Pop-Up Museum on the Prom ready for you to visit!

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