Humans Fought Saber-Toothed Cats In Europe

A Smilodon saber-toothed cat skull. Sasha Samardzija/Shutterstock

Our ancestors may have defended themselves against giant cats with spears, based on newly excavated archaeological evidence. Several 300,000-year-old feline teeth, along with a piece of arm bone, were uncovered at a site in Germany already renowned by archaeologists – the oldest evidence of humans using spears was found here. The authors of the study, published in the Journal of Human Evolution, say that this provides the first concrete evidence that the saber-toothed cat was living in Europe alongside recent human ancestors.

The saber-toothed cats were a group of predatory mammals characterized by their long, curved, sharp teeth. These cat-like creatures, which were once dispersed across the planet, were not that closely related to modern cats, from the domestic variant to the African lion. The Nimravidae family are the oldest saber-toothed cats known, having evolved 42 million years ago and going extinct by around 7.2 million years ago.

The latest find – which is 300,000 years old – places our closely related extinct cousins, Homo heidelbergensis, directly beside these fearsome carnivores. Five teeth and a bone from two separate cats were found in the former coal mine in Schöningen, near to Hanover. The saber-toothed cat fragments belonged to Homotherium latidens, a predator about the size of a male African lion, whose teeth are said to more closely resemble a scimitar than a saber. This species died out 28,000 years ago.

The feline-like humerus bone also appears to have been shaped into a basic hammer, which is the first of its kind anywhere in the world. The spears previously found at the site were thought to be used for hunting herbivores, like deer, for food, but the presence of the saber-toothed cat remains implies they also had other functions.

Dr. Jordi Serangeli, an archaeologist at the University of Tubingen and lead author of the paper, reported in the study that “The discovery illustrates the possible day-to-day challenges that the Schöningen hominins would have faced and suggests that the wooden spears were not necessarily only used for hunting, but possibly also as a weapon for self-defense.”

As threatening as these enormous cats were, evidence like this suggests they were not the only top predator around at the time. Dr. Mark Roberts, an archaeologist at University College London who wasn’t involved in the study, told BBC News that “hominins (humans and their ancestors) were already the top predator at this time; they were able to kill and butcher… large animals such as rhino, bison, horse and giant deer.”

Image credit: Views of the teeth of the saber-toothed cat remains found at the site. Serangeli et al./Journal of Human Evolution

He is less certain that human ancestors around the time were able to kill saber-toothed cats, saying that the skeletal material at the site is not complete enough. Regardless, the presence of these feline-like predators would have provided Homo heidelbergensis with some stiff competition for resources.

The last surviving saber-toothed cats died out 11,700 years ago during the series of Quaternary extinction events, of which there are many potential causes, including a rapidly changing climate, the spread of disease, the overkill of apex predators or giant herbivores (both due to hunting by humans and closely related species), and even possibly a swarm of comets.

Meanwhile, the African group of Homo heidelbergensis evolved into Homo sapiens 130,000 years ago, who then migrated into Europe and Asia in a huge migration wave shortly afterwards. The pre-existing Eurasian Homo heidelbergensis group – those fighting off the H. latidens at the site in Germany – evolved into Neanderthals, who eventually became extinct.

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