Around half a million years ago, when our human ancestors were still confined to the African continent, it really was an eat or be eaten world. In a cave in North Africa, researchers have found what appears to be an early hominin bone dating to the Middle Pleistocene that shows evidence of having been gnawed on by a large carnivore, likely a hyena.
“Although encounters and confrontations between archaic humans and large predators of this time period in North Africa must have been common, the discovery... is one of the few examples where hominin consumption by carnivores is proven,” explains co-author Camille Daujeard in a statement. The leg bone, which is a femur, was found in a cave in Morocco, a location where researchers have previously found evidence of early human tool-making and the remains of an early hominin species called Homo rhodesiensis. This latest discovery is published in PLOS One.
“This bone represents the first evidence of consumption of human remains by carnivores in the cave,” the authors write. What they can’t answer, however, is whether the hominin was eaten after being killed by the hyena, or if the carnivore simply scavenged the remains soon after death. Either way, it adds another piece to the image of what life was like for these early humans and the interactions they had with other species living in the same environment.
Interestingly, previous discoveries in the region have shown that early hominins also preyed on the carnivores. This shift from largely vegetarian apes to hominins scavenging or hunting other animals on a more frequent basis may have upset established ecosystems present at the time. As the authors write, “the infiltration into the carnivore guild may have resulted in different forms of interactions… including direct competition for resources as well as passive confrontations.”
Although there is evidence that early humans crafted weapons and actively hunted herbivores, it is also thought likely that they used other predators out on the savannah, such as lions and leopards, to catch their prey before scaring the carnivores off the kill and taking some of the meat for themselves. This is a behavior that has seemingly survived tens – if not hundreds – of thousands of years as it is still practiced today in some parts of East Africa, such as in the video below.
But little evidence of such interactions, even of the more dramatic kind, exist before the Upper Paleolithic, around 50,000 years ago, when carnivore hunting became more widespread. However, this new find, in which the femur bone shows various fractures and tooth marks concentrated at the softer ends of the bone, seems to show that the hominin femur was chewed on by what the researchers postulate was likely a hyena.
Despite living at a time when bears and sabre-toothed cats still roamed North Africa, the fact that whatever had been eating the hominin was presumably trying to crack the large bone means that the culprit was probably a hyena, which have the powerful jaws necessary to achieve this. It seems that the animal may have dragged the remains into its den, but was interrupted before it could get at the soft marrow contained within.