Ongoing excavations at a 300,000-year-old site in Germany known as the "Spear Horizon" have uncovered five teeth and a humerus (front leg bone) that belonged to saber-toothed cats. The marks on the humerus indicate that it was converted into a tool – the first evidence we have of a saber-toothed cat bone utilized this way. The work, published in Journal of Human Evolution last month, also suggests that our Middle Pleistocene ancestors used spears not just to hunt, but also for self-defense.
The Lower Paleolithic site at Schöningen has yielded several of the oldest well-preserved and complete wooden spears, as well as thousands of fossil animal remains, from giant beavers to water buffalo. In the fall of 2012, remains of a rare carnivore – the European saber-toothed cat, Homotherium latidens – were discovered in a layer called Schöningen 13 II-4. This tiger-sized cat weighed up to 200 kilograms (440 pounds), and its shoulder was about a meter high (just over 3 feet).
After analyzing the five teeth (pictured below) and the humerus fragment (above), University of Tübingen’s Jordi Serangeli and colleagues found that they belonged to two individual cats, and at 300,000 to 320,000 years old, they’re some of the youngest Homotherium finds in Europe. The teeth, recovered from the Obere Berme ("upper berm") area of the Spear Horizon, belonged to a juvenile. Their crowns have a black, shiny patina, and they’re partially serrated. The first upper incisor shows 21 serrations per centimeter.
The shaft and an end of a right humerus was recovered from Speersockel ("area with the spears"). It belonged to a strong, mature male, and it shows evidence of impact by hominins (that’s us and our extinct ancestors). Several clusters of pits, scores, and scratch marks indicate that it was used in the percussion process – as a knapping tool to curate flint artifacts by repeatedly striking a piece of stone. Additionally, there were underlying long, parallel, and shallow scraping marks that crossed weathered, exfoliated surfaces of the bone. That means a hominin likely found the bone, and then cleaned it, removing the remnants of desiccated soft tissue.
Percussors made of horse or deer bones were common at Schöningen. However, Serangeli tells IFLScience that this is the only bone of a saber-toothed cat that’s been used as a tool, as far as he knows.
The remains of saber-toothed cats have been recovered throughout Europe where hominin remains and artifacts were also found. However, their co-occurrence isn’t proof that they overlapped. A humerus with several modifications, on the other hand, unambiguously shows that our ancestors (likely Homo heidelbergensis) and Homotherium were both present in central Europe at the same time.
Furthermore, based on the remains of young mammoths, we know that European saber-toothed cats hunted or scavenged large-bodied mammals. Because of the potential overlap in prey between early hominins and saber-toothed cats, it’s possible there were conflicts between them. Saber-toothed cats see, smell, and hear much better than hominins, and they move very fast and silently, Serangeli explained to IFLScience. "But the hominins had spears." Not only were they hunting tools, they were also weapons of self-defense against carnivore competitors.
(a) 4.85-centimeter-long upper canine fragment, (b) 4.04-centimeter-long complete left first upper incisor, (c) 3.57-centimeter-long, 3.35-centimeter-wide left fourth upper premolar, (d) 4.40-centimeter-long right third lower incisor, (e) 2.15-centimeter-long, 2.85-centimeter-wide first right lower molar fragment. Volker Minkus.