Hominins may have been food for carnivores

Tooth-marks on a 500,000-year-old femur from Morocco indicate hominin hunting or scavenging by large carnivores

April 27, 2016

An international team of researchers including Camille Daujeard of the Muséum National D'Histoire Naturelle in Paris, France, and Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, analyzed tooth-marks on a 500,000-year-old hominin femur bone from a Moroccan cave and found that it had been consumed by large carnivores, likely hyenas.

During the Middle Pleistocene, early humans likely competed for space and resources with large carnivores, who occupied many of the same areas. However, to date, little evidence for direct action of carnivores on hominins in this period has been found. An international team of researchers has now examined the shaft of a femur from the skeleton of a 500,000-year-old hominin, found in a cave near Casablanca, Morocco, and found evidence of consumption by large carnivores.

The researchers’ examination of the bone fragment revealed various fracture types indicative of carnivore tooth marks, including tooth pits as well as other scores and notches. These were clustered at the two ends of the femur. They were covered with sediment suggesting that they were very old, and at least some of the marks appeared to have been made shortly after death. While the appearance of the marks suggested that they were made by large carnivores, most likely hyenas, it was not possible to conclude whether the bone had been eaten as a result of predation on the hominin or had been scavenged soon after death.

Nonetheless, the researchers suggest this is the first evidence of the consumption of human remains by carnivores from this North African cave, and contrasts with evidence from nearby sites that humans themselves hunted and ate carnivores. “Although encounters and confrontations between archaic humans and large predators of this time period in North Africa must have been common, the discovery of the Thomas Quarry femur is one of the few examples where hominin consumption by carnivores is proven”, says Camille Daujeard of the Muséum National D'Histoire Naturelle who made the taphonomic analysis.

The researchers suggest that depending on circumstances, hominins at this time could have both acted as hunter or scavenger, and been targeted as carrion or prey. “The quarries of the Casablanca region are hot spots for research on Pleistocene hominins in Africa and continue to yield a treasure trove of fossils and artefacts. They reveal not only the life of our remote ancestors, but also its dangers”, says Jean-Jacques Hublin, director at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, who studies the fossil hominins of the site.

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