Hyena Ate Early Human 500,000 Years Ago

Humans were both hunters and the hunted 500,000 years ago, suggests the gory remains of one unfortunate individual. Continue reading →

About 500,000 years ago, a hyena ate a human literally down to the bone, according to a new paper that describes the gory find.

The chewed up human thighbone adds to the growing body of evidence that humans were frequently both predators and prey before their numbers increased and weapons improved. The discovery is reported in the journal PLOS ONE.

Project leader Camille Daujeard and colleagues analyzed the ancient gnawed human bone, which was unearthed in a cave named "Grotte à Hominidés," located near Casablanca, Morocco.

Gift List Circa 50,000 B.C.: Photos

"This bone represents the first evidence of consumption of human remains by carnivores in the cave," the authors wrote. They added that the "chewed femur indicates that humans were a (food) resource for carnivores, underlying their close relationships during the Middle Pleistocene in Atlantic Morocco."

The relationships appear to have been too close, with Daujeard and colleagues sharing that there was "competition for resources as well as for living spaces."

The researchers suspect that a hyena ate the human, based on both the many tooth marks left on the thighbone and the way in which the individual was eaten. Once the hungry hyena finished with the flesh, it crushed the bone ends and ate the deceased's marrow.

Faces Of Our Ancestors

The human was probably a member of the species Homo rhodesiensis, since other remains of this early human have been found elsewhere at the site. Such individuals looked a lot like we do today.

The researchers wrote that, at the time, the early humans "hunted in groups and relied on new effective weapons; these two improvements allowed them to slaughter larger gregarious prey and to handle encounters with dangerous competitors. Still, this was a period of stiff competition between large carnivores and hominins..." The authors added that both groups "shared the same landscapes and competed for resources and natural shelter."

It remains unclear if the hyena killed the human, or if the toothy mammal came upon an already dead individual and consumed the remains. Both scenarios are possible, according to the researchers.

Prehistoric People Ate Each Other, Bones Show

Bones for many other species were found at and around the site, revealing that gazelles, antelopes, bears, leopards, porcupines, wildebeest, baboons, zebras, rhinos and many other animals were in the ecosystem with humans, who likely hunted most, if not all, of them.

"Coprolites (fossilized clumps of poo) are numerous," according to the researchers, providing further evidence of the animals' presence.

We will probably never know the true extent of the killing that went on back in the day: both humans hunting multiple species, and animals killing early humans.

As Daujeard wrote in a press release: "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."

Photo: Tooth marks appear on a 500,000-year-old human ancestor's thighbone. Researchers believe that a large carnivore, probably a hyena, consumed the individual. Credit: C. Daujeard PLOS ONE e0152284

Back in the Beginning

To put a human face on our ancestors, scientists from the Senckenberg Research Institute used sophisticated methods to form 27 model heads based on tiny bone fragments, teeth and skulls collected from across the globe. The heads are on display for the first time together at the Senckenberg Natural History Museum in Frankfurt, Germany. This model is Sahelanthropus tchadensis, also nicknamed "Toumai," who lived 6.8 million years ago. Parts of its jaw bone and teeth were found nine years ago in the Djurab desert in Chad. It's one of the oldest hominid specimens ever found.

Australopithecus afarensis

With each new discovery, paleoanthropologists have to rewrite the origins of man's ancestors, adding on new branches and tracking when species split. This model was fashioned from pieces of a skull and jaw found among the remains of 17 pre-humans (nine adults, three adolescents and five children) which were discovered in the Afar Region of Ethiopia in 1975. The ape-man species, Australopithecus afarensis, is believed to have lived 3.2 million years ago. Several more bones from this species have been found in Ethiopia, including the famed "Lucy," a nearly complete A. afarensis skeleton found in Hadar.

Australopithecus africanus

Meet "Mrs. Ples," the popular nickname for the most complete skull of an Australopithecus africanus, unearthed in Sterkfontein, South Africa in 1947. It is believed she lived 2.5 million years ago (although the sex of the fossil is not entirely certain). Crystals found on her skull suggest that she died after falling into a chalk pit, which was later filled with sediment. A. africanus has long puzzled scientists because of its massive jaws and teeth, but they now believe the species' skull design was optimal for cracking nuts and seeds.

Paranthropus aethiopicus

The skull of this male adult was found on the western shore of Lake Turkana in Kenya in 1985. The shape of the mouth indicates that he had a strong bite and could chew plants. He is believed to have lived in 2.5 million years ago and is classified as Paranthropus aethiopicus. Much is still unknown about this species because so few reamins of P. aethiopicus have been found.

Paranthropus boisei

Researchers shaped this skull of "Zinj," found in 1959. The adult male lived 1.8 million years ago in the Olduvai Gorge of Tanzania. His scientific name is Paranthropus boisei, though he was originally called Zinjanthropus boisei -- hence the nickname. First discovered by anthropologist Mary Leakey, the well-preserved cranium has a small brain cavity. He would have eaten seeds, plants and roots which he probably dug with sticks or bones.

Homo rudolfensis

This model of a sub-human species -- Homo rudolfensis -- was made from bone fragments found in Koobi Fora, Kenya, in 1972. The adult male is believed to have lived about 1.8 million years ago. He used stone tools and ate meat and plants. H. Rudolfensis' distinctive features include a flatter, broader face and broader postcanine teeth, with more complex crowns and roots. He is also recognized as having a larger cranium than his contemporaries.

Homo ergaster

The almost perfectly preserved skeleton of the "Turkana Boy" is one of the most spectacular discoveries in paleoanthropology. Judging from his anatomy, scientists believe this Homo ergaster was a tall youth about 13 to 15 years old. According to research, the boy died beside a shallow river delta, where he was covered by alluvial sediments. Comparing the shape of the skull and teeth, H. ergaster had a similiar head structure to the Asian Homo erectus.

Homo heidelbergensis

This adult male, Homo heidelbergensis, was discovered in in Sima de los Huesos, Spain in 1993. Judging by the skull and cranium, scientists believe he probably died from a massive infection that caused a facial deformation. The model, shown here, does not include the deformity. This species is believed to be an ancestor of Neanderthals, as seen in the shape of his face. "Miquelon," the nickname of "Atapuerca 5", lived about 500,000 to 350,000 years ago and fossils of this species have been found in Italy, France and Greece.

Homo neanderthalensis

The "Old Man of La Chapelle" was recreated from the skull and jaw of a Homo neanderthalensis male found near La Chapelle-aux-Saints, in France in 1908. He lived 56,000 years ago. His relatively old age, thought to be between 40 to 50 years old, indicates he was well looked after by a clan. The old man's skeleton indicates he suffered from a number of afflictions, including arthritis, and had numerous broken bones. Scientists at first did not realize the age and afflicted state of this specimen when he was first discovered. This led them to incorrectly theorize that male Neanderthals were hunched over when they walked.

Homo floresiensis

The skull and jaw of this female "hobbit" was found in Liang Bua, Flores, Indonesia, in 2003. She was about 1 meter tall (about 3'3") and lived about 18,000 years ago. The discovery of her species, Homo floresiensis, brought into question the belief that Homo sapiens was the only form of mankind for the past 30,000 years. Scientists are still debating whether Homo floresiensis was its own species, or merely a group of diseased modern humans. Evidence is mounting that these small beings were, in fact, a distinct human species.

Homo sapiens

Bones can only tell us so much. Experts often assume or make educated guesses to fill in the gaps in mankind's family tree, and to develop a sense what our ancestors may have looked like. Judging from skull and mandible fragments found in a cave in Israel in 1969, this young female Homo sapien lived between 100,000 and 90,000 years ago. Her bones indicate she was about 20 years old. Her shattered skull was found among the remains of 20 others in a shallow grave.