The world’s oldest murder mystery has been solved: the 2-million-year-old Taung child was killed by an eagle, not a big cat.
Previously, experts had believed that the child, whose fossil skull was found by Professor Raymond Dart in South Africa’s North West province in 1924, had been killed by a leopard or sabre-tooth cat.
The Taung child, only three-and-a-half years old, was a member of Australopithecus africanus, a species of bipedal hominid and an early human ancestor.
Professor Lee Berger of Wits University’s palaeoanthropology unit announced on Thursday that it was evident from the marks on its skull that a bird of prey similar to the African crown hawk eagle had swooped down and seized the child with its large talons and beak, killing it immediately.
“It is proven beyond reasonable doubt that the eagle is the killer of Taung,” said Berger. He said the evidence was so convincing he could “prosecute the eagle killer in court”.
“These raptors were extraordinary predators and could kill large prey like a bushbuck weighing 30 kilograms.”
It is estimated that Taung weighed around 10 to 12 kilograms. After killing the child, the eagle would have waited for the troop of hominids to move away before disembowelling it, eating some of the carcass, then carrying it off to its nest, from where the skull was eventually kicked out, Berger said.
Ten years ago, Berger and Dr Ron Clarke presented the same thesis to the scientific community, but it was discounted because it was felt that the Taung child would have been too heavy for an eagle to lift.
Berger admits that the spark for the new discovery was when he was asked several months ago to review a paper by Drs Scott McGraw, Catherine Cooke and Suzanne Schultz of the department of anthropology at the Ohio State University in the US. The paper looked at the primate remains from African crowned eagle nests in Ivory Coast’s Tai Forest, and was to be published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.
The Ohio researchers isolated features of eagle damage on bone that was different from damage made by other predators like big cats.
These included flaps of depressed bone on top of the skull, keyhole-shaped cuts in the side of the skulls made by the eagles’ beaks, and puncture marks and ragged incisions in the base of the eye sockets, made when the eagles ripped out the eyes of the monkeys.
After reading the paper, Berger says he hurried to the Taung skull to see if these marks could be detected.
“I had handled the skull hundred of times, and I knew it wasn’t there. But after reading the paper I just wished so much that the marks were there.”
Then he found the evidence – a hole in the base of the eye orbit of the left socket, and another one in the right socket.
“I almost dropped down when I looked into the eyes of the skull as I saw the marks, as described in the McGraw paper – they were perfect examples of eagle damage. I couldn’t believe my eyes as thousands of scientists, including myself, had overlooked this critical damage.
“I even went to look at an original 1925 cast of the child to make sure the damage had been there originally, and it had. I felt a little bit like an idiot for not seeing those marks 10 years ago, but at least we had them now.”
A small skull with a detached lower jaw bone, the Taung specimen was the first hominid to be discovered in Africa. It marked the shift in focus from the search for humankind’s origins from Europe to Africa, and the subsequent recognition that those origins were to be found in Africa.
It has since become the most photographed and the best-known early human fossil.
The Taung site forms part of the Cradle of Humankind, which has been proclaimed a World Heritage Site by the United Nations.
The original skull and Mrs Ples, another Australopithecus africanus skull found by Robert Broom at Sterkfontein in 1947, are kept at the Wits Medical School in Johannesburg.
One of the “driving stresses” of early hominids was being hunted by predators, a stress which may have helped our intellect to evolve.
“These are the stresses that formed the human mind and made us one of the most successful animals on the face of the planet,” says Berger.
This finding proves that early people were was not only hunted by the big cats, but also by raptors. Today this situation is reversed – raptors, as well as big cats, are endangered by human beings.
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