Hyenas hunted and ate early humans 500,000 years ago, a new analysis of hominid fossils suggests. Humans are usually on top of the food chain, but that position in the pecking order was not as clear half a million years before our own time.
A femur bone discovered within a cave in Morocco shows signs its one-time owner was likely eaten by a large hyena.
The Middle Pleistocene era found human ancestors competing head-to-head with many large carnivore species. These included not just hyenas, but also saber-toothed cats and giant baboons. However, little physical evidence of these ancient struggles for survival has, so far, been unearthed by investigators.
Examination of the femur revealed teeth marks and gouges were most prevalent at each end of the artifact. Researchers have, so far, been unable to tell if the hominin was hunted by the hyena, or if the human ancestor was feasted on by the carnivores following death. Earlier finds record evidence of hominins in the area consuming hyenas they had hunted. During this period, each species appears to have fed on the other.
"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," Camille Daujeard of the National Museum of Natural History in France said.
The Grotte à Hominidés cave, near Casablanca, is the location of a treasure trove of hominid fossils, along with the remains of many ancient animals. The fossil examined in this latest study was discovered in the cave during 1994. The artifact was ignored for decades until it was analyzed as part of the latest research.
The Middle Pleistocene era began around 781,000 years ago, and ended 126,000 years before the modern day. This period in the history of Earth is marked largely by geological processes that were common during this time.
Although this new finding does not provide direct evidence of hyenas hunting early humans, it does show the complex relationships between species during that time.
Analysis of the ancient hominid fossil and markings suggesting hyenas may have eaten the distant human ancestor was profiled in the journal Plos One.