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Pre-Human Child Eaten by an Eagle

January 14, 2006|From Reuters

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The answer to a scientific whodunit has revealed a chilling fact: Some of our distant relatives were prey for birds.

Scientists announced Thursday that they had definitive proof that the "Taung child," a 2-million-year-old hominid skull famed as one of the most dramatic human evolutionary finds, was killed and eaten by an eagle.

Lee Berger, a paleoanthropologist at University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, said the Taung child had probably been scooped up by an eagle and taken to its nest, where its eyes were ripped out for food.

The likely culprit was an African crowned eagle, also known as the crowned hawk-eagle, which still circles the skies. Large eagles are known to prey on small primates in Africa.

Unearthed in South Africa in 1924, the Taung child shook the scientific world when Raymond Dart suggested in 1925 that it was a higher form of primate that he dubbed Australopithecus africanus. Few in the scientific establishment were willing to accept then what has since become conventional wisdom: that human beings evolved from Africa.

For decades it was believed that the Taung child had been slain by a leopard or a saber-toothed tiger. But 10 years ago Berger and a colleague suggested that the child, who was about age 3 or 4 when it died, was killed by a large bird of prey.

This remained an educated guess until researchers at Ohio State University submitted a paper that Berger was asked to review on primate remains from the kills of African crowned eagle.

The scientists found several key features of bone damage that distinguished bird-of-prey kills from those of big cats.

"These critical clues were puncture marks in the base of the eye sockets of primates, made when the eagles ripped the eyes out of the dead monkeys with their sharp talons and beaks," Berger said. "It was a marker that others hadn't noted before, that linked eagles definitively to the kill."

Berger reexamined the Taung child.

"I almost dropped down when I looked into the eyes of the skull as I saw the marks," he said.

"They were perfect examples of eagle damage."

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