Bone of Human Ancestor Bears Signs of Suspected Cannibal

Tool marks offer definite evidence of butchering, though species responsible is unknown
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 27, 2023 8:26 AM CDT
1.45M-Year-Old Bone Bears Signs of Suspected Cannibal
Marks 1 to 4 and 7 to 11 were identified as stone tool cut marks. Marks 5 and 6 were identified as tooth marks, likely from a big cat.   (Jennifer Clark)

Small marks on a fossilized shin bone could serve as some of the earliest evidence of cannibalism among human ancestors. Certainly the nine marks on the left tibia bone from an unknown human relative who lived in what is now northern Kenya suggest hominins were eating other hominins some 1.45 million years ago. Briana Pobiner, a paleoanthropologist at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, was looking for signs that extinct animals had preyed on ancient hominins when she discovered 11 key marks on the bone held at Kenya's Nairobi National Museum. Two marks matched with the teeth of a big cat, possibly a lion, per Popular Science. But the others, oriented in the same direction, appeared to have been made by a hand-wielded stone tool.

The marks "look very similar to what I've seen on animal fossils that were being processed for consumption," Pobiner says in a release. Colorado State University paleoanthropologist Michael Pante wasn't told of Pobiner's theory but also concluded the nine marks likely came from a stone tool after comparing their size and shape with nearly 900 examples of tooth, cut, and trample marks, per CNN. "These are to our knowledge the first (and to date only) cut marks identified on an early Pleistocene postcranial hominin fossil," Pobiner, Pante, and co-author Trevor Keevil write in Scientific Reports. Pobiner says the cuts appear where a calf muscle would've attached to the bone. "It seems most likely that the meat from this leg was eaten and that it was eaten for nutrition as opposed to for a ritual," she says.

She adds "this fossil suggests that our species' relatives were eating each other to survive further into the past than we recognized." Chris Stringer, research leader in human origins at London's Natural History Museum, who was not involved in the research, notes similar marks have been found on a cheek bone from a hominin fossil thought to be 2 million years old, but there is debate about their source. "This new evidence looks quite convincing and adds to the evidence for cannibalism in very early ... humans," he tells CNN. However, PopSci notes "cannibalism requires the eater and the eaten to be of the same species." Species including Homo habilis, Australopithecus boisei, and Homo erectus lived in eastern Africa around 1.5 million years ago, and researchers can't definitively link the bone or the cuts to any species in particular. (More cannibalism stories.)

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