Was Australopithecus africanus Hunted By Birds?

According to this story the answer is yes:

A South African anthropologist said Thursday his research into the death nearly 2 million years ago of an ape-man shows human ancestors were hunted by birds.
“These types of discoveries give us real insight into the past lives of these human ancestors, the world they lived in and the things they feared,” Lee Berger, a paleo-anthropologist at Johannesburg’s University of Witwatersrand, said as he presented his conclusions about a mystery that has been debated since the remains of the possible human ancestor known as the Taung child were discovered in 1924.


The Ohio State study determined that eagles would swoop down, pierce monkey skulls with their thumb-like back talons, then hover while their prey died before returning to tear at the skull. Examination of thousands of monkey remains produced a pattern of damage done by birds, including holes and ragged cuts in the shallow bones behind the eye sockets.
Berger went back to the Taung skull, and found traces of the ragged cuts behind the eye sockets. He said none of the researchers who had for decades been debating how the child died had noticed the eye socket damage before.

The study will be published in the AJPA…
My problem with the article is this:

The Taung child’s discovery led to the search for human origins in Africa, instead of in Asia or Europe as once theorized. Researchers regard the fossil of the ape-man, or australopethicus (this should be capitalized – afarensis) africanus, as evidence of the “missing link” in human evolution.

1) Australopithicus africanus is not an “ape-man” it’s a hominin.
2)”Missing link” is a term term used by creationists and scientific illiterates. It has not been used in anthropology in about fifty years…

8 Responses

  1. This is fascinating. I know there used to be giant eagles in New Zealand that hunted the Moas (back when they actually existed). Any idea what kind of eagles these were? Obviously they are not still with us.

  2. Very interesting and certainly makes sense in view of the size of the Taung skull. Nice new look on the blog too Afarensis, but now you realize you really do have to “keep looking up”!

  3. Wow, that’s really fascinating stuff. Also, I agree with you about the phrase “missing link”. It really bugs me too. For similar reason it annoys me when people refer to ‘gaps in the fossil record’. This is just the sort of thing that creationists pounce upon.
    Anyway, I look forward to reading this site. I only just became aware of it when I followed some other blogs over to Science Blogs, and this promises to be a great addition to my daily reading list.

  4. Chris – they think it was something similar to an African Crowned Eagle. I imagine the AJPA article would be more precise in identifying the exact species.
    Carl – yes, the first pic is almost lifesize. Taung itself, according to Glenn Conroy, is 3-4 years old and would have been quite small bodysize wise so I can imagine it would have looked enticing to a large bird of prey. Have I mentioned that there is a large amount of evidence that leopards preyed on Australopithecus africanus as well (jumped on them from trees and bit them in the head)?
    chrisberez – Thanks for the compliments! The phrase “missing link” drove me straight up the wall. Maybe I should have gone all PZ Myers on the reporter for that paragraph (that’s not an insult, the way PZ totally dismantles stupid statements takes a lot of skill).
    I do think I should have mentioned that I am a little skeptical – but haven’t read the paper yet, I could really address it in more detail (that is a hint to those with a access to the AJPA).

  5. Crowned Eagles are certainly a possibility, as are Martial Eagles, birds of more open country capable of taking prey items as large as goats and small antelope. Of course a lot of things were bigger back then except us. We have two commonly occuring species of eagle here in North America (north of Mexico) now, but just a few thousand years ago there were 7, one as big as a Harpy. I’ve got less knowledge of African fossil raptors, but it doesn’t mean there weren’t bigger ones around.
    I know of the evidence for leopard predation, I remember a wonderful series of illustrations by Jay Matternes showing how our unfortunate family member was dragged off by the skull.

  6. I had completely forgotten about the Matternes illustrations. I was thinking of one of the pictures I’ve seen of a A. africanus skull with two punctures from leaopard canines (among others). Like you I’m not that familiar African fossil raptors…

  7. Let’s jump on the bandwagon to Taung!

    I’ll make this short, why oh why is everyone writing about the conlusion that the Taung hominid child was hunted by eagles?

  8. Hey.
    I’m in school right now and we are learning about Australopithecus africanus. I got curious and wanted to learn more about it. It makes no since how we could be apes before human. If people come out today as humans…Wouldn’t they have been born as apes before humans? If we did, then why isn’t it still doing it now? It couldn’t of stop from all of a sudden. And if we were apes, then weren’t we a fish before that too? That’s what I been hearing. So if it is true, how could we form from a small creature to a big creature in a matter of time?
    Well, write back to me please. I would love what you would have to think and say about this. I put my email for you!

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