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Ancient humans hunted by birds

So, there’s this 2-million-year-old fossilized ancestor of modern humans known as the Taung Child. For years, scientists had speculated that he’d been killed by a saber-toothed tiger or something like that. But ten years ago, Lee Berger, a paleo-anthropologist at University of Witwatersrand, came up with another idea: Maybe the Taung Child was killed by a predatory bird. The thing is, Berger was never able to make a good argument for the theory …

… until five months ago, when he read a study of the hunting habits of modern West African eagles, which are apparently very similar to those of predatory birds that existed during the Child’s time. These eagles kill monkeys in a particularly gruesome fashion: They swoop down, pierce the backs of the monkey-skulls with their hind talons, and hover around until they die. Then, to eat their prey, they pierce the skull, producing a distinctive set of “ragged cuts in the shallow bones behind the eye sockets,” as a story in Yahoo News reports.

So Berger checked the records of the Taung Child, and saw that he had suffered from precisely the same type of eye-socket injuries. Presto: Some strong evidence suggesting his pecked-to-death-by-ducks theory is correct. What a wonderfully Hitchcockian idea: Early man was totally owned by enormous birds. As Berger puts it:

“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.”

(Thanks to Slashdot for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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