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Planet Earth

Death From the Pleistocene Sky


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In 1924, mining blasts at the Buxton Limeworks near Taung, South Africa, exposed a cavern containing the fossil bones of many small animals- -and the two-and-a-half-million-year-old skull of an australopithecine child. Anthropologists concluded that they had stumbled upon the remains of some ancient hominid kitchen and that the Taung child had perhaps fallen prey to one of its own kind, a carnivorous beast, a shell-cracking and bone-breaking ape. A later theory had a leopard as the culprit. But paleoanthropologists Lee Berger and Ron Clarke of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg now say an eagle probably ate the child, who was about three and a half years old when killed. Berger first got the idea after seeing a black eagle carry off a vervet monkey. Later he found that puncture marks in baboon skulls scattered beneath eagles’ nests--marks made by the birds’ talons--were identical to those in the Taung skull. And the small animals found at Taung also implicate a bird of prey. Our vision of the killer ape has been replaced by our ancestor the hunted, says Berger. There was no safe moment for our ancestors. They had to watch the skies at every moment.

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