January 12, 2006

Eagles used to prey on our ancestors: scientists

By Ed Stoddard

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - The answer to a scientific
"who-done-it?" has revealed a chilling fact: We used to be bird

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

"Birds used to eat us and in doing so they shaped our
behavior," said Dr Lee Berger, a palaeoanthropologist at
Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand.

"Birds of prey are one of the few things that some modern
primates have special calls or alarms for," he told Reuters.

Berger said the child had probably been scooped up by an
eagle and taken to its nest, where its eyes were ripped out for
dinner. The child's skull eventually fell out of the nest, only
to be found almost 2 million years later.

Placing us on the eagle's menu may also explain other
aspects of human evolution, from walking upright, which could
present a smaller target to an aerial attacker, to our tendency
to live in groups.

"These birds would have been after the most vulnerable
members of the group," Berger said, a scenario which may have
triggered collective measures of protection.

This murder most foul occurred 2 million years ago but the
culprit, an African crowned eagle -- also known as the crowned
hawk-eagle -- still circles the skies and large eagles still
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 which he dubbed
Australopithecus africanus, or "man-ape of southern Africa."

Few in the scientific establishment were willing to accept
then what has since become conventional wisdom: that humanity
evolved in Africa.

For decades it was believed that the famous Taung child had
been slain by a leopard or a saber-toothed cat.

But 10 years ago Berger and a colleague suggested that the
child, who was about 3 or 4 years old 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 on primate remains from
African crowned eagle kills which Berger was asked to review.

The scientists found several key features of bone damage
which distinguished birds 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.
It was a marker that others hadn't noted before, that linked
eagles definitively to the kill," Berger said.

Intrigued, Berger re-examined the Taung child skull, which
is perhaps the most analyzed hominid fossil in the world.

"I almost dropped down when I looked into the eyes of the
skull as I saw the marks... they were perfect examples of eagle
damage. Thousands of scientists, including myself, had
overlooked this critical damage," Berger said.

"It just shows that you can never stop looking. Just
because something has been studied for years doesn't mean that
it can't still tell us new things," Berger said.