Our Kind of Hominins

A group of robust and heavyset individuals was moving through the valley in search of food and shelter. It was the changing of the seasons and they had moved into the valley to take advantage of the warmer conditions. While they had been in this valley a few times previously, they had never before needed to spend the night here. Just before the setting of the sun, the group moved farther up from the valley floor in order to reach a cave entrance. They had noticed the cave earlier that day and had decided that it would be a good place to spend the night, after briefly checking it out. The day had been productive with tubers found in abundance; indeed, they were even able to bring some with them back to their intended sleeping place. Unfortunately, they had come across no opportunities for obtaining meat. One individual cautiously entered and moved into the first large cavern, close to the entrance. There was a strong smell of animal droppings, but there still appeared to be no other animals in the cave. He moved back out of the cave and motioned the others to join him. They settled in for the night after finishing off the remaining tubers. The lone mother and child settled into the rear of the first chamber, away from the cave entrance.

All was not as it seemed. Within the deeper recesses of the cave, a leopard, upon smelling and hearing prey, had crept slowly forward toward the entrance. This was not only the sleeping place of the big cat, but in the deeper recesses of the cave, the cat had established

its primary feeding site, where, safely tucked away from other carnivores, it could consume its prey without interruption. This was not its first ambush from within the cave; the bones of baboons and hominins were scattered around the cave floor, well away from the entrance, a testimonial to the success of this site as a source of fresh meat.

The leopard chose its own time to strike; it also chose its prey from the group. Conveniently for the leopard, the mother and child were closest. And when hominins were in a group, a child or elderly individual was the preferred prey. The mother cuddled up to her child as they settled for the night. It was at this point that the leopard pounced. From a small terrace within the cave that was slightly above the mother and child, the leopard sprang into life. Its powerful jaws clenched the lower leg of the child and dragged it from its mother. Both mother and child screamed in fear and terror. The big cat was now positioned between the mother and child, flashing its large canines, growling. It reclined back in a position to bounce if attacked. The mother yelled at the cat, flinging her arms, while the other members of the group ran to her assistance, yelling and screaming. The cat leaped at the mother, slashing through a thigh muscle. The other hominins jumped back, grabbing her by the arm, forcing her out of the cave. Nothing could be done. The child could be heard in the cave for a short time, yelling and crying; then there was silence. The big cat had clenched the child's neck in its jaws and cut into its windpipe. The child was soon dead. The leopard dragged the body by its head, moving back to its feeding area in the darkest recesses of the cave.

The classic excavations at the Swartkrans cave locality, South Africa, have yielded a large number of hominin specimens, attributed mostly to Paranthropus robustus. One of these, SK 54, is a young child with two very distinct puncture marks on its cranium. It was Brain (1970) who originally suggested that a leopard had killed the child. He demonstrated that the puncture marks were spaced so as to match precisely the canine spacing of a primitive leopard's jaw, specimen SK 349, from the same deposits. The child, he suggested, having been killed, was taken by the leopard into a tree, where it was consumed, and pieces of the body had fallen from the tree into a nearby sinkhole. Over time the surrounding surface was eroded and the former sinkhole became a cave. Brain has since revised aspects of his model; while a leopard attack was still the likely cause of death for SK 54, the child was probably taken from a badly chosen sleeping site

(Brain, 1981). Leopards have been seen to kill baboons in a similar fashion. Brain suggests that if leopards were involved, which seems almost certainly the case, then the overwhelming number of baboon and hominin remains suggests that a sleeping site was being exploited—it was not leopards hunting normally in the open country.

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