The Top Ten Deadliest Animals of Our Evolutionary Past

Humans may be near the top of the food chain now, but who were our ancestors’ biggest predators?

One of the most famous hominid fossils is the skull of a 3-year-old child found in Taung, South Africa. The child lived about three million to two million years ago. The skull has holes punched into its eye sockets; they were made by the talons of a large bird akin to an African crowned eagle. (AFP / Getty Images)

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3. Snakes

Snakes have long influenced our fate and evolution. In parts of Africa, venomous snakebites are common, and many of those bites prove deadly. Venomous snakes aren’t the only kind that kill humans and other primates today and might have killed our ancestors—constrictors can also do a fine job. New observations by Cornell University biologist Harry Greene even suggest that in some indigenous populations today, constricting snakes may be one of the most common causes of death.

4. A primate-eat-primate world

Anthropologists have argued, variously, that early hominids were aggressive hunters, peaceful foragers, hairless swimmers, sneaky scavengers and a dozen other things. Time may or may not tell. But some of our ancestors were almost certainly food for other primates. Today, some chimpanzees are, in effect, monkeyvores. In Uganda, chimps preferentially eat red colobus monkeys, which are said to taste like chicken. In other regions, chimps prefer black and white colobus monkeys. There is, as they say, no accounting for taste. Orangutans eat gibbons. Blue monkeys eat bush babies, squirrel-size nocturnal primates. Capuchin monkeys, those adorable organ grinders, eat owl monkeys and so on. Primates eat primates, and this has long been the case.

5. Dog days

There is a reason why the author of Little Red Riding Hood chose a wolf to put in Grandma’s bed. Wolves do occasionally kill humans, particularly in parts of Eastern Europe. Deaths seem to be more likely in the spring when mothers are hunting for food for their cubs. Data are sparse, but historic predation by wolves on young humans may once have been common—common enough to influence our stories and fears.

6. Nothing to laugh about

Spotted hyenas regularly prey on baboons and, in some regions, people. In the 1950s, hyenas ate 27 people in Malawi. But the real primate eaters are hyenas’ extinct relatives. As many as 100 hyena species have existed alongside primates. Many of those hyenas were big, mean brutes, including the short-faced hyena, Pachycrocuta, which was the size of a lion. It lived from three million to 500,000 years ago alongside the first hominids, such as Australopithecus, and more recent species in our lineage. It had a mouth capable of fully enveloping a hominid’s head, which it did. A treasure trove of skulls of “Peking man” (Homo erectus) found in China prior to World War II appears to have been from the waste pile of a Pachycrocuta.

7. Extinct monsters

Some of the most ferocious animals that once ate our kind are unlike any predators we contend with today. Even when they are reconstructed in museum exhibits, they appear more imaginary than real: giant hyenas, as mentioned, but also giant bears (Agriotherium), saber-toothed cats (Homotherium, Machairodus, Megantereon) and “false” saber-toothed cats (Dinofelis). In Australia, the first aboriginal colonists would have encountered giant, predatory kangaroos. Whether those roos proved deadly, we do not know. But imagine being chased by a giant hopping animal with six-inch-long teeth. Saber-toothed cats used their teeth to cut flesh, like pulling barbecue off a rib. In all likelihood, that flesh would have included that of our ancestors and kin, though the only evidence of their effects is from a single hominid skull bearing two holes, one for each saber.


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