Since the infant’s discovery in 1924, leopards or sabre-toothed cats have been blamed for the child’s death nearly two million years ago at the Taung site in northwestern South Africa. However, ten years ago, Drs Lee Berger and Ron Clarke of the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, challenged the world’s scientific community with the idea that the child had probably been killed by a large bird of prey. Berger and Clarke believed that the skulls and bones of monkey and animal fossils from the Taung site showed distinctive evidence of eagle-caused damage. They proposed that the little three-and-a-half year old Taung child, who weighed just c.10-12kg, had also been killed by an eagle, probably of a type similar to the present day crowned eagle of Africa.
‘While some colleagues accepted that the damage to the Taung fossil monkeys was probably made by a bird of prey, the majority felt that ape-men, even baby ape-men like the Taung child, were way too large, sophisticated and organised to be taken by an eagle,’ says Professor Berger, who is now a Reader in Palaeoanthropology at Wits University. ‘There were several debates in international journals about whether an eagle could lift a child as heavy as the Taung baby,’ he says.
Since Berger and Clarke first posited their theory in 1995, over two dozen scientists have published more than twenty academic papers weighing up the pros and cons of the Taung bird of prey hypothesis. ‘The one big problem was the lack of multiple areas of damage on the Taung child itself that could be linked to a bird of prey,’ says Berger. ‘We had one little flap of bone on the top of the skull that looked like some of the damage we see made by eagles and nothing else. Most of my colleagues felt we had reached the end of the road in solving this problem. It was the ultimate two million year old cold case!’
Last year, Professor Berger was asked to review an academic paper, soon to be published in American Journal of Physical Anthropology, authored by Drs Scott McGraw, Catherine Cooke and Suzanne Schultz of Ohio State University. The paper offered the most comprehensive study of eagle damage on bone ever conducted. The authors had found several key features of damage on bone that separated eagle damage from that made by other predators like big cats. These key markers include flaps of depressed bone on top of the skull and ‘keyhole-shaped’ cuts in the side of skulls made by birds’ beaks, all features noted 10 years ago on Taung Child by Berger and Clarke. As a consequence, the Ohio scientists supported the hypothesis that the Taung animals had been collected by a bird of prey, but concluded that one would never know for sure whether the Taung child itself was collected by a raptor because it lacked critical ‘marker’ damage.
This was all soon to change: the Ohio researchers also found one suite of characteristics that Berger had never before seen described. These are unique to eagle damaged skulls and provide sure clues to involvement by birds of prey. The critical clues are puncture marks and ragged incisions in the base of the eye sockets of primates. These are made when eagles rip the eyes from dead monkeys with their sharp talons and beaks.
Berger decided to re-examine the Taung child. Berger recounts: ‘I almost dropped it when I looked into the eyes of the skull and saw the marks, as described in the paper by McGraw and co. – they were perfect examples of eagle damage! I couldn’t believe my eyes as thousands of scientists, including myself, had overlooked this critical damage. I even went to look at an original 1925 cast of the child to make sure the damage had been there originally, and it had. I felt a little bit like an idiot for not seeing those marks ten years ago, but at least we had them now!’
‘People don’t know how rare it is for a scientific theory to be actually proven beyond a reasonable doubt. It’s incredibly gratifying after ten years of work. 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. And in that is the clue to understanding why we humans today view the world the way we do. These are the stresses that formed the human mind and made us one of the most successful animals on the face of the planet.’
This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 15. Click here to subscribe