Millions of years ago, a terrifying beast stalked the woods and forests of prehistoric Earth. With teeth sharp enough to carve flesh from bone, it cast a sinister shadow across the land. But were the early relatives of man safe from this fearsome predator? Well, some experts believe that they too might have been on the menu.
When the Pliocene era began more than five million years ago, many strange and wonderful creatures walked the Earth. Although dinosaurs had long been extinct, they were soon replaced by great woolly mammoths, the armadillo-like Glyptodons and giant, flightless birds.
On land, bridges between continents allowed the ancestors of modern camels, sloths and bears to migrate between them. In the oceans, meanwhile, the colossal shark Megalodon dominated the food chain. Alongside it, early walruses and seals swam.
As the years passed, and the Pleistocene epoch began, other animals began to appear on prehistoric Earth. These were different to the beasts and birds that had previously held sway across the land, however. In fact, they were the homininae – the creatures from which modern humans would eventually evolve.
One of the first to emerge was Australopitchecus afarensis, a hominin that lived almost four million years ago. Thought to have inhabited Eastern Africa, these mammals had small brains, jutting jaws and curved finger bones that suggest they were skilled at climbing trees. According to some experts, they may also have used stone tools.
Next came Homo habilis, a species of hominin that first appeared about two million years ago. Thought to have been more advanced then their predecessors, they used tools to butcher meat and scavenge. They were not skilled hunters, however, and sometimes found it tough to survive.
Around 100,000 years later a third early hominin emerged. Dubbed Paranthropus robustus, this species is thought to have inhabited dry environments, living off tubers and nuts. With strong muscles for chewing and a sizable jaw, their skulls resembled that of a gorilla.
For these early relatives of humans, life was not as easy as it is for many of us today. In the 21st century we have become convinced that we are at the very top of the food chain. On prehistoric Earth, however, this was often not the case. These homininae instead faced a daily battle to survive.
Among the many fearsome animals that hunted our ancestors were crocodiles, wild dogs and hyenas. Terrifyingly, some experts even believe that the predecessors of modern eagles preyed on young hominins, swooping down from the sky in order to claim their catch.
And one of the most fearsome animals that early humans shared the planet with was, undoubtedly, the dinofelis. Common throughout North America, Europe, Asia and Africa during the Pliocene and early Pleistocene epochs, these fascinating creatures were among prehistoric Earth’s most notorious hunters – the saber-tooth cats.
With a name meaning “terrible cat,” it’s perhaps no surprise that these carnivores were killing machines. Somewhere between a lion and leopard in stature, they were known to grow to more than 8 feet in length, although most are thought to have been between 4 and 6 feet long.
On top of its sheer size, the dinofelis had many other features that made it a frightening predator. Equipped with powerful front limbs, it was able to stalk and pounce on its prey with deadly force. Then, once it had the unfortunate creature in its grasp, it would use its claws to swiftly dispatch them.
As well as its sharp claws, the dinofelis’ teeth were formidable weapons when it came to catching prey. Similar to those of a modern-day cheetah, their sharp edges were designed to easily carve through flesh. However, this meant that they were ill-suited to crunching bone, unlike some other big cats.
Although we cannot be sure what type of animals dinofelis hunted, it’s thought that the fearsome cat subsisted on a diet of large mammals such as antelope and baboons. But were early humans also a regular meal? Well, some experts believe that these creatures did indeed develop a taste for human flesh.
In 1981 paleontologist Bob Brain from South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand authored a book entitled The Hunters or the Hunted? An Introduction to African Cave Taphonomy. In it he detailed his research at Swartkrans, a cave near Johannesburg.
According to Brain, the cave showed evidence that dinofelis had preyed on early humans. In fact, he believed that the animals took advantage of our ancestors’ habit of sheltering in the mouths of caves. The big cats would apparently seize the opportunity to make an attack, dragging their victims back into the darkness to be devoured.
In his book, Brain states his belief that dinofelis evolved to become a “specialist primate killer.” And it isn’t just Swartkrans that has shown evidence of this tumultuous relationship between man and beast. There are in fact several sites around South Africa that support the idea that dinofelis lived alongside early humans.
Some hominin skulls have apparently even been discovered with holes in the bone – holes that eerily align with the sharp upper canines of dinofelis. Not everyone agrees that dinofelis was a man-eater, however. Indeed, research that uses carbon isotope ratios to identify the diets of long-dead animals has suggested otherwise.
According to a study published in the Journal of Human Evolution in December 2000, these ratios confirmed that dinofelis fed on grazing animals such as antelope. However, the researchers found nothing to suggest that early humans also formed part of the creature’s diet.
As time went on, an ice age arrived, and with it came the destruction of much of the forest that dinofelis called home. Finally, some 1.2 million years ago, the last of the species took its final breath. Fast-forward to today, and humans have used their intelligence to assert their dominance over the animal kingdom. However, it would only take one encounter with these terrifying predators to remind us just how far down the food chain we truly are.