Our Ancestors’ Love-Hate for Sabertooths
Hominids have a long story in common with sabertooth cats. The earliest members of our own zoological family were vegetarians that fitted quite nicely with the role of sabertooth prey. Not a very important prey at that, because as a source of meat ungulates have always been more important, so our early ancestors such as Ardipithecus and Australopithecus would only occasionally figure in the menu of felids like Dinofelis, Megantereon or Homotherium. Even so, their life in the African forests of the Pliocene period would be always marked by the fear of the dagger-toothed felids.
But things changed in the Pleistocene. The appearance of our own genus, Homo, meant the entrance of hominids to the carnivore guild, probably as timid scavengers at first, but with an ever more assertive attitude as they developed a more sophisticated use of stone tools and a greater body size. By the time when the species Homo erectus (or Homo ergaster, as some specialists call the African populations) appears, hominids have become a force to reckon with among African predators. The leopard-sized sabertooth Megantereon was one of the most efficient hunters of the wooded savannahs, but as a solitary cat it had little chance to defend its kills against a well organized gang of the tall, aggressive and object-throwing hominids.
Did this relationship develop into a full-fledged kleptoparasitism? This term means that one species regularly steals the food from another without any benefit to the provider. Evidence is very complex to interpret, but current views tend to support this notion. In fact, if pressure from hominids got too heavy it might even contribute to the final extinction of this felid. There is interesting evidence, nonetheless, suggesting that now and then one hominid paid his bravery with dear life during such conflicts…
Even more complex is the possible relationship between species of Homo and the larger sabertooth cat Homotherium, which not only was as big as a lion but probably had some kind of social structure.
The possible implications of the uneasy coexistence between Dinofelis, Megantereon, Homotherium and our own relatives are discussed at some length in my upcoming book, “Sabertooth”. For those more technically minded, here is a link to an academic paper where we discuss in depth the coexistence between Homotherium and hominids in the Pleistocene:
Here is a hypothetical scene where the sabertooth Megantereon whitei tries to defend its kill (a waterbuck antelope) from a gang of Homo erectus. I am sorry to say it doesn´t look good for the cat…