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“They also found one suite of characters I had never before seen described, characters that were unique to eagle-damaged skulls and were sure clues to raptor involvement,” Berger explains.“These critical clues were puncture marks and ragged incisions in the base of the eye sockets of primates, made when the eagles ripped the eyes out of the dead monkeys with their sharp talons and beaks.It was a marker that others hadn’t noted before, that linked eagles definitively to the kill.”Berger was then driven to re-examine the Taung child, probably the most photographed human ancestor with possibly more casts of it scattered around the world than from any other single fossil.“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 10 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. 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.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!Ten years ago, Berger and Dr Ron Clarke of Wits challenged the world’s scientific community with the idea that the little Taung child had probably been killed by a large bird of prey.Berger and Clarke shocked the scientific community by claiming that the skulls and bones of monkey and animal fossils from the Taung site in north-western South Africa showed distinctive evidence of eagle-caused damage.
The announcement that the Taung child was killed by an eagle was made on Thursday by Professor Lee Berger at an international conference held at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg.
Berger recounts: “I almost dropped down when I looked into the eyes of the skull as I saw the marks, as described in the Mc Graw paper—they were perfect examples of eagle damage!
I couldn’t believe my eyes as thousands of scientists, including myself, had overlooked this critical damage.
They proposed that the three-and-a-half-year old Taung child, who died nearly two million years ago, had also been killed by an eagle, probably 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 apemen, even baby apemen like the Taung child, were way too large, sophisticated and organised to be taken by an eagle,” says Berger, who is now a reader in palaeoanthropology at Wits.Originally thought to be a middle aged female, Sts 5 was nicknamed "Mrs. Recent analyses suggest that Sts 5 is most likely male, although debates continue regarding the specimens biological age.