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Ancient humans may have dined on hyenas

There have been no other cases of ancient humans eating hyenas, but this find may represent an exception.
Two spotted hyenas are pictured. A new find suggests that human ancestors may have eaten the animal, at least once.
Two spotted hyenas are pictured. A new find suggests that human ancestors may have eaten the animal, at least once. Getty Images
/ Source: Discovery Channel

It's already been shown that hyenas ate humans, but did early humans likewise dine on hyenas? They might have, say Spanish researchers who found evidence of human "processing" of hyena bones in an ancient hyena den.

"Although the interaction between hyenas and hominids is a constant throughout human evolution, consumption of these animals by our ancestors has never before been documented," said researcher Antonio Rodríguez-Hidalgo of the Institut Català de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social at the Universitat Rovira i Virgili in Tarragona, Spain. His paper announcing the discovery appeared in a recent issue of the Journal of Taphonomy.

The suspect hyena bones come from Maltravieso cave in the southwest of the Iberian Peninsula, which is on the southwestern tip of Europe. The cave has rooms with archaeological sites ranging from the Middle Pleistocene to the Bronze Age. The Hyena bones come from what's called the Sala de Huesos (Hall of Bones), which is filled with debris dated to between 117,000 and 183,000 ago.

"In this chronology, in Europe, there was only one hominid species," Rodríguez-Hidalgo told Discovery News. "We assume that Neanderthals were responsible for this ... activity."

The Sala de Huesos appears to have been primarily a hyena den, but also might have been used by humans, although there are no human bones found there, he said.

"It's very common that hyena and humans used the same dens at different times," said Lucinda Blackwell of the University of Witwatersrand's Institute for Human Evolution in South Africa. In fact in Africa there's plenty of evidence that humans and hyenas have a long history of vying for resources including shelter. They are both, after all, large mammals that live in large social groups and eat herbivores.

"What interests me about this paper is that they only show one bone and I'd like to see more," said Blackwell. She'd also like to look the cut marks with more powerful instruments to measure their depth and compare them to other samples.

Blackwell is not convinced humans were eating hyenas, however.

"They could have been processing them for their beautiful pelts," she told Discovery News.

Over all, evidence of humans eating carnivores is scarce, agreed Rodríguez-Hidalgo.

"During the Palaeolithic carnivore consumption by hominids is as uncommon as today," Rodríguez-Hidalgo said.

In the later part of the Palaeolithic there are a few cases of humans processing the carcasses of foxes, bobcats and badgers. They were probably using their fur, but perhaps eating the meat as well. There are also signs from Maltravieso and elsewhere in southern Europe that hominids processed lynx, fox, badgers and lions.

"Among the large carnivores, bears are sometimes killed," Rodríguez-Hidalgo said. "However, the hyena never appears as a game prey."

Eating hyenas is actually forbidden in parts of Africa, he said.

"Professor Hans Kruuk, University of Aberdeen, probably the person who best knows the behavior of hyenas said that throughout sub-Saharan Africa, the hyena is considered taboo as food," said Rodríguez-Hidalgo.

"This is explained by the habit of scavenging hyenas; eat garbage and even the bodies of the dead in cemeteries. Nevertheless, studies on current and hunter-gatherer Hadza of Tanzania indicate that hyenas have been hunted and eaten on occasion."

There are no hyenas in Europe today.