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Last Updated: Friday, 13 January 2006, 13:04 GMT
SA fossil murder mystery solved
By Mahlatse Gallens
BBC News, Johannesburg

Prof Berger with a bird of prey
The marks on the skull resemble those made by a bird of prey
Scientists claim to have solved the murder mystery of the baby that holds the key to all of humanity's ancestry.

For decades, scientists have argued over what killed the 2m-year-old Taung Child, found in 1924: the first ape-man fossil to be discovered in Africa.

Some researchers had believed the child was killed by leopards.

Professor Lee Berger challenged this, suggesting that the Taung child was attacked from above by a bird.

Can you imagine what it must have been like back then? You had to watch for aerial attacks
Prof Lee Berger

But until now, Professor Berger - an American palaeontologist working at South Africa's University of the Witwatersrand - was unable to find definitive proof for his hypothesis.

Scientists had missed the evidence right in front of their eyes, even though the Taung child (thought to belong to the humanlike species Australopithecus africanus) is believed to be the most photographed and observed fossil in history.

Window into the past

The injuries on the Taung child's skull mimic those on the skull of a baboon killed by an eagle.

Taung child fossil
Many fossils of humanlike creatures have been found in South Africa

Professor Berger explained how birds such as eagles kill their prey and eat the brain, which is the most nutritious part of the animal.

"They first kill the young child or a primate by jamming their talons - up to 14cm in length - though the back of the brain and that kills the animal instantly," he said.

"They make sure the animal is dead, then they go down, disembowel it, rip it apart. Take out the eyes, very delicately with their talons, reach in, following the optic nerve with their beak, after eating the eye of course, and go in."

Professor Berger describes his finding as "an extraordinary window into our past" that tells of how our ancestors lived millions of years ago.

"We now know that it's not the furry things with claws that we had to be afraid of, we were driven by other stresses. We were being driven by attacks from the sky.

"Can you imagine what it must have been like back then? Not only were we afraid of cats, and leopards - you had to watch for aerial attacks from these ferocious predators preying on your young."

Professor Berger's findings are to be published in a scientific journal next month.

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10 Dec 98 |  Science/Nature

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