Were early hominids REALLY all that threatened by sabre toothed tigers?

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Offline bizerl

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I’ve often wondered how much of a role the sabre toothed tiger actually played in our evolution. When explaining things like how our adrenal glands developed to strengthen us in fight or flight, to the role that families played in evolution to provide increased protection against predators, the sabre toothed tiger is often trotted out as the main antagonist of early hominids.

Were they really this much of a threat to early humans?


Offline Don_1

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The Sabre Toothed cats first appeared around 40 – 45 million years ago. By the time of the early hominids most had become extinct, but a few species survived right up to the end of the last ice age, around 10,000 years ago, in North America. These were the Smilodon, Homotherium (which was also present in South America,  Eurasia and Africa) and the Megantereon , which became extinct around 50,000 years ago and would have been found in the same locations as Smilodon.

By the time early man reached the haunts of the Sabre Tooth, he would have developed into an efficient pack hunter, using spears and rocks as weapons. As such, man would have been the top predator, so it is likely that the Sabre Tooth’s would have gone to great lengths to avoid contact. Equally, the Sabre Tooth’s, which would have been larger than the modern Siberian Tiger (to which, I might add, they are in no way related), would have been a formidable advisory and man would probably have avoided contact with such a dangerous animal. Predators will avoid other predators of equal or near equal strength and prey which poses a significant risk to life and limb when easier targets can be found.

But there would have doubtless have been occasions when these two powerful predators’ paths would have crossed. Since the Sabre Tooth’s not only posed a high risk to man, but would also have been a serious competitor in the hunt for prey, I think it probable that man would have then gone on the offensive. Eradicating such a threat from their territory might have been a high priority.

In this way, man might have been a significant contributor to the demise of these species, along with the rapid changes in temperatures as the ice sheets retreated to the polar regions.

Another threat to both man and the Sabre Tooth’s would have been the Wolves. The first true Wolves appear around 2 – 3 million years ago and became a highly efficient and fearless pack hunter. When man began to turn from a roamer to a settler, Wolves may have taken advantage of this and man saw a benefit to an alliance also. Leaving that which he could not consume himself to the Wolves, would placate them and keep them close to his settlement. In this way, Wolves would benefit from easy food and man would benefit from a 1st class early warning system. With a strengthening of this alliance, the Wolves became the pet dogs we know and love today, but in the early stages, these Wolfdogs would have become hunting allies. For both species, the eradication of the threat from Sabre Tooth’s might have been a great benefit.

So what effect would the Sabre Tooth’s have had on man? I would say little more, if any, than the threat from the early encounters with Wolves or the excitement of the hunt. Certainly in North America, hunting Buffalo would get the old adrenal glands working overtime. These were quite some advisory too. A large and powerful animal which could easily inflict great harm to its predators, if they were anything short of competent.

As to the question of Sabre Tooth's being a contributing factor to man turning from a roamer to a settler, I rather doubt it. I think it far more likely that it was man's new found ability to cultivate land which would have been, by far, the greater factor in this. Security may well have played a part, but as a defence against Sabre Tooth's? No, not in particular. As a defence against many threats from cats and wolves, maybe even snakes and arachnids and certainly against other tribes of his own species? Yes, very possible and as a defence against the elements.
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Offline CliffordK

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The sabre-toothed-tiger (smilodon) was native to North & South America.

If one believes in the "Out of Africa" theory of human evolution, then smilodon had very little to do with human evolution as most of the basic elements of human evolution had occurred prior to humanity reaching North America.

There would have been other African cats contemporary with humans including homotherium, as well as the ancestors of the modern lions and tigers.

Here in the USA, the remaining large cat, the Cougar is very stealthy.  Despite knowing they are around, I don't think I've ever seen one in the wild.  This is because they use stealth for both hunting, as well as avoiding humans in general.

It is likely that early humans gave major predators such as lion and tiger ancestors a wide berth.  It is just too great of a risk to ourselves to hunt them.  HOWEVER, if a predator should ever kill a human...  we will track and kill that animal.

Perhaps that is the reason that large cats remain in Africa.  Any species that would have co-evolved with humanity would have learned the lesson that hunting humans is bad, to the point where it is in their genetics.  And, they even have a distaste for human flesh.  Is burying our dead a method of preventing opportunistic scavengers from acquiring a taste for human flesh?

It is possible that while lions and tigers had learned to avoid hunting humans, the North American saber tooth tiger had never acquired the knowledge.  And, if they had in fact attempted to hunt the relatively late arriving humans, the repercussions would have been devastating.

I presume the hormonally mediated "fight or flight" mechanisms are common to all mammals.  Evolution of these mechanisms would have begun long before the evolution of humans.  Undoubtedly, even the large cats would have some form of the mechanism.