In the long history between humans and lions, the famous felines have occasionally turned to consuming human flesh, though scientists have disagreed about why. Some have suggested that proximity played a role, while others speculated that the great cats might have been driven to eat people because of a lack of other prey.
But two researchers suggest it might not be because of our taste that some lions hunted humans — it might have been partially due to their teeth.
In an analysis of lion teeth published in Scientific Reports Wednesday, Vanderbilt paleontologist Larisa DeSantis and colleague Bruce Patterson wrote that some of those lions’ poor dental health “may have induced shifts to feeding onto softer foods.”
The two researchers looked at the preserved teeth and jaws of three human-eating lions, stored at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago where Patterson is based. Two were African lions that, between them in 1898, killed 35 people in Kenya and devoured parts of their bodies before they were hunted and killed, according to Science Magazine. The third was a lion from Zambia which had also eaten humans before it died and its bones were donated to the Field Museum.
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DeSantis and Patterson found that all three lions they looked at had damage in their teeth and jaws unlike those found in other wild felines they surveyed. The impact of tooth damage was two-fold, because lions need their teeth to catch and suffocate their meals before they even dig in — a fact of which Patterson was particularly aware. In 2003, he led a study that found about 40 percent of African lions had weakened teeth because of their reliance on their teeth in hunting, National Geographic noted.
The lions thus “probably targeted humans because they were easy and had soft flesh,” DeSantis said, according to Science Magazine. Humans were easier to hunt down and their flesh would not have been wrapped in the kind of tough hide that lions would have had to tear away in other prey animals.
It wasn’t just bad teeth, of course, that likely led these lions to eat humans, DeSantis noted to National Geographic. Other factors, like the increasing number of humans and the disappearance of other prey animals probably also played a role, she said.
“Humans likely supplemented an already diverse diet,” she and Patterson wrote in the study.
And though humans often consider themselves the top of the food chain today, DeSantis told National Geographic that “in reality we have been on the menu of lions and large cats in general for a long time.”
“Although lions today seldom hunt humans as compared to other prey species, increasing human populations and declining prey numbers may cause man-eating to become a viable option for lions,” the authors wrote in their study.