The sum total of paleoindian skeletal material ever discovered could fit inside a single coffin and with room to spare. This isn’t true of Pleistocene Homo sapiens remains found in Europe where bogs and caves are more common than in America. Also, humans lived in Europe for tens of thousands of years, whereas humans occupied the vast spaces of America for just the last few thousands years of the Pleistocene, another factor that explains this disparity in abundance of remains. The rarity of human fossil remains from America makes it impossible to determine how often Homo sapiens fell prey to large predators on this continent. Despite the absence of evidence, I have no doubt America’s large carnivores were man-eaters at least some of the time. The sole mystery, one that will probably never be solved, was the frequency of this behavior.
Humans are still part of the food chain. The region including India and Nepal provide the best evidence for this. The people who live here have long held a respect for animals. The Hindu faith predominates in this region and with it comes a tradition of not destroying wildlife. A large and growing population of people living side by side with dangerous carnivores has resulted in countless cases of man-eating tigers (Panthera tigris) and leopards (Panthera pardus). The Champarat tiger killed 430 people in the early 20th century. The Panar leopard killed 400 people circa 1910. The leopard of Rudraprayag killed 126 people over an 8 year period until a hunter shot it in 1926. Between 1907-1938, 33 different man-eaters killed an estimated 1200 people. Today, leopards kill more people in India than any other large predator because they are still relatively common while tigers are rare. But in the Sundarbans region, where the world’s largest mangrove forest grows, tigers killed 50-60 people a year until recently when management practices greatly reduced this annual toll.
A tiger vs. an unarmed Homo sapiens is a mismatch.
Leopards kill more people in India than any other carnivore.
An unarmed man is no match for a big cat. Tigers can drag an 800 pound cow for 2 miles. Jim Corbett, a famous hunter of man-eaters, tracked a tiger that dragged an 800 pound cow up a steep hill for over a mile. At 1 point the cow’s leg got stuck between 2 saplings, but the tiger yanked the cow free, tearing the leg off where it got left behind, snared on the tree saplings. That kind of strength is astounding. They can crush a human’s skull with just a paw blow. In addition to this awesome brute strength, sharp claws and teeth can sever an artery and cause quick death through loss of blood. Leopards are even known to attack and kill full grown gorillas (Gorilla sp.), an ape that is much more powerful than a human. Most man-eaters suffer some type of injury that prevents them from hunting their usual prey, but sometimes they just develop a taste for human flesh.
Paleoindians had throwing spears, clubs, and knives. Just as importantly, they lived in groups and could gang up on an aggressive carnivores. Their weapons were an equalizer, and their teamwork gave them an edge in most encounters. Still, I’m sure the beasts won some battles. In some cases I believe whole tribes were annihilated by individual man-eating predators. A sneaky big cat could have potentially carried off 1 human every few nights for a couple months until there were no tribe members left. Paleoindians surely built stout structures to shelter them from dangerous animals as well as from inclement weather. When men were hunting, sturdy lodges were needed to protect the women and children.
How many paleo-indians were killed by Smilodon fatalis and Arctodus simus, the 2 carnivores depicted in this image? Incidentally, the giant short-faced bear was not as long-limbed as drawn in this illustration.
Here’s a list of the large carnivores that at least occasionally preyed on paleoindians: sabertooth (Smilodon fatalis), scimitar tooth (Dinobastis serum), giant lion (Panthera atrox), jaguar (Panthera onca), cougar (Puma concolor), dire wolf (Canis dirus), timber wolf (Canis lupus), dhole (Cuon alpinus), giant short-faced bear (Arctodus simus), grizzly bear (Ursus arctos), black bear (Ursus americanus), and polar bear (Ursus maritimus). Paleoindians won the war against these predators. I believe they actively hunted them. Perhaps, paleoindians purposefully killed as many prey animals as they could to eliminate the large carnivores’ food supply. The extinction of the Pleistocene megafauna may have been the result of a concerted effort by humans to make America a safer place to live. The large carnivores that did survive learned to fear man and inherited a more timid attitude toward Homo sapiens.