Although humans devour stunning quantities of flesh these days, we are not members of the carnivore family. We are primates. Our great ape relatives don’t eat much meat, and neither did our early human-like kin, who started coming down out of the trees in Africa 6 or 7 million years ago, long after cats had settled into their spot at the tippy-top of the food chain.
Not only did we not eat meat, we generously supplied it in the form of our bodies and our babies. A host of creatures dined on us: supersize eagles, crocodiles, bus-length snakes, archaic bears, carnivorous kangaroos, and maybe jumbo otters. But even amid such fearsome company, cats were almost certainly our most formidable predators.
Humanity’s early ancestors came of age in Africa during the “heyday of cats,” according to anthropologist Robert Sussman, whose book, Man the Hunted, details our history as a prey animal. In regions where we “overlapped” with cats, he tells me, “they took advantage of us completely”— dragging us into caves, devouring us in trees, caching our eviscerated corpses in their lairs. Indeed, we might not know nearly so much about human evolution if not for big cat kills. The world’s oldest fully preserved skull representing the Homo genus, known as Skull Number 5, was recovered from caves in Dmanisi, Georgia, which likely served as a sort of picnicking ground for extinct giant cheetahs. In caves in South Africa, paleontologists endlessly puzzled over piles of hominid and other primate bones, trying to figure out the source of the carnage. Had our forefathers massacred each other? Then somebody noticed that the holes in some skulls lined up perfectly with leopard fangs.