Ancient Fossil Footprints Point to a Battle Between Giant Sloths and Early Humans

Wednesday, 25 April 2018 - 8:38PM
Wednesday, 25 April 2018 - 8:38PM
Ancient Fossil Footprints Point to a Battle Between Giant Sloths and Early Humans
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Sloths nowadays are pretty mellow animals. But that wasn't always the case: up until around 11,000 years ago, the dreaded Megatherium slowly walked the Earth, a giant ground sloth about the size of an elephant and with a worse temper.

Like most megafauna, the emergence of humans all over the globe ultimately led to their downfall, and we now have some evidence of a specific sloth/human conflict, among the first of its kind. New research published in Science Advances describes a recently discovered set of fossilized footprints in the White Sands National Monument in New Mexico, showing early human tracks lining up perfectly with those of a giant sloth.

According to the researchers, the tracks point to human hunters following after a sloth and likely engaging it in battle. The sloth's tracks showed signs of "flailing circles", which means the poor thing was standing up on its hind legs and swinging its forelegs in self-defense, while numerous human footprints were found both directly by the sloths' and farther away, suggesting the humans were hunting in a coordinated group. 

The team used 3D modeling technology to better analyze the tracks. Matthew Bennett, one of the scientists who made the discovery, described the complete story that the footprints provided in a statement to Reuters:

Opening quote
"The story that we can read from the tracks is that the humans were stalking; following in the footsteps, precisely in the footsteps of the sloth. While it was being distracted and turning, somebody else would come across and try and deliver the killer blow. It's an interesting story and it's all written in the footprints."
Closing quote

There doesn't seem to be a specific date attached to these footprints, but it has to be toward the end of the giant ground sloth's time on Earth. These majestic-ish creatures lived through the majority of the Pleistocene period (often called the Ice Age) and were around for millions of years before that era as well.

In contrast, we Homo sapiens are thought to be not much older than 300,000 years old as a collective species. Again, it's thought that overhunting is what brought down the giant sloth, so these could be as young as 11,000 years old.

So next time you're at the zoo and come across the sloth, just remember: his ancestor could have taken you on, toe-to-clawed-toe.

Science News