Prehistoric Predators: Ancient Crocodiles of East Africa

Written by Thomson Safaris

Crocodylus anthropophagus
“Crocodylus anthropophagus NT” by NobuTamura palaeocritti – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

You wouldn’t want to get on a crocodile’s bad side.

They’re quick (like 6-minute-mile quick…and that’s on land); have stronger jaws than, well, Jaws; and you tend not to realize they’re picking you out as a tasty dinner option until they’re dabbing at their mouths with a napkin post-meal.

But believe it or not, the crocodiles we know (and refuse to invite to the pool party) are a watered-down version of the originals. Even one of the more recent crocodilian ancestors, Crocodylus anthropophagus, puts the Nile crocodile we know (and love…or fear) to shame.

Crocodylus anthropophagus was roaming East Africa around 1.84 million years ago, reaching lengths of between 18 and 20 feet  (slightly larger than the average Nile crocodile). It had a deeper snout than modern crocs, a fact which would have made it appear more intimidating. It’s also important to remember that the proto-human species living in the region at the time, Homo habilis and Australopithecus boisei, both stood just over four feet tall on average, meaning the animals were comparatively much, much larger than modern crocs.

But its size and its massive jaw weren’t its most terrifying feature; that would be its horns. Big, triangular, horns, sprouting out from just behind its eyes.

Actually, scratch that. Its most terrifying feature is right there in the name, “anthropophagus”; all evidence that we have of these prehistoric beasts indicates that they ate people.

Of course crocodiles generally eat prey whole, so how did they get the name? After all, after a couple million years, it’s not all that easy to figure out what a creature’s last meal contained.

Proto-human bones from the same period, discovered in the same area (the C. anthropophagus fossils were originally discovered in 2007, in Olduvai Gorge), showed a very specific detail: crocodilian toothmarks. Those specific individuals escaped crocodile attacks mostly intact; because of their luck—and ours, that they were eventually fossilized themselves—we know that crocodiles from that era indeed ate our ancestors (presumably more successfully on some occasions).

Of course a crocodile taking a bite at you is still a possibility, which is why it’s always risky getting too close to a body of water where they could be lurking.

If you’re not careful, two million years from now, you might be some future scientist’s evidence…