Man-Eating Lions May Have Needed a Good Dentist
In 1898, construction on a railway bridge over the Tsavo River in Kenya came to an abrupt halt. The project wasn’t interrupted by a lack of supplies or a workers’ strike, but by something much more sinister. For a period of nine months, two male Tsavo lions stalked the campsite, dragging construction workers from their tents and devouring them. Dubbed the Tsavo Man-Eaters, these attacks have become famous due to how unusual it is for lions to hunt humans so aggressively. Healthy lions rarely eat humans. The crew attempted to keep the lions out with fences, fires, and thorn walls, but to no avail. The lions were relentless, leaping over the fences to get their next meal. Lieutenant Colonel John Henry Patterson, head of the construction
project, ultimately succeeded in killing both lions in December 1898. Legend says the pair killed and ate over 100 people, though modern research suggests the death toll was closer to 28–31. What led the Tsavo Man-Eaters to begin their unnatural killing spree? Some theories suggest disease may have wiped out their normal food source, or the pair may have developed a taste for human flesh after finding the bodies of those who died crossing the nearby river. But a recent study by Dr. Bruce Patterson of the University of Chicago suggests a more surprising answer: They needed dental work.
discovered one of the lions hand an infection at the root of his canine tooth. In addition to the constant pain, Dr. Patterson suspected the infection would have also made it harder for the lion to hunt. This theory is bolstered by the fact that a Zambian lion that ate six people in 1991 also suffered from painful dental damage. “Lions normally use their jaws to grab prey like zebras and wildebeests and suffocate them,” Patterson said. “This lion would have been challenged to subdue and kill large, struggling prey, and humans are so much easier to catch.” We’re not saying patients will necessarily become man-eaters if they don’t get their teeth cleaned regularly, but it’s worth taking into consideration.
After studying the bodies, currently preserved at The Field Museum in Chicago, Dr. Patterson
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