How scientists determined how many humans two lions ate in 1898

516337010_71ef372306.jpgHow do you gauge the magnitude of a series of lion attacks that occurred over a century ago? In 1898, construction on the Ugandan Railroad in East Africa was halted due to deadly, nightly lion invasions that took the lives of Indian and African laborers who were working on the project. By some estimates, over 100 people had been devoured by these animals, hungry because drought and disease had reduced the number of natural prey. But researchers at UC Santa Cruz published a report this week that gave a more accurate estimate of how many humans the two male lions really ate. They did it by running chemical tests on their carcasses:
Bones and teeth store carbon and nitrogen isotopes over long periods, while the ratios in hair change more rapidly, allowing the scientists to determine the long-term diet and how it changed in the lions' last months. Humans made up at least half of the diet of one of the lions in the last months of his life, consuming at least 24 people, they concluded. The other lion had eaten 11 people, they found. In other words, even a century later, you are what you eat.
Study: Man-eating lions consumed 35 people in 1898 Image via Tambako the Jaguar's Flickr


  1. This story angers me unaccountably. Why can’t scientists mind their own damn business? Scientists are like those obnoxious, know-it-all types who can’t let you tell a story without sticking their oar in to clarify the details.

  2. Those two lions can still be seen in the basement of the Field Museum in Chicago, and they are definitely the lions from The Ghost and the Darkness

  3. Now all this said, it only covers people actually eaten, and not any kills that weren’t eaten.

    The researchers did note that their study covers only the number of people eaten, while the number killed may have been higher. They said the death toll may have been as high as 75.

  4. One of the lions also tested positive for cocaine use, while DNA samples taken from the other revealed a possible link to an unsolved homicide in Chicago in 1892. Plaster casts of paw prints taken near the scene have been lost, making it impossible ever to confirm the lion’s involvement in the brutal slaying-and-devouring of Lennie the Limper in the toilets of the Schaller’s Pump bar, but the authors of the study say that eyewitness descriptions of the burly, shaggy figure known only as “Mr Katt”, closely match the appearance of the lion. If true, this would mean that the murderous career of the Tsavo man-eaters actually began at least six years earlier than previously believed.

  5. Silly Ugandans, claiming that lions ate as many as 100 people when they really just ate 35 and killed 40 more. Where do these ridiculous rumors come from?

  6. Did the lions on display at the Field Museum lose their manes somehow or are they juvenile or female lions? I thought they were old male lions who made up for aging by using cunning, teamwork, and the fact that the humans they hunted were easy prey.

    1. The lions in question were Tsavo lions, a subspecies native to the Tsavo River region. They are larger than most lions and the males are maneless, but that doesn’t make them any less cuddly.

  7. So these lions got credit for some others kills then? Doesn’t seem that unlikely that they were not the only pair around and grabbing the easy snacks. Plus, there are plenty of ways to get killed in that situation and I bet once they figured out the lions bit they blamed them for all the deaths they could…

  8. HAHAHAHAHA! I heard this on NPR this morning and I TOO was miffed that the kill count was lowered by paleo-forensics…sheeesh. What’s next, there really is no monster in my closet who tells to self-medicate or it will kill me?

  9. Anonymous #1, I can’t discern if you are teasing or if you are serious. Myself I cannot stand people who won’t let science enter their pet realm. It can only add and enlighten. Do you think Omer’s Illiad has been diminished by the discovery of Troy by Schliemann for instance ? Then you really lack imagination.

  10. Man, its just wild that people are able to tell what these lions ate 100 years ago. absolutely amazing.

  11. The precision is usually not that great when interpreting the proportion of various foods which are digested and then metabolized into hair or bone. I’m not sure if the exact numbers of ingested and metabolized people can be determined. However, one could easily determine whether one lion’s diet was another lion’s snack.

    However, in assigning proportion, one must know the isotope values of the meal components themselves. How did the researchers go about measuring the isotope values of that old people-food, a la carte?

    Stable carbon isotopes do not date but nevertheless lead full lives. mpb

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