Oldest Big Cat Fossil Found

Earliest big cat fossil of a skull

Skull fossil – Photo by Dr. Tseng

Through the discovery of a big cat fossil deposited by a river in the north slopes of the Himalaya range, Central Asia, scientist can roll back by millions of years the time when big cats first roamed the planet and they really did have it all to themselves millions of years ago. Nowadays, their habitat and population are vestiges of what they were long ago.

Incidentally, the phrase “big cat” is rather flexible and not a scientific term in the strict sense. It usually means the four big cats that roar: tiger, lion, jaguar and leopard. However, it can be extended to include the other cats of the panthera lineage: snow leopard and clouded leopard. It can even be wider than that.

It is probably obvious but the dating of the emergence of a species of animal through fossil discovery is not conclusive because you can always find an earlier one.

However, a recent discovery of the fossil of a large cat that appears to be much like the snow leopard has been dated at between 4.1 and 5.95 million years old (scientists write “millions of years” as “ma”).

On a PoC page about big cat history, based on a reliable source, I have listed the following earliest fossils:

On the basis, therefore, that the previous earliest big cat fossil is 3.5 million years old (the BBC state 3.6 million), the new find is significant as the fossil is up to 2.45 million years older and this fossil relates to a different species that has been named: Panthera blytheae.

Another interesting aspect of the discovery is that the fossil was found in a remote part of Tibet (Zanda, Ngari, Xizang (Tibet), China. The area is called the “Zanda Basin”. There is a dispute about Tibet being China. A lot of Tibetans don’t like the way China annexed Tibet. There have been routine protests in the UK about this.

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This is the Zanda Basin (a fossil hunter’s play ground):

Zanda Basin

Zanda Basin

The find indicates that:

  1. the big cat lineage (panthera – “pantherine cats”) started about 7 million years earlier than previously believed and it supports the view that:
  2. the big cats first appeared in Asia rather than Africa.

Although more work and digging needs to be done, it appears that this new ancient species of big cat is the ancestor of all modern big cats.

The scientific team which included Dr Tseng and his wife Juan Liu are returning to the site to try and find more fossil specimens.

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Oldest Big Cat Fossil Found — 4 Comments

  1. This fascinating stuff. more and more evidence is turning up that suggest Asia and the Middle East as the genesis of animal and human life. The oldest fossils of Homo Erectus were found in Dmnisi, Georgia, and oldest jaw bone specimen of modern man in China.

    • Humans have been around 4-8 million years but modern humans about 200,000 years ago. I think this cat that looks so refined was at a more advanced state of evolution than humans 5 million years ago. This ancient cat looks as evolved as modern big cats yet the human of 5 million years ago looks very unrefined. He still is 😉

      • I still find it hard to go along with their numbers. I mean how do they calculate this – I know that rock strata and formation, or ice, both contain frozen moments of the past but still. What makes them say 4ma and not 2ma? How did they set up the timeline – what’s the anchor point….

        Anywhoo – it’s absolutely amazing.. You are right Michael, cats were always more evovled than us. That’s why if they ruled the planet it wouldn’t be in danger of nuclear fallout – living sustainably should be considered the number one of our values. If you can live sustainably then you are more evolved – just my opinion.

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