Chalky rock fragment found by my daughter on cliffs near Beachy Head. A satisfyingly eerie synchronicity: moments earlier, she had been describing a frightening creature seen in a picture book of prehistoric animals: a sabre-tooth cat.
There were many sabre-tooth cats; the term encompasses not just closely related species, but entire animal families. The most extensively documented are those of the genus Smilodon, including the splendidly named Smilodon fatalis.
Smilodon overlapped with our hominid ancestors both geographically and temporally, and in more recent times with Homo sapiens himself: in fact Smilodon is thought to have only become extinct as recently as 10,000 years ago. This has led to speculation that our forebears may have been preyed upon by sabre-tooths, and current research suggests this is plausible.
One may speculate, therefore, that Smilodon might have featured, perhaps even had a starring role, in the nightmares of early Man.
There is a connection here to Wilfred Bion‘s concept of nameless dread. Bion used the phrase to denote the fear of the abandoned infant, but the term recurs throughout psychoanalytic thought as a kind of shorthand for overwhelming primal terror: that which gnaws at us from darkness, beyond or beneath those fears we can actually identify.
Meanwhile, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County is pleased to announce the world’s first animatronic Smilodon.