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Giant elephant birds, once the largest birds in the world, may have coexisted with people for millennia.

Humans were Hunting the Largest Bird in the World on Madagascar 10,500 Years Ago

Analysis of elephant bird bones, once the largest bird in the world, has revealed that humans arrived on the tropical island of Madagascar more than 6,000 years earlier than previously thought. They apparently lived alongside the giant birds for thousands of years, hunting and butchering them for food as need arose. Apart from pushing back the date of human migration to Madagascar, the study also sheds new light on the human role in the extinction of the island’s megafauna.

A team of scientists led by international conservation charity ZSL (Zoological Society of London) discovered that ancient bones from the extinct Madagascan elephant birds (Aepyornis and Mullerornis) show cut marks and depression fractures consistent with hunting and butchery by prehistoric humans. Elephant birds weighed at least half a tonne, were no less than 3 meters (9.84 ft.) tall and laid huge eggs.

Using radiocarbon dating techniques, the team were then able to determine when these giant birds had been killed, reassessing when humans first reached Madagascar. They published their findings in the journal Science Advances .

Previous research on lemur bones and archaeological artifacts suggested that humans first arrived in Madagascar 2,400-4,000 years ago. However, the new study provides evidence of human presence on Madagascar as far back as 10,500 years ago -- making these modified elephant bird bones the earliest known evidence of humans on the island.

Disarticulation marks on the base of the tarsometatarsus. These cut marks were made when removing the toes from the foot. (ZSL)

Disarticulation marks on the base of the tarsometatarsus. These cut marks were made when removing the toes from the foot. ( ZSL)

Lead author Dr. James Hansford from ZSL's Institute of Zoology said: "We already know that Madagascar's megafauna -- elephant birds, hippos, giant tortoises and giant lemurs -- became extinct less than 1,000 years ago. There are a number of theories about why this occurred, but the extent of human involvement hasn't been clear .” He continued:

"Our research provides evidence of human activity in Madagascar more than 6,000 years earlier than previously suspected -- which demonstrates that a radically different extinction theory is required to understand the huge biodiversity loss that has occurred on the island. Humans seem to have coexisted with elephant birds and other now-extinct species for over 9,000 years, apparently with limited negative impact on biodiversity for most of this period, which offers new insights for conservation today."

(A) Depression fracture on the anterior fascia of the proximal end of A. maximus tibiotarsus from Christmas River. (B) Depression fracture on the lateral aspect of the posterior fascia. (C) Distal aspect of tibiotarsus, showing two cut marks (TajT-3 and TT-4). (D) Close-up and profile of cut mark TT-3 on the medial condyle of the distal articular process (digital thin section shows the wall and kerf floor of the mark). (V. R. Pérez, University of Massachusetts Amherst)

(A) Depression fracture on the anterior fascia of the proximal end of A. maximus tibiotarsus from Christmas River. ( B) Depression fracture on the lateral aspect of the posterior fascia. ( C) Distal aspect of tibiotarsus, showing two cut marks (TajT-3 and TT-4). ( D) Close-up and profile of cut mark TT-3 on the medial condyle of the distal articular process (digital thin section shows the wall and kerf floor of the mark). ( V. R. Pérez, University of Massachusetts Amherst )

Co-author Professor Patricia Wright from Stony Brook University said:

"This new discovery turns our idea of the first human arrivals on its head. We know that at the end of the Ice Age , when humans were only using stone tools, there were a group of humans that arrived on Madagascar. We do not know the origin of these people and won't until we find further archaeological evidence, but we know there is no evidence of their genes in modern populations. The question remains -- who these people were? And when and why did they disappear?"

The bones of the elephant birds studied by this project were originally found in 2009 in Christmas River in south-central Madagascar -- a fossil 'bone bed' containing a rich concentration of ancient animal remains. This marsh site could have been a major kill site, but further research is required to confirm.

Christmas River dig site in Madagascar. ( ZSL)

Top Image: Giant elephant birds, once the largest birds in the world, may have coexisted with people for millennia. Source: Velizar Simeonvski

The article, originally titled ‘ Ancient bird bones redate human activity in Madagascar by 6,000 years ’,  was originally published on Science Daily.

Zoological Society of London. "Ancient bird bones redate human activity in Madagascar by 6,000 years: Skeletons of extinct 500kg elephant birds revolutionise our understanding of this island." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 12 September 2018.

References

James Hansford, Patricia C. Wright, Armand Rasoamiaramanana, Ventura R. Pérez, Laurie R. Godfrey, David Errickson, Tim Thompson, Samuel T. Turvey. Early Holocene human presence in Madagascar evidenced by exploitation of avian megafauna . Science Advances , 2018; 4 (9): eaat6925 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aat6925

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