Ancient bird bones provide clues about prehistoric humans in Madagascar

13 Sep 2018

Landscape in Madagascar. Image: aaabbbccc/Shutterstock

The bones of an extinct bird could hold major clues for the study of prehistoric human history.

Approximately 10,500 years ago, humans in Madagascar butchered what was once the world’s largest bird. In carrying out this seemingly everyday task, the hunters provided modern scientists with important information about settlement on the island.

Human settlement on Madagascar may have started earlier

Research published in the journal Science Advances claims that the elephant birds of Madagascar were butchered more than 6,000 years before humans were said to have arrived there. Prior studies estimated the date of human arrival at between 2,500 and 4,000 years ago. The new discovery now places the evidence of human presence in Madagascar as far back as 10,500 years ago.

The Zoological Society of London (ZSL), an international conservation charity, found that the bones from the extinct Madagascan elephant birds (Aepyornis and Mullerornis) show cut marks and depression fractures that line up with butchery and hunting.

An elephant bird bone with a cut mark visible, consistent with butchering.

Elephant bird bone with butchery incision. Image: ZSL

Lead author Dr James Hansford 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.”

Hansford added: “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.”

Still more clues to discover

Co-author Prof 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?”

Archaeologists are still trying to find stone tools, which may shed some light on the lives of these settlers and their history on the island. Perhaps this discovery can help unravel the mystery of the extinction of Madagascar’s megafauna and this ancient settlement.

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects