Humans made their mark on Madagascar around 6,000 years earlier than previously thought, scientists say. Those early migrants hunted massive, flightless birds once native to the island off southeast Africa, leaving butchery marks on the bird bones that enabled the new timeline.
Cuts and fractures on three previously unearthed leg and foot bones from one of Madagascar’s extinct elephant birds resulted from the animal being killed and cut up with stone tools at least 10,500 years ago, say vertebrate paleontologist James Hansford of the Zoological Society of London and colleagues. Until now, the oldest evidence of humans on Madagascar consisted of stone tools dating to roughly 4,000 years ago.
Two other island sites, dating to about 6,300 years ago and 1,100 years ago, have also produced elephant bird leg and foot bones with butchery marks that showed up on closer inspection, Hansford’s group reports online September 12 in Science Advances.
Elephant birds stood about 3 to 4 meters tall and weighed around 500 kilograms, roughly the same as three full-sized refrigerators.
Hansford’s findings suggest early human colonists may have lived on Madagascar alongside elephant birds and other large, now-extinct animals for thousands of years, rather than rapidly hunting those creatures into evolutionary oblivion, as some investigators have proposed. Further research needs to determine whether humans permanently settled on the island more than 10,500 years ago, or if they took longer to reach population sizes big enough to build villages and organize large-scale hunts, the researchers say.