Butchered bird bones put humans in Madagascar 10,500 years ago

Cut marks on the remains of an ancient elephant bird pushes the timeline back 6,000 years

elephant bird illustration and leg bones

BACK IN TIME  Researchers say people reached Madagascar at least 10,500 years ago and began hunting now-extinct elephant birds, depicted at left. Two leg bones of elephant birds, right, display damage inflicted by meat-seeking humans.

Alain Rasolo (illustration), V.R. Pérez/Univ. of Mass. Amherst (photos)

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.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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