Study, co-authored with James Hansford of Zoological Society of London and Published in Science Advances, Examined Skeletons of Extinct Elephant Birds to Transform Understanding of Island Nation
Stony Brook, NY–September 12, 2018 – Humans arrived on the tropical island of Madagascar more than 6,000 years earlier than previously thought based on an analysis of bones from what was once the world’s largest bird, according to a study led by Stony Brook University researcher Dr. Pat Wright and published today in the journal Science Advances.
Dr. Wright, Dr. James Hansford of the international conservation charity ZSL (Zoological Society of London), and their team of scientists 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. Using radiocarbon dating techniques, the team was able to determine when these giant birds had been killed, reassessing when humans first reached Madagascar.
Previous research on lemur bones and archaeological artifacts suggested that humans first arrived on the island nation 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.
“This new discovery turns our idea of the first human arrivals on its head,” said Dr. Wright, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at Stony Brook and Founder of Centre ValBio, the modern research campus in Madagascar affiliated with Stony Brook. “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 questions remain about who these people were and when and why did they disappear.”
Dr. Hansford explained that, “We already know that Madagascar’s megafauna – elephant birds, hippos, giant tortoises and giant lemurs – probably became extinct around 1,000 years ago. There are a number of theories about why this occurred, but the extent of human involvement hasn’t been clear.
“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 9,000 years, apparently with limited negative impact on biodiversity for most of this period. This offers new insights for conservation today.”
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 whether this is true.
For an advance copy of the study and to arrange an interview with Dr. Wright, please call: 631-632-6310.
About Stony Brook University
Stony Brook University is going beyond the expectations of what today’s public universities can accomplish. Since its founding in 1957, this young university has grown to become a flagship as one of only four University Center campuses in the State University of New York (SUNY) system with more than 26,000 students and 2,600 faculty members, and 18 NCAA Division I athletic programs. Our faculty have earned numerous prestigious awards, including the Nobel Prize, Pulitzer Prize, Indianapolis Prize for animal conservation, Abel Prize and the inaugural Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics. The University offers students an elite education with an outstanding return on investment: U.S. News & World Report ranks Stony Brook among the top 50 public universities in the nation. Its membership in the Association of American Universities (AAU) places Stony Brook among the top 62 research institutions in North America. As part of the management team of Brookhaven National Laboratory, the University joins a prestigious group of universities that have a role in running federal R&D labs. Stony Brook University is a driving force in the region’s economy, generating nearly 60,000 jobs and an annual economic impact of more than $4.6 billion. Our state, country and world demand ambitious ideas, imaginative solutions and exceptional leadership to forge a better future for all. The students, alumni, researchers and faculty of Stony Brook University are prepared to meet this challenge.
About ZSL (Zoological Society of London)
Founded in 1826, ZSL (Zoological Society of London) is an international scientific, conservation and educational charity whose mission is to promote and achieve the worldwide conservation of animals and their habitats. Our mission is realised through our ground-breaking science, our active conservation projects in more than 50 countries and our two Zoos, ZSL London Zoo and ZSL Whipsnade Zoo. For more information visit www.zsl.org