Early human settlers are believed to be the reason why the Madagascar elephant bird went extinct. Now, researchers found evidence that humans might have been on the island 6,000 years earlier than previously believed, suggesting that they possibly coexisted with the giants for thousands of years before they went extinct.

What does this mean for the rapid extinction hypothesis for Madagascar?

Elephant Bird Bone Markings

A team of scientists from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) discovered what appears to be chop marks on the bones of the already extinct elephant bird. The chop mark is said to likely have been made by a sharp tool, while the straightness of the cut and its lack of continuing cracks suggest that it was made on fresh bone.

The markings clearly suggest that the giant bird was hunted and butchered by prehistoric humans, but what’s even more remarkable about the discovery is that radiocarbon dating revealed the bone to be about 10,500 years old, making it the oldest known evidence of human presence in Madagascar. This means that compared to the previous belief that humans settled on the island roughly 2,400 to 4,000 years ago, human presence on the island possibly occurred 6,000 years earlier.

Extinction Hypothesis

What does the discovery mean for the hypothesis surrounding the extinction of the elephant bird? Many archaeologists accept the idea proposed four decades ago that the extinction of megafauna in northern continents was likely a result of a so-called blitzkrieg by early human hunters encroaching on their territory and not because of factors such as climate change. In fact, Madagascar is considered key in testing this theory.

However, the current discovery suggests that the humans possibly coexisted with the elephant birds and other massive creatures for thousands of years with limited negative impact on biodiversity. In fact, the study’s lead author Dr. James Hansford of ZSL’s Institute of Zoology states that the extinction of Madagascar’s megafauna, including elephant birds, occurred less than a thousand years ago.

Little-Known Ancient Humans

Naturally, it’s not easy to say whether the early humans did or did not cause or contribute to Madagascar’s megafauna extinction, but it does open up new doors to understanding the early humans who settled on the island. So far, little is known about them, and study co-author Professor Patricia Wright of Stony Brook University even says that their origin is unknown and that there is no evidence of their genes in modern populations.

“The question remains — who these people were? And when and why did they disappear?” said Professor Wright, further stating that more archaeological evidence is needed to further understand and get to know them.

The study is published in the journal Science Advances.

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