New research revolutionises our understanding of Madagascar

Tim Thompson(r) & David Errickson, SSED

Two Teesside University researchers have been part of a significant new study which has redated human activity in Madagascar by 6,000 years.

Professor Tim Thompson, associate dean for learning and teaching in the School of Science, Engineering and Design, and Dr David Errickson, senior lecturer in Forensic Science, have co-authored a paper which reveals that humans arrived on the tropical island of Madagascar more than 6,000 years earlier than previously thought.

Analysis of bones from what was once the world’s largest bird, the 500kg elephant bird, has revolutionised understanding of the island, with the findings of the study published in the journal, Science Advances.

A team of scientists, led by the international conservation charity Zoological Society of London (ZSL), 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 were then able to determine when these giant birds had been killed, reassessing when humans first reached Madagascar.

The extinct, flightless elephant birds stood at around 3m tall and were once widespread in Madagascar. It is thought that one of their giant eggs could have fed an entire family.

Previous research on lemur bones and archaeological artefacts suggested that humans first arrived in Madagascar 2,400 to 4,000 years ago.

However, the new study provides evidence of human presence in the country as far back as 10,500 years ago – making these modified elephant bird bones the earliest known evidence of humans on the island.

Professor Thompson said: “This was an exciting and important project to be involved with, and it is hugely rewarding to see expertise from the School contributing to our understanding of human history in such an impactful way.”

Dr Errickson added: “By applying our knowledge of trauma we have been able to determine that the cut marks created on the bones were due to humans butchering these huge animals in a similar way to how we would with our food today.”

Lead author Dr James Hansford, from ZSL’s Institute of Zoology 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.

“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.”