A new discovery may change how scientists think about prehistoric humans.
Human history is more of a war movie than a rom-com, at least as far as other animals are concerned; we may be causing one of the planet’s great extinction events at the moment. But a recent discovery means humans might not be as destructive as we thought.
Large animals have a history of disappearing when humans migrate to their areas. Scientists have long believed that humans simply hunted big animals to death whenever they showed up because we are A) really awesome at hunting and B) pretty shortsighted.
For instance, scientists knew that humans arrived in Madagascar around 2,400-4,000 years ago (they somehow figured this out by looking at lemur bones). And guess what disappeared from the island only a couple thousand years later? Hippos, giant lemurs, giant tortoises and elephant birds. We don’t have any Facebook history widgets to know for sure, but many scientists suspect humans had something to do with that dramatic drop in biodiversity. We got hungry.At least, that’s what scientists thought until a group of researchers from the Zoological Society of London dug up a bunch bones in Madagascar recently. These bones belonged to the elephant bird, an extinct flightless bird that weighed up to 1,000 lb. (Imagine an ostrich four times bigger than a regular ostrich.) They have truly massive eggs that get sold at auctions for ridiculous sums.
In addition to looking awesome, the massive bones were covered in cuts that clearly came from a human butcher. The scientists used radiocarbon dating and found that the humans had killed the birds around 10,000 years ago ... Thousands of years before scientists believed humans had come to the island.
“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,” explained James Hansford, a zoologist who worked on the study. “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.”
If humans lived among large animals for millennia without wiping them out, then maybe our species isn’t wired to automatically extinguish species. Rather, extinction is more of a habit we’ve learned. Perhaps we can unlearn it too.