Butchered Bird Bones Show Early Humans Reached Madagascar 6,000 Years Earlier Than Previously Thought

Around 10,500 years ago, humans on the island of Madagascar took stone blades to a giant elephant bird. Without realizing it, these ancient people did far more than butcher a corpse when they chopped and cut its bones. They also left evidence that would rewrite our understanding of early human migration.

The carving, scientists reported in the journal Science Advances, likely took place more than 6,000 years before humans were thought to have arrived on Madagascar. Previous research suggested people first occupied the island between about 2,500 and 4,000 years ago.

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Illustration of a Vorompatra (Elephant bird) skeleton. Alain Rasolo, Wildlife Artist, Madagascar

"Tool use on fresh bones leaves unmistakable patterns as knives cut across the surface of the bones when cutting away flesh or as large tools chop down to cut ligaments and tendons to break apart limbs," study author James Hansford of the Zoological Society of London told Newsweek. "No natural erosion process could have made these marks."

Hansford and colleagues were examining bones uncovered almost a decade ago at Christmas River in the south of Madagascar when they found the new evidence. This archaeological site is rich in relics of ancient megafauna—or in other words—giant animals. In addition to the bird bones, radiocarbon dating has revealed the remains of animals including a hippo and a crocodile are also about 10,000 years old.

"I was amazed at how old the bones were," study author Patricia Wright of Stony Brook University, New York, told Newsweek. "They were 50 feet deep and all in one layer so I was pleased that we had discovered a whole ecosystem that had been preserved in this gray [swamp] layer."

The location of the site, Wright added, suggests the butchering humans were on Madagascar for some time. "The site is in the middle of [the island] so it wasn't just a transient boatload of people who sailed away after their feast. They would have had to walk for weeks from the shore to reach this site," she said.

Although humans may have co-existed with these large animals at various points over thousands of years, a rapid expansion of human settlements beginning around 1,000 years ago, led to "drastic habitat changes and megafaunal extinction," Hansford said.

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Close up of markings discovered on the base of a bone. Here you can see the v-shaped tool mark and rough edges indicating a stone tool was used. Zoological Society of London

Although it's the first archaeological evidence for humans living on the island so long ago, Wright explained it matches up with local oral histories. "Ancient people are mentioned in the folklore," she said. School children are told stories of small people that once lived in Madagascar, she added. "But this story has never been confirmed before the evidence that we present today."

The exciting discovery raises more questions than it answers. "These were brave people and clever in order to hobble a 10-foot powerful bird like this one. But if they are now disappeared without a trace, why did they disappear?" Wright said. "According to recent genetic evidence, there is no trace of these early humans in the humans that live in Madagascar today."

"We [don't] know who these people were, where they came from or indeed, where they may have gone," Hansford added.

If the findings are correct, they "open up a new chapter in the prehistory of Madagascar," Nicole Boivin, director of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History told Newsweek. Although "it significantly extends the known occupation history of Madagascar," the research shows how much there is left to discover about the history of the island, she added. How sustained was human habitation and why is evidence of such early foragers so elusive?

Now, Wright wants to return to hunt down remains of the ancient humans themselves, or the kind of stone tools they used to butcher the giant bird. Hansford hopes the research will spark "new and exciting investigations into Madagascar's past." Exploring the past, he hopes, will help conservationists protect the island's future.

This article has been updated to include comment from Nicole Boivin.