|22 August 2009
Did ancient humans cause the extinction of the pygmy hippo?
Thousands of prehistoric hippo bones found in Cyprus are adding to a growing debate on the possible role of humans in the extinction of larger animals 12,000 years ago. First discovered by an 11-year-old boy in 1961, a tiny rock-shelter crammed with hippo remains radically rewrote archaeological accounts of when this east Mediterranean island was first visited by humans. It has fired speculation of being the first takeaway diner used by humans to cook and possibly dispatch meat. It also adds to growing speculation, controversial in some quarters, that humans could have eaten some animals to extinction.
In Cyprus it would have been the pygmy hippo, or 'Phanourios minutus,' an endemic species resembling a large pig which apparently vanished around the same time people appeared on the island. "We claim that humans likely were at least partially responsible for their extinction," said Alan H. Simmons, a professor and former chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Half way down a cliff on Cyprus's southern coast, researchers dug up thousands of remains of the animal which is thought to have roamed the island for perhaps a million or more years during the Pleistocene period, and then died out around 12,000 years ago. With permission from Cypriot antiquity authorities and primary funding from the National Geographic Society and the National Science Foundation, Simmons led several excavations on the site, Akrotiri-Aetokremnos, and in 2009 concluded a smaller scale excavation of the area. "There were over 500 individual hippos represented at the site ... for some reason they (humans) stored the bones, instead of throwing them into the sea, perhaps for use as fuel," said Simmons, who has written a book on the subject.
Together with thousands of pygmy hippo bones, as well as several large birds and a few dwarf elephants, the archaeologists discovered man-made implements on the same site, pointing to a link between humans and the animals. Radiocarbon dating puts the site at around 10,000 BCE, some 3,000 years earlier than most scholars had assumed humans had arrived on the island. Simmons says a small group of humans could have triggered extinction of the animals, which were already under stress from cold and dry climatic changes around 12,000 years ago. Many animals went extinct around the same time. "There are two extinction scenarios: that they went extinct due to climate changes at the end of the Pleistocene or that humans contributed to their extinction," he said.
Whether the humans using Aetokremnos were permanent occupants of Cyprus or long-stay visitors is a matter still open to debate. It is likely, says Simmons, that the hunters may not have lived on the island, but were traveling in search of meat or other resources. Cyprus is between 30 and 60 km from the nearest land mass, and such voyages would have required considerable sea-faring skills.
Sources: Reuters, Yahoo! News (19 August 2009)
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