Human role in megafauna extinction: study

April 27, 2006

The case is mounting for a human role in the mass extinction of giant animals that once ranged across Australia according to new research which challenges results from a site long claimed to clear people as the main cause of the beasts’ demise.

Radiocarbon dating expert Dr Richard Gillespie, of The Australian National University, and population ecologist Dr Barry Brook, of Charles Darwin University, have analysed dates from the site, Cuddie Springs, in the semi-arid zone of western NSW.

The site is packed with stone tools and the bones of megafauna, including the two-tonne wombat-like Diprotodon, the two-metre-tall flightless bird Genyornis and giant kangaroos. Some researchers claim that the site points to a long overlap of humans and megafauna, suggesting that aridity during the last Ice Age, not people, pushed the animals into oblivion.

But Dr Gillespie and Dr Brook, reporting in the journal Archaeology in Oceania, have reanalysed the data to show that the site has been disturbed, suggesting that the artefacts and bones are unlikely to date from the same period.

Cuddie Springs is at the centre of the megafauna extinction debate, which has polarised researchers. Some argue that people wiped out the animals, either with a hunting blitzkrieg or through habitat destruction. They point to studies dating the extinction to about 46,000 years ago as support for their view. Others blame major climate change.

Layers of artefacts and bones between 1 and 1.7 metres below the surface of the Cuddie Springs claypan have been dated indirectly at 27,000 to 36,000 years old. The ages were obtained through radiocarbon analysis on charcoal and luminescence dating of sand grains from the same levels.

With people thought to have arrived on the continent about 50,000 years ago, these results, if confirmed, would suggest long coexistence of humans and the beasts. Many researchers have remained skeptical, however.

In their latest research, Gillespie and Brook performed statistical analyses on 20 published dates on material from the layers bearing bones and artefacts. If the layers were undisturbed, as the site’s excavators contend, the ages should have increased with depth.

However, the scientists found that all the charcoal dates were statistically the same age, about 36,000 years old. And sand in the two upper layers was much younger than charcoal from the same levels, suggesting that the sediments had been mixed, and some of the charcoal redeposited.

Meanwhile, the excavators found hair and blood protein on some artefacts. If the bones were the same age, they too should have contained preserved protein, but they did not.

“This supports our case that the stones and bones are of different age,” Dr Gillespie said.

Source: Australian National University

Explore further: Guatemala excavates early Mayan ruler's tomb

Related Stories

Mexico finds 50 skulls in sacred Aztec temple

October 6, 2012

(AP)—Mexican archaeologists said Friday they uncovered the largest number of skulls ever found in one offering at the most sacred temple of the Aztec empire dating back more than 500 years.

Mexican experts find ancient blood on stone knives

May 3, 2012

(AP) - Traces of blood and fragments of muscle, tendon, skin and hair found on 2,000-year-old stone knives have given researchers the first conclusive evidence that the obsidian blades were used for human sacrifice so long ...

Original offering found at Teotihuacan pyramid

December 14, 2011

Archaeologists announced Tuesday that they dug to the very core of Mexico's tallest pyramid and found what may be the original ceremonial offering placed on the site of the Pyramid of the Sun before construction began.

Recommended for you

Mexican site yields new details of sacrifice of Spaniards

October 9, 2015

Excavations at the site of one of the Spanish conquistadors' worst defeats in Mexico are yielding new evidence about what happened when the two cultures clashed—and a native people, at least temporarily, was in control.

Ancient genome from Africa sequenced for the first time

October 8, 2015

The first ancient human genome from Africa to be sequenced has revealed that a wave of migration back into Africa from Western Eurasia around 3,000 years ago was up to twice as significant as previously thought, and affected ...

Rare braincase provides insight into dinosaur brain

October 8, 2015

Experts have described one of the most complete sauropod dinosaur braincases ever found in Europe. The find could help scientists uncover some of the mysteries of how dinosaur brains operated, including their intellectual ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.