skip to main content

Title: Cutmarked bone of drought-tolerant extinct megafauna deposited with traces of fire, human foraging, and introduced animals in SW Madagascar
Abstract People could have hunted Madagascar’s megafauna to extinction, particularly when introduced taxa and drought exacerbated the effects of predation. However, such explanations are difficult to test due to the scarcity of individual sites with unambiguous traces of humans, introduced taxa, and endemic megaherbivores. We excavated three coastal ponds in arid SW Madagascar and present a unique combination of traces of human activity (modified pygmy hippo bone, processed estuarine shell and fish bone, and charcoal), along with bones of extinct megafauna (giant tortoises, pygmy hippos, and elephant birds), extirpated fauna (e.g., crocodiles), and introduced vertebrates (e.g., zebu cattle). The disappearance of megafauna from the study sites at ~ 1000 years ago followed a relatively arid interval and closely coincides with increasingly frequent traces of human foraging, fire, and pastoralism. Our analyses fail to document drought-associated extirpation or multiple millennia of megafauna hunting and suggest that a late combination of hunting, forest clearance, and pastoralism drove extirpations.  more » « less
Award ID(s):
Author(s) / Creator(s):
; ; ; ; ; ; ; ;
Date Published:
Journal Name:
Scientific Reports
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
More Like this
  1. null (Ed.)
    Climate drying could have transformed ecosystems in southern Madagascar during recent millennia by contributing to the extinction of endemic megafauna. However, the extent of regional aridification during the past 2000 years is poorly known, as are the responses of endemic animals and economically important livestock to drying. We inferred ~1600 years of climate change around Lake Ranobe, SW Madagascar, using oxygen isotope analyses of monospecific freshwater ostracods (Bradleystrandesia cf. fuscata) and elemental analyses of lake core sediment. We inferred past changes in habitat and diet of introduced and extinct endemic megaherbivores using bone collagen stable isotope and 14C datasets (n = 63). Extinct pygmy hippos and multiple giant lemur species disappeared from the vicinity of Ranobe during a dry interval ~1000–700 cal yr BP, but the simultaneous appearance of introduced cattle, high charcoal concentrations, and other evidence of human activity confound inference of drought-driven extirpations. Unlike the endemic megafauna, relatively low collagen stable nitrogen isotope values among cattle suggest they survived dry intervals by exploiting patches of wet habitat. Although megafaunal extirpations coincided with drought in SW Madagascar, coupled data from bone and lake sediments do not support the hypothesis that extinct megafauna populations collapsed solely because of drought. Given that the reliance of livestock on mesic patches will become more important in the face of projected climate drying, we argue that sustainable conservation of spiny forests in SW Madagascar should support local livelihoods by ensuring that zebu have access to mesic habitat. Additionally, the current interactions between pastoralism and riparian habitats should be studied to help conserve the island’s biodiversity. 
    more » « less
  2. Recently expanded estimates for when humans arrived on Madagascar (up to approximately 10 000 years ago) highlight questions about the causes of the island's relatively late megafaunal extinctions (approximately 2000–500 years ago). Introduced domesticated animals could have contributed to extinctions, but the arrival times and past diets of exotic animals are poorly known. To conduct the first explicit test of the potential for competition between introduced livestock and extinct endemic megafauna in southern and western Madagascar, we generated new radiocarbon and stable carbon and nitrogen isotope data from the bone collagen of introduced ungulates (zebu cattle, ovicaprids and bushpigs, n = 66) and endemic megafauna (pygmy hippopotamuses, giant tortoises and elephant birds, n = 68), and combined these data with existing data from endemic megafauna (n = 282, including giant lemurs). Radiocarbon dates confirm that introduced and endemic herbivores briefly overlapped chronologically in this region between 1000 and 800 calibrated years before present (cal BP). Moreover, stable isotope data suggest that goats, tortoises and hippos had broadly similar diets or exploited similar habitats. These data support the potential for both direct and indirect forms of competition between introduced and endemic herbivores. We argue that competition with introduced herbivores, mediated by opportunistic hunting by humans and exacerbated by environmental change, contributed to the late extinction of endemic megafauna on Madagascar. 
    more » « less
  3. Introduced predators currently threaten endemic animals on Madagascar through predation, facilitation of human-led hunts, competition, and disease transmission, but the antiquity and past consequences of these introductions are poorly known. We use directly radiocarbon dated bones of introduced dogs ( Canis familiaris ) to test whether dogs could have aided human-led hunts of the island’s extinct megafauna. We compare carbon and nitrogen isotope data from the bone collagen of dogs and endemic “fosa” ( Cryptoprocta spp.) in central and southwestern Madagascar to test for competition between introduced and endemic predators. The distinct isotopic niches of dogs and fosa suggest that any past antagonistic relationship between these predators did not follow from predation or competition for shared prey. Radiocarbon dates confirm that dogs have been present on Madagascar for over a millennium and suggest that they at least briefly co-occurred with the island’s extinct megafauna, which included giant lemurs, elephant birds, and pygmy hippopotamuses. Today, dogs share a mutualism with pastoralists who also occasionally hunt endemic vertebrates, and similar behavior is reflected in deposits at several Malagasy paleontological sites that contain dog and livestock bones along with butchered bones of extinct megafauna and extant lemurs. Dogs on Madagascar have had a wide range of diets during the past millennium, but relatively high stable carbon isotope values suggest few individuals relied primarily on forest bushmeat. Our newly generated data suggest that dogs were part of a suite of animal introductions beginning over a millennium ago that coincided with widespread landscape transformation and megafaunal extinction. 
    more » « less
  4. This paper evaluates risk-oriented frameworks for explaining environmental, social, and economic changes faced by fishing and herding communities in the Turkana Basin during and after the African Humid Period (AHP, 15–5 ka). The orbitally-forced AHP created moist conditions, high lake levels, and unusual hydrological connections across much of northern and eastern Africa. As arid conditions set in and rainfall decreased between 5.3 and 3.9 ka in eastern Africa, Lake Turkana (NW Kenya) shrank dramatically. Shoreline retreat coincided with an expansion of open plains, creating new ecological conditions and potential opportunities for early herders in the basin. In this changing landscape, economies shifted from food procurement (fishing/hunting aquatic resources) to food production (herding), likely through both in-migration by pastoralists and adoption of herding by local fishers. Early pastoralists also built at least seven megalithic pillar sites that served as communal cemeteries during this time. Recent research has shown that local environmental dynamics – both during and after the AHP – were complex, demanding a more careful interrogation of the notion that post-AHP life entailed new and/or heightened risks. Risk-buffering strategies might include mobility, diversification, physical storage, and exchange. Archaeologists working around Lake Turkana have proposed that economic shifts from fishing to pastoralism entailed increased mobility as a risk-buffering strategy to deal with aridity and resource unpredictability, and that pillar sites – as fixed landmarks in an unstable landscape – provided settings for congregation and exchange amongst increasingly mobile herding communities. However, recent research has shown that local environmental dynamics in the Lake Turkana basin – both during and after the AHP – were more complex than previously thought, necessitating re-evaluation of the notion that post-AHP life entailed new and/or heightened risks. Here, we explore risk buffering strategies (e.g. mobility, diversification, physical storage and/or exchange) as only one category of potential explanation for the new social practices observed in the region at this time. Gauging their applicability requires us to (a) assess the spatial mobility of communities and individuals interred at pillar sites; (b) evaluate whether and how mobility strategies may have changed as pastoralism supplanted fishing; and (c) examine alternative explanations for social and economic changes.

    more » « less
  5. Madagascar is famous today not only for its unique biodiversity, but also for the high levels of endemism of plants and animals. Less appreciated is the fact that, in the recent past, the island had even greater biodiversity with many other endemic animals such as giant lemurs, elephant birds, pygmy hippopotami, tortoises, and crocodiles that have gone extinct within the past 2000 years. The extinction of many of these groups is thought to be the result of both human activities and environmental change. Most research has focused on the lemurs, hippopotami, and elephant birds. Other recently extinct animals, including the Malagasy horned crocodile (Voay robustus), are relatively poorly known. Madagascar’s subfossil crocodylians include two taxa: the extinct V. robustus (the Malagasy horned crocodile) and the extant Crocodylus niloticus. The latter arrived on Madagascar relatively recently and we know little about the habitat preferences, distributions and ecological interactions (if any) of either species during the Holocene. In order to better understand the recent history of crocodylian extinction in Madagascar, we must first identify which species were present and where they were found. We present here a description of subfossil crocodylian material collected from the newly discovered subfossil site of Tsaramody (Sambaina Basin), a high-elevation wetlandenvironment. At 1655 m, it represents the highest elevation subfossil site on the island. Here we describe both cranial (e.g., premaxillary, jugal, and squamosal “horns”) and postcranial elements (e.g., osteoderms). Our research indicates that crocodile material from Tsaramody appears morphologically to belong to V. robustus, the extinct species. However, oval tuberosities on the frontal bone and a triangular extension of the squamosal bone suggest previously unrecognized variation. 
    more » « less