Archaeology / Cultural Heritage / History

[Archaeology] [twocolumns]

Anthropology / Human Evolution / Linguistics

[Anthropology] [twocolumns]

Palaeontology / Palaeoclimate / Earth Sciences

[Palaeontology] [twocolumns]

Evolution / Genetics / Biology


Humans hunted giant sloths in South America 30,000 years ago

Most scientists agree that humans began arriving in the Americas between 13,000 and 15,000 years ago, and the Clovis people of North and Central America are generally considered the "first Americans." But new fossil evidence from a streambed in southern Uruguay could challenge such theories.

Humans hunted giant sloths in South America 30,000 years ago
A giant sloth bone might hold the key to the peopling of
the Americas [Credit: Martin Batalles]
Results published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B suggest the presence at the site of human hunters who may have killed giant sloths and other megafauna. That itself isn't odd, but the site, called Arroyo del Vizcaino, has been radiocarbon dated to between 29,000 and 30,000 years old—thousands of years before people were thought to be there.

"That's pretty old for a site that has evidence of human presence, particularly in South America," said study co-author Richard Farina, a paleontologist at Uruguay's Universidad de la Republica.

"So, it's strange and unexpected."

Giant sloths, saber-toothed cats, oversize armadillos, and other large mammals once roamed the Americas—a diversity that would easily rival an African savannah today.

But by 11,000 years ago, many of the species had disappeared, likely due to climate change or the arrival of human hunters in the New World. But when exactly humans got here, and how they arrived, remains unknown.

In 1997, severe drought forced local farmers to drain a lagoon in Arroyo del Vizcaino, which exposed a mysterious bed of gigantic bones.

Humans hunted giant sloths in South America 30,000 years ago
The giant sloth bones were uncovered at a dig site dated at 29,000 to 30,000
years old [Credit: Martin Batalles]
After a series of bureaucratic roadblocks, paleontologists excavated the site in 2011 and 2012, unearthing over a thousand fossils. "From the paleontological point of view, that is absolutely marvelous in itself," Farina said.

Many of the bones belong to three extinct ground sloth species, mainly Lestodon armatus. Weighing in at up to four tons, the animals "were the size of smallish elephants," he said.

Fossils from other common South American megafauna turned up in the mud as well: three species of glyptodonts, or armadillo ancestors; a hippo-like animal called a toxodon, which has no living relatives; a South American saber-toothed cat (Smilodon populator); and an elephant-like stegomastodon, among others.

Some of the bones bear telltale markings of human tools, which suggests the animals were hunted for food. The team also found a potentially human-made scraper that could have been used on dry animal hides, and stone flakes.

Clues from the site point to a human presence at Arroyo del Vizcaino much earlier than accepted theories of migration. Farina and his team are both excited and cautious about their results.

Farina said the strength of the new evidence lies in the team's methodology and the fact that two of the bones they tested for dating also bore markings similar to those made by human tools. "The association can't be closer than it is," he said.

Humans hunted giant sloths in South America 30,000 years ago
Panoramic view and orientation of the bones: (a) the bonebed showing the 1 m grid used to
reference collected elements: (b) schematic of the bones to show their orientation
[Credit: Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences,
doi: 10.1098/rspb.2013.2211]
The date of Arroyo del Vizcaino may make some archaeologists cringe: South America's earliest human settlement at Monte Verde in Chile dates to only 14,000 years ago.

The study certainly does not prove definitively that humans were killing giant sloths 30,000 years ago in South America.

The fossils found at Arroyo del Vizcaino might simply be a product of nature mimicking human tools, and the authors acknowledge that possibility.

"South America played an exceptionally important role in the peopling of the Americas, and I'm pretty sure we have some significant surprises waiting for us," Bonnie Pitblado, an archaeologist at the University of Oklahoma who was not associated with the study, said in an email.

"Maybe people killing sloths at [the Arroyo del Vizcaino site] 30,000 years ago is one of them, maybe it's not—but it certainly isn't going to hurt to have it on our collective radar screen as we continue to contemplate the peopling of the New World."

The Uruguayan team has further excavations and environmental reconstruction studies planned for the site.

Farina estimates that it could yield a thousand more bones, and they plan to build a local museum to house the site's many fossils.

Author: Helen Thompson | Source: National Geographic [November 20, 2013]

Post A Comment
  • Blogger Comment using Blogger
  • Facebook Comment using Facebook
  • Disqus Comment using Disqus

No comments :

Exhibitions / Travel

[Exhibitions] [bsummary]

Natural Heritage / Environment / Wildlife

[Natural Heritage] [list]

Astronomy / Astrobiology / Space Exploration

[Universe] [list]