Ancient Rubbish Suggests Humans Hunted a Giant Turtle to Extinction

By Eliza Strickland | August 17, 2010 6:04 pm

mega-turtleDuring the Pleistocene epoch animals thought big: It was the age of the megafauna, when creatures like the mammoth, an 8-foot-long beaver, and a hippopotamus-sized wombat walked the Earth. But these giants vanished one by one, and scientists have long wondered why.

Debate over what caused the megafauna to die out has raged for 150 years, since Darwin first spotted the remains of giant ground sloths in Chile. Possible causes have ranged from human influence to climate change in the past, even to a cataclysmic meteor strike. [BBC]

Now, a discovery on the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu seems to have answered the question for at least one species. Researchers have turned up the bones of a giant land turtle in a dump used by the people who settled on the islands 3,000 years ago, and lead researcher Trevor Worthy says the evidence strongly suggests that the turtles were hunted into extinction.

Significantly, they have found mainly leg bones, but no head or tail remains, and only small fragments of shell. “This suggests very strongly that the animals were butchered somewhere other than in the village where we excavated them,” says Worthy. “They just cut them up and brought back the bits that had most meat on them.” [Australian Broadcasting Corporation]

All the species in this turtle family, the meiolaniids, were previously thought to have gone extinct 50,000 years ago, but the new find shows that at least one species (Meiolania damelipi) hung on in the isolated Pacific islands. The turtle’s death knell seems to have sounded when the Vanuatu islands were settled by the Lapita people around 3,000 years ago. The researchers carefully dissected the layers of rubbish in the Lapita dump, and say the last bones of M. damelipi were found in sediment layer dating to 2,800 years ago. This suggests that the turtles were wiped out in the course of a few hundred years, according to the paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The Lapita would have hunted the slow-moving turtles, burned forests to clear cropland, and brought pigs and rats that ate their eggs. Worthy estimates that Vanuatu could have supported tens of thousands of M. damelipi, but in just 200 years they were gone. And if giant land turtles were on Vanuatu, they were likely found on other Pacific islands, and hunted into oblivion. [Wired]

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Image: Australian Museum

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Origins, Living World
  • Rhacodactylus

    Why didn’t we hunt any of the non-awesome animals to extinction?

  • Zachary

    Nice one Rhacodactylus haha.

  • CW

    There was the dodo bird, Rhac.

  • Dodo Bird

    Well, I nearly pinned your mum down into extinction

  • DeLene

    It seems like the problem with trying to prove causation in this species’ extinction is needing more than one midden like this showing the turtles were being butchered on a routine basis. And if the time range correlated across the multiple midden samples, then it would be a stronger case. I guess I’m just a little skeptical if all they have is one midden. (Whose to say it wasn’t also climate change, or disease, that happened to coincide with the Lapita people’s arrival?) Just playing devil’s advocate…

  • Eublepharine

    Hey, at least we still have geckos.
    They rule.

  • Jennifer Angela

    I dare say the conclusions drawn by the scientists who wrote this article are far from preposterous or even overreaching, as people have evidently displayed a blatant tendency to hunt animals straight into extinction during the 20th century – these case are documented – and as a matter of fact, extinction by hunting is still occuring, as I am sure we all know. Thus it makes sense to assume, that – surprise, surprise, – we (human beings) did it (once again), we (our ancestors) are the ones who are responsible for the extinction of all sorts of fascinating animal species. At the same time I totally agree with Rhaco… I also think it´s too bad our ancestors didn´t do that to alligators, crocodiles and sharks… and far more significantly… to pitbull terriers, dobermans, rottweilers and staffys, as live alligators, crocodiles and sharks might still be of use one day as a valuable source of food and leather. Besides these animals, that are generally viewed as dangerous, cause very little misery compared to the truly hazardous dog races mentioned previously.

  • Jay Warner

    Proving anything in the face of determined denial is extremely difficult – evidence matters less than desired conclusions. Did Homo Sapiens Sapiens over hunt & wipe out specific animals, especially those unable to adapt in a few generations to the new circumstances of said H. Sapiens hunting methods (and their fellow travelers, pigs & rats)? You bet your sweet bippy. Is said H. Sapiens doing it today (with, say cod, or sperm whales)? Why do we have to dig out the data? Why not let the naysayers _prove_ that we are not over harvesting?

    The real question is not “are we doing it today?” We are, and we all know it. The real question is, “what are we doing to mitigate H. Sapiens’ impact on all the species, especially the endangered ones.


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