Disappearing into the heavens

Some years ago I witnessed a dinosaur attack. There was a flash of brown, then a thud. It was over in a second. Sharp powerful claws gripped its prey, pinning it against the ground. Then it began to feast. I never saw it coming. The wood pigeon never saw it coming.

The beautiful light grey bird was bobbing along quite happily in my garden, picking up seeds fallen from my bird feeder. I was watching it move: that classic bob of the head in sync with those scaly legs and claws. Then, out of nowhere, a blur. A sparrow hawk had shot out of the sky, landing on the pigeon, flattening it to the ground. Perhaps stunned, perhaps not, the pigeon had no chance. The sharp curved, super sharp beak of the sparrow hawk began to pluck away feathers so it could gorge on the flesh beneath.

The reign of the dinosaurs has never left us. Humans have witnessed similar dinosaur killings for millennia. But none on such as scale as this beast you are about to read about.

The beautiful Eurasian Sparrow Hawk (Accipiter nisus). (Image by Christian Knoch)

The beautiful Eurasian Sparrow Hawk (Accipiter nisus). (Image by Christian Knoch. Public Domain.)

Birds, the only surviving group of dinosaurs, total nearly 10,000 different species. Aside from fish they are the most successful group of vertebrates, living on every single continent. And they are incredibly diverse. Some have lost use of their wings, to return to land living. Others have enormous webbed feet and become expert swimmers. Sharp beaks tear flesh. Thick beaks crush nuts. Thin beaks pluck worms. Elaborate feathers seduce. This is an amazing group of animals.

Over the last 66 million years, since the extinction of their relatives, there have been some spectacular species. None more so than the giant flightless birds. There was the long reign of the giant terror birds, who stomped on the planet for over 60 million years. There was the frightful European Gastornis, from around 55 million years ago to around 35 million years ago. Big birds even roamed Australia. These were all very big. And all would have been bloody terrifying to see in the flesh. But none would have killed as that sparrow hawk did.

A giant bird (Image by Jan Freedman)

The American Terror Birds were enormous. (Image by Jan Freedman)

There were giant fliers who may fit the bill (excuse the pun). A giant relative to the buzzard, mis-named the Woodward ‘Eagle’, was massive compared to today’s buzzards (or eagles) alive today. The enormous, aptly named Monster Birds would have dwarfed condors alive today. These were both gliders; hovering on warm thermals, searching for that carcass. One extinct giant hunted like our sparrow hawk. Only this beast’s prey was much, much larger than wood pigeons.

New Zealand was home to just a small number of mammals, all of which were bats. This left this dramatic landscape open for other groups to exploit and exploit it the birds certainly did. There was the wonderfully named Mysterious Starling, the Laughing Owl, the Long-billed Wren, the Stout-legged Wren, and even a species of penguin. Isolated for millions of years, the islands of New Zealand were evolutions’ aviaries. With no mammals on the islands (except for three species of bat), birds had free reign of many new niches. There were also many species of Moa: huge flightless, grazing birds that only became extinct in the 1600s.

A reconstruction of the upland Moa. (Megalapteryx sp.) from Baron Rothschild’s book “Extinct Birds”. (Public Domain)

A reconstruction of the upland Moa. (Megalapteryx sp.) from Baron Rothschild’s book “Extinct Birds”. (Public Domain)

Carnivores evolved alongside the herbivores: large harriers (Eyles Harrier), and several types of hawks. Yet, none of these came close to the ultimate New Zealand carnivore: Te Hōkioi.

“This bird, Hōkioi was seen by our ancestors. We…have not seen it – that bird has disappeared nowadays. The statement of our ancestor was that it was a powerful bird, a very powerful bird. It was a very large hawk. Its resting place was on the top of mountains; it did not rest on the plains…Its colour was red and black and white. It was a bird of (black) feathers, tinged with yellow and green; it had a bunch of red feathers on top of its head.” (Maori Legend)

Around 700 years ago, the first humans settled on New Zealand. They saw this bird while it was alive. And, today it lives on in their stories.

Hōkioi was an Eagle. An enormous eagle. The heaviest eagle so far discovered. Outrageously enormous claws first excavated in 1871, gave this beast the name Harpagornis moorei: ‘harpa’ meaning grappling hook, and ‘gornis’ meaning bird. (The species, moorei was given after the landowner were the fossils were first found, George Moore.) Harpagornis, also called Haast’s Eagle after its discoverer, was huge. Females weighed up to around 15kg and males up to 11.5kg: compare this to just a meagre 4kg for a male and 6.6kg for female golden eagles. With wingspans of just 3m, just a fraction longer than a golden eagle, you may think that Harpagornis was oddly disproportionate. It was, however, perfectly endowed for its lifestyle. It was a hunter. An active, surprisingly agile hunter.

Just like a sparrow hawk, Harpagornis flew through forests and scrublands, with relative ease. With a shorter wingspan, it would be able to manoeuvre with relative ease when it went for the attack. Incredible fossil remains tell us what the Haast’s Eagle was preying on. Several Moa pelvis remains have very large holes in them: holes made by the powerful talons of Harpagornis. From high up vantage points, Harpagornis would launch itself, gliding effortlessly through forests. It would land with such a force that its claws pierced through the Moas’ bones. This makes my sparrow hawk look like a pussy cat.

Enormous holes in the pelvis of a Moa. Made by the gigantic talons of Harpagornis.

Enormous holes in the pelvis of a Moa. Made by the gigantic talons of Harpagornis. (Image from Holdaway & Worthy, 2008)

This bird got big quick. It evolved from smaller eagles around 1 million years ago. It’s a classic example of Island Gigantism, where animals isolated on islands have abundant food allowing them to grow to pretty big sizes. (The dodo is a good, if not often recognised, example of this.) With little competitors, and prey as huge as the Moa, these raptors were able to grow to extraordinary sizes.

Harpagornis was

Harpagornis was a massive eagle. Humans would have seen them in action.

What is truly fascinating, and is true for so many of our Twilight Beasts, is that humans saw them alive. The Maori may have watched in awe as Harpagornis took down a Moa: a true clash of the Titans. This magnificent bird was captured by the Maori in cave art, showing significance in their lives.

from ‘Cave of the Eagle’, in the Canterbury district.

Beautiful cave art from ‘Cave of the Eagle’, in the Canterbury district, New Zealand. (Image by Amanda Symon, Ngai Tahu Maori Rock Art Trust. Reproduced with permission.)

Even the name, Te Hōkioi, gives us a tantalising glimpse of what this extinct animal sounded like. It appears in Maori legend:

“Its rival was the hawk. The hawk said it could reach the heavens: the Hōkioi said it could reach the heavens to the hawk; there was contention between them.

The Hōkioi said to the hawk, “what shall be your sign?” The hawk replied “kei” (the peculiar cry of the hawk).

Then the hawk asked, “what shall be your sign?” The Hōkioi replied, “hokioi-hokioi-huu.” These were three words.” (Maori Legend)

Until just around 400 years ago, Harpagornis was swooping through the forests, like a gigantic sparrow hawk. It’s extinction is something familiar and obvious, but still something we fail to learn from today. As people began to settle on New Zealand, they expanded, altering the habitat as they went. The change in habitat hit the large flightless Moa hard, more so because they were also hunted by the Maori for food. The Moa became extinct around 1600. With their main food source gone, the Haarst Eagle vanished.

“They then flew and approached the heavens. The winds and the clouds came. The hawk called out “kei” and descended, it could go no further on account of the winds and the clouds, but the Hōkioi disappeared into the heavens.” (Maori Legend)

Around us the world is changing. Forests are vanishing. Habitats being destroyed. Oceans polluted. Climate is more erratic. Many species we know will be lost because of our lack of respect for nature. A species does not vanish alone. It is part of a complex web of life. When one species is gone, many, many more will sadly, silently, disappear into the heavens.

Written by Jan Freedman (@JanFreedman)

A special thank you to Amanda Symon at the Ngai Tahu Maori Rock Art Trust for allowing us to use the beautiful rock art painting. Please do have a look at their website for more information about New Zealand’s incredible rock art.

Further Reading:

Alcover, J. A & McMinn, M. (1994). ‘Predators of vertebrates on Islands.’ BioScience. 44 (1). pp. 12-18. [Abstract only]

Best, E. (1982), Maori Religion and Mythology. Part 2. P.D. Hasselberg, Wellington. pg. 563 [Full text]

Brathwaite, D. H. (1992).’ Notes on the weight, flying ability, habitat and prey of Haast’s Eagle (Harpagornis moorei)’. Notornis. Ornithological Society of New Zealand. 39 (4): 239–247. [Full article]

Bunce, M. et al. (2005). ‘Ancient DNA provides new insights into the evolutionary history of New Zealand’s giant eagle.’ PLoS Biology. 3 (1): e9. [Full article]

Haast, J. (1872). “Notes on Harpagornis Moorei, an Extinct Gigantic Bird of Prey, containing Discussion of Femur, Ungual Phalanges and Rib”. Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute.  4. New Zealand Institute. pp. 193–196. [Full article]

Holdaway, R. N., M. E. Allentoft, C. Jacomb, C. L. Oskam, N. R. Beavan, and M. Bunce. (2014). “An Extremely Low-Density Human Population Exterminated New Zealand Moa.” Nat Commun 5. pp5436. [Abstract only]

Holdaway, R. N., & Worthy, T. H. (2008). ‘The Late Quaternary Avifauna’. In Winterbourne, M.J et al. ‘The natural history of Canterbury’. 3rd Edition. Canterbury University Press and Manaaki Whenua Press. Christchurch. [Book]

Perry, G. L. W., A. B. Wheeler, J. R. Wood, and J. M. Wilmshurst. (2014). “A High-Precision Chronology for the Rapid Extinction of the New Zealand Moa (Aves, Dinornithiformes).” Quaternary Science Reviews 105: pp.126-35. [Abstract only]

Rawlence, N. J., J. R. Wood, K. N. Armstrong, and A. Cooper. (2009). “DNA Content and Distribution in Ancient Feathers and Potential to Reconstruct the Plumage of Extinct Avian Taxa.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London: Series B. [Full article]

Scofield, R. P. & Ashwell, W. S. (2009). ‘Rapid Somatic Expansion Causes the brain to lag behind: the case of the brain and behaviou of New Zealand’s Haast’s Eagle (Harpagornis moorei).’ Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. 29 (3). Pp.637-649.

Tennyson, A.; Martinson, P. (2006). ‘Extinct Birds of New Zealand’. Wellington, New Zealand: Te Papa Press. [Book]

Wood, J. R., N. J. Rawlence, G. M. Rogers, J. J. Austin, T. H. Worthy, and A. Cooper. (2008). “Coprolite Deposits Reveal the Diet and Ecology of the Extinct New Zealand Megaherbivore Moa (Aves, Dinornithiformes).” Quaternary Science Reviews. [Abstract only]



Posted in Harpagornis, Terror Bird | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Getting inside the bones

The European bison,or Wisent, (Bison bonasus) is Europe’s largest land mammal and the last surviving large grazer from a time of real giants. However, during most of the history of the species, it coexisted with other large bovines. One more familiar species was the Aurochs (Bos primigenius), the ancestor of modern domestic cattle, that went extinct in the 17th century. In Southern Scandinavia the two species coexisted for a brief period of time.

Both the Aurochs and the European bison colonized the area via a land bridge connecting southern Sweden, the Danish Isles and mainland Europe about 11,000 years ago. Remarkably, the European bison seem to have disappeared 9,600 years ago, possibly because the forests grew denser and they became isolated from the continental bison population when the land bridge was cut off due to rising sea levels. The aurochsen seem to have prevailed longer, disappearing from southern Sweden and Denmark about 7000 years ago and 3000 years ago, respectively.

The extent of the ice sheet at the Last Glacial Maximum

The extent of the ice sheet at the Last Glacial Maximum, around 20,000 years ago. Huge ice sheets covered much of northern Europe. With water trapped in the ice, sea levels were lower, and more land was connected. (Image Public Domain)

Remains of aurochsen are relatively abundant in bogs and at prehistoric human settlement sites, but only about 20 confirmed finds of European bison have been made in southern Scandinavia. This skewed ratio of finds between the two species has been proposed to reflect differences in choice of habitat due to competition or human disturbance as well as an actual difference in population sizes.

Photo taken in Réserve biologique des Monts d'Azur, Haut-Thorenc, France (Valène Aure)

The beautiful European Bison (Bison bonasus) in Réserve biologique des Monts d’Azur, Haut-Thorenc, France (Photo Valène Aure)

Although the animals looked quite different, the complete skulls are the only individual bone elements that can be positively identified as either aurochs or European bison. This means that the bones in archaeozoological assemblages, which usually are highly fragmented due to their exploitation by man as resources for food and raw materials, pose a particular challenge for species identification. As a consequence of this, one can suspect that some remains of European bison might have been misinterpreted as aurochs in previous analyses. This is common in museum collections across Europe: many specimens lay in drawers labelled as Bovine, because the post-cranial bones of the two species are so similar.

An almost complete skeleton of a European bison found at the end of the 18th century in southern Sweden. Photo by Lucas Gölén

An almost complete skeleton of a European bison found at the end of the 18th century in southern Sweden. (Photo by Lucas Gölén)

In a pilot study, researchers from Lund University, Sweden, and the Universities of York and Manchester (UK), plan to analyse bone powder from the skulls of one prehistoric European bison and one aurochs. The samples will be analysed for collagen-peptide sequencing using Zooarchaeology by Mass Spectrometry (ZooMS), a method previously used to successfully discern bone fragments from sheep (Ovis aries) and goats (Capra hircus) in archaeological assemblages. The bones of these two species are fairly similar in size and shape, and it has often proven very difficult to identify the individual species.

The purpose of the study is to investigate whether ZooMS is a feasible method for species identification of European bison and aurochs in various prehistoric bone assemblages. It is hoped that the species-specific peptide identified through the reference samples can then be used to distinguish fragments of uncertain taxonomic status. So many bone assemblages from sites contemporary with the known presence of bison in Scandinavia have previously identified as bovine and we’re aware it will need to be totally re-examined. It is hoped that the results will help to increase the number of European bison finds, increase our understanding of the species’ local history and its importance as a food source to prehistoric humans.

Written by Erika Rosengren (@RosengrenErika)

Edited by Rena Maguire (@JustRena)

For a description of the ZooMS method see: https://youtu.be/xBAXaLvGe5I

Contact: Erika Rosengren, Osteological Collections Curator. Lund University Historical Museum. Erika.Rosengren@luhm.lu.se

Further reading:
Benecke, N., (2005). ‘The Holocene distribution of European bison – the archaeozoological record’. Munibe (Anthropologia-Arkeologia) 57. pp. 421-428.

Buckley, M., Whitcher Kansa, A., Howard, S., Campbell, S., Thomas-Oates, J. & Collins, M. (2010). ‘Distinguishing between archaeological sheep and goat bones using a single collagen peptide’. Journal of Archaeological Science. 37. pp. 13–20.(http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0305440309002854)

Ekström, J. (1993). ‘The late Quaternary history of the urus (Bos primigenius Bojanus 1827) in Sweden’. Lundqua Thesis 29.

Rosengren, E. (2014). ‘Sven Nilsson and the postglacial fauna of Scania’. Lund University Historical Museum. Lund.

Posted in Aurochs, Bison | 1 Comment

When life gives you lemmings…..

If I had a games console I wouldn’t get anything done. (Are they called ‘games consoles’ today?) Just like when I watch a film, I am completely captivated by the make-believe world: I am in that world. There is nothing around me. No one around me. Fortunately today, family, work, and late night blogging, prevent my loss of time. I am tempted by some of the incredibly realistic looking games on these futuristic looking consoles, but if I did, I would do nothing else. Nothing. Except finish the game.

When I was younger, we had a few PC games. Ghosts and Goblins on the Commodore 64 was good fun, and anyone remember Rider on the old BBC Micro PC? These were fun games. Addictive to finish the level. But nothing like the complexity and storytelling of games around today. In these games you really are the characters.

There was one game that got me. Totally got me. Completely hooked. Level after level. Lemming after lemming. I had to save them all. Or as many as I could. Sacrifice a couple, that’s fine: it would benefit the group. The classic early 90s game, Lemmings, was the game that told me I should never own a games console when I grow up. The game starts with around 100 lemmings falling from a trap door into a screen, and they all start to follow the leader. The leader walks, bumps into rocks and gets turned around: the aim of the game is to guide as many lemmings as you can to the ‘exit’. You can build bridges, dig under rocks or ‘freeze’ one, so it acts like a block to stop others from walking off the edge of a cliff, or into water, or lava.

A screen shot from the Amega version of Lemmins. (image Public Domain)

A screen shot from the Amega version of Lemmings. (image Public Domain)

As addictive as it was, this video game is based on lies. I know this now. We were lied to. All of us. All the tens of thousands, possibly even hundreds of thousands of children sat there trying frantically to stop these little green haired creatures follow each other to their deaths. We were made to believe that lemmings blindly followed a leader anywhere. Even over a cliff. We were made to believe that these gorgeous little critters were suicidal.

Lemmus lemmus

Fluffy, adorable, Norwegian Lemming (Lemmus lemmus) is just one species of lemming. (Image by Oma Kuva. Public Domain)

Lemmings are anything but suicidal. If an animal is suicidal, then it is intentionally wanting to die. In fact, suicidal animals in nature are very rare. Male spiders and mantids knowingly offering themselves to a female to be eaten are famous examples of suicide in animals (it makes sense that the male will be providing the nutrients for the eggs which he will have fertilised). If a male can leave his sperm and get out alive, it prefers this option (I completely understand why). But in lemmings? Do they really all follow each other knowingly to their deaths?

Lemmings are rodents, closely related to voles. First appearing in the fossil record around 4 million years ago, they live in the cold, icy Arctic tundra. And when food is abundant they breed fast. Their population doesn’t just boom, it explodes. With so many lemmings, all the available food is eaten super fast, so naturally the lemmings spread out looking for new places to live. Many die on this new pilgrimage across the desolate tundra. But some do find new food and set up new colonies. Those few survivors set up home for the next season, and so it goes on. So this ‘mass suicide’ is actually the lemmings trying to survive. Many die on this search for food, and perhaps early observations of their mass migration across the barren landscape, spawned the myth of suicidal lemmings.

They are a very successful group of rodents, with around 30 different species. Eating a variety of plants including moss, grasses, herbs, and lichen, these cold living creatures have a thick fur to help keep them warm in their cold homes. Because of their limited range due to their preferred temperature, they are excellent climatic indicators in the fossil record. They are found in deposits all over Europe, providing another insight into the erratic changes of climate in the past.

The temperatue

The temperature of the last 500,000 years (in blue) reconstructed from data from the Vostok Core, Antarctica. Note the see-saw pattern in the blue graph. Temperature rises rapidly, then there are periods of cooling which appear to be slower. (Image Public Domain)

We know the past has been a see-saw of warm and cold periods (we wrote about how we can measure the past climates through ocean sediments). Those warm interglacials allowing hippos to bask in English rivers, and those chilly, glacials which lacked snow but had huge ice sheets covering much of the northern hemisphere. Even these extremes were punctuated by cold and warm periods within them. And our little lemming fossils help us identify these cold periods.

Two species of Lemmings were present in Britain during the Pleistocene: the Norwegian Lemming (Lemmus lemmus) and the Collard Lemming (Disrostonyx sp.). As the great glaciers covered much of Britain, any exposed land was cold, dry, and hard. Here lemmings were in abundance. As the ice melted, and retreated north, so did the lemmings territory. So they are missing from fossil assemblages during warmer phases. But, they do pop back into some assemblages, showing us that the warm periods (the interglacials) were punctuated by cold periods (stadials).

Lemmings are small little critters, and as such, so are their teeth. Teeth survive pretty well in the fossil record. Especially in cave sites. Owls use the sites, and regurgitate the fur, teeth and bones that they cannot digest. These pellets accumulate and show us what animals were living within a few miles around the cave. Collections in museums hold lots of fossils from sites across Britain, opening a window into the past. Unfortunately many of the smaller teeth are not identified, mainly because there are so many of them. More evidence of lemmings may lie hidden within small jars filled with teeth of voles, mice, and rats.

Lemmings did, somehow, make it over to Ireland around 33,000 years ago: other species of vole living in Britain are absent in Ireland. It may have been the chance result of a mass dispersal of lemmings as they searched for new food. Some were lucky enough to have survived rafting across the Irish Sea.

Lemmings were extremely abundant in Britain towards the end of the Pleistocene. But as the  glaciers went through their final retreat, the last of the lemmings in Britain followed. For Now…..

Written by Jan Freedman (@JanFreedman)

Further Reading:

Current, A., & Jacobi, R. (2001). ‘A formal mammalian biostratigraphy for the Late Pleistocene of Britain’. Quaternary Science Reviews. 20. pp.1707-1716. [Abstract only]

Kurten, B. (1968), ‘Pleistocene mammals of Europe’, The World Naturalist. [Book]

Stuart, A. J. (1982), ‘Pleistocene Vertebrates in the British Isles’, Longman. [Book]

Sutcliffe, A. J. (1985), ‘On the track of Ice Age Mammals’, British Museum (Natural History). [Book]

Vendela K. et al. (2014). ‘On the origin of the Norwegian lemming.’ Molecular Ecology. [Abstract only]



Posted in Lemming | Tagged | 3 Comments

On the origins of our species

As families go ours is pretty amazing. You have ancient cousins who effortlessly chomped through the toughest of roots and hardest of seeds. Another relative was the first of our family to make it all the way to China around 1.7 million years ago. Each individual human alive today belongs to the same family as all of our extinct relatives, the Hominidae. Our kinship runs deeper than geographical boundaries.

What is truly spectacular is that we are still discovering incredible fossils today that are adding detail to our complex family history. Just last year, a new twig on the family tree was added with the remarkable discovery of Homo naledi. Recently, a strange structure was discovered at a Neanderthal site in France: our sister species was building things 170,000 years ago. Let’s not forget our quirky second cousin, the hobbit Homo florensiensis, with recent finds suggesting they evolved around 700,000 years ago from Homo erectus.

The several species of hominins through time (Image from Wiki Commons)

Our family is large! Hominins have a long hsitory, dating back to at least 7 million years ago. (Image from Wiki Commons)

We are learning more each year about our incredible family. But what about us: what can we say about the origins of our species?

Until relatively recently, our species, Homo sapiens was the only known species of human. In 1859 when Charles Darwin wrote his masterpiece On the Origin of Species, there was no solid evidence for any other human species. (Although Neanderthal fossils were known, they were thought to be remains of humans with disease. It wasn’t until 1864 until they were named as a separate species.) For such an important, ground shaking book, Darwin gave just one sentence to human evolution: “Light will be thrown on the origin of [hu]man[s] and [their] history.”

Some years later in The Descent of Man, Darwin writes a little more about how humans are related to other animals. With just the Neanderthal finds, there was little to include about evidence from the fossil record. Nevertheless, Darwin still made a prediction about where one should look for human ancestors:

“In each great region of the world the living mammals are closely related to the extinct species of the same region. It is, therefore, probable that Africa was formerly inhabited by extinct apes closely allied to the gorilla and chimpanzee; and as these two species are now [hu]man’s nearest allies, it is somewhat more probably that our early progenitors lived on the African continent than elsewhere.”

So by 1871 Darwin was advocating looking for our ancestors in Africa but this wasn’t the consensus view. The great German naturalist, Ernst Haekel, for example, argued strongly that human ancestors would be found in Indonesia (presumably because of the other great ape living there, the orang-utan). Remarkably hominin fossils were found there in 1891 by Eugène Dubois, which he saw as a species intermediate between apes and humans (though this ‘Java Man’ was later identified as Homo erectus). It wasn’t until 1924 that the first hominin fossil was found in Africa, with Raymond Dart’s discovery of the first Australopithecus africanus specimen. Since then, numerous hominin fossils have been found across Africa, Europe and Asia.

Original fossils of 'Java Man'. The thick broken skull at the back, with the (Image

Original fossils of ‘Java Man’. The thick broken skull at the back, with the big femur at teh front. (Image by Peter Mass, Public Domain)

We know hominins evolved in Africa, but with so many fossils being discovered across the continents, there have been huge debates about where our species, Homo sapiens, originated. Two main theories have dominated: the Out of Africa (or Recent African Origin) and the Multiregional origin. Out of Africa proposes that there was a single origin for anatomically modern humans. This theory says that the first modern humans arose on Africa soil around 100,000 years ago before spreading out to populate the rest of the world replacing existing human groups. The Multiregional theory instead suggests that rather than arising in Africa the modern form arose in multiple parts of the globe with constant gene flow between existing human species: so all modern humans alive today are a mixture of Homo sapiens, H. neanderthalensis, and H. erectus. (There is another theory, which often gets confused with the multiregional model. The Candelabra theory suggests that after leaving Africa and migrating to other regions of the world our very early ancestor H. erectus evolved modern features independently (without any gene flow between other species of Homo) and at multiple times.)

Are we a species that arose in Africa or in multiple regions round the globe? Did we leave Africa once and replace all other species of Homo, or did we bump into and have a little fun with other species we met on the way? Where did our species leave Africa from and what route did they take? A recent paper took a very detailed look at the publications on this subject to try to get a clearer picture. As well as fossils, climate and radiocarbon dates they advocate genetics as another tool in helping us to discover the true origins of Homo sapiens.

It turns out that by using genetic evidence we can disregard the Multireigonal and Candelabra theories rather quickly. Genetic studies using mitochondrial DNA, which traces genetic information down the female Homo sapiens line, point to all regions tracing their line back to Africa. Later Y chromosome studies, which looked at the male line, also suggested an African common ancestor. What is more, using information from our other 22 non-sex chromosomes genetic diversity was found to decrease predictably the further away you go from Africa. Given our ancestors must have been genetically more diverse than us this is pretty convincing evidence for an African origin.

These studies agree strikingly well with the fossil record. In 1967, Richard Leakey discovered the oldest anatomically modern human fossils in Ethiopia. Known as the Omo remains, these fossils date to between 200,000 and 190,000 years ago. Some more very old Homo sapiens fossils, known as the Herto skulls, were also found in Ethiopia in 2003, dating to between 160,000 and 154,000 years ago. The oldest fossils of our species have been found in Africa.

One of the earlierst Homo sapiens fossils, the

One of the Herto Skulls. One of the earlierst Homo sapiens fossils, around 160,000 years old. (Image Public Domain)

When and where our species left Africa is another hot topic for researchers. Outside of Africa, the oldest fossils of our species found so far are the Skhul/Qafzeh fossils in the Levant (where Israel is today), dating to around 100,000 years old. Originally thought of as a failed exodus, some believe the Skhul/Qafzeh fossils may represent a more successful distribution with stone tools on the Arabian Peninsula dating to between 100,000 and 80,000 years old. The location of these fossils falls in line with a Northern route out of Africa, through Egypt and Sinai. The other possible direction is a Southern route out of Africa through Ethiopia and the Bab el Mandeb strait across the Red Sea, following the coastline towards the Arabian Peninsular, heading to India.

Skhul/Quafzeh Skull number 5

The earliest anatomically modern humans out of Africa around 100,000 years ago, Skhul/Quafzeh Skull number 5. (Image Public Domain)

Given little in the way of archaeological evidence geneticists have attempted to track our ancestors African exit using DNA from people alive today. A number of studies have attempted to do this using different datasets and techniques but on the whole they run in to difficulties. It turns out people alive today are pretty bad representatives of those first humans leaving the African continent due to people having mixed extensively through history. Trying to figure out who mixed with whom, accounting for the mixed DNA in some way and then making any assumption that the DNA left looks anything like the DNA of those first ancestors is fraught with difficulties. This is particularly problematic in Africa where migrations of people ‘back to Africa’ have resulted in the DNA of modern day Africans being composed of high levels of non-African ancestry, muddying the signal further. One way around these problems is instead to analyse DNA extracted from people who lived many thousands of years ago (ancient DNA), allowing direct assessment of the genetic make up of past populations. With increasing improvements in the techniques used to recover DNA from human remains and account for damage as it has degraded through time, ancient DNA research is becoming a viable next option in answering these questions. However obtaining DNA from sufficient samples and in the right places (very tricky in Africa where the hot climate speeds up DNA damage) may be a limiting factor.

The fossils

The movement out (and back into) Africa based on the fossil and genetic evidence to date. (image from Lopez, van Dorp & Hellenthal, 2016)

The timing of when bands of Homo sapiens left Africa is also not easy to pinpoint. There are two main dates that are proposed based on DNA evidence, between 130, 000 and 100,000 years ago, or between 60,000 and 50,000 years ago. Many researchers support the later date but recent finds are shaking this idea up a bit. Last year fossil finds in China dated between 120,000 and 80,000 years old, showing that H. sapiens had made it to China much earlier than previously thought. Did these individuals just die out like has been suggested for Skhul and Qafzeh? Or did they make a contribution to the gene pool of humans alive today? Dating our African exit using DNA is not precise because it relies on having a good estimate of when mutations have occurred in the genome through time and often assumes clear splits between groups when the reality is likely somewhat noisier. One approach to mitigate these difficulties is using ancient DNA from different points in history as a genetic ruler to calibrate the speed at which mutations have occurred. Using timescales revised in this way genetic reconstructions date our African departure to fit the range of this more recent date: 95,000 – 62,000 years ago.

Exactly when and where we left Africa is proving to be a little difficult to determine. Maybe we will never pinpoint the exact date, or the exact place we left. Maybe there were a number of small groups leaving at different times and places. What we do know is that some of these groups met other species of humans. And we mated with them. Successfully. Some of the pioneering work on ancient DNA showed that modern humans share a detectable amount of DNA (1.5-4%) with Neanderthals, revising our idea of the Out of Africa model existing without any intermixing. And it’s not just the Neanderthals. Another species we had intimate relations with were the Denisovans, a mysterious species characterised solely from genetic material extracted from a sliver of finger bone. Even 40,000 year old secrets can be revealed.

The tiny fragment

A cast of a the tiny finger bone. The orginal was destroyed for DNA anaylsis. (Image Thilo Parg, Public Domain)

No field of science is more personal than the study of our own origins. With more finds every year, the details challenge what we know and often create more questions than answers. When we left Africa, where did we travel first and whom we met are all key questions, which we are beginning to answer by integrating archaeology, climatic and genetic evidence. Our species origins lie in Africa, illustrated by both the fossil record and genetic studies. We left Africa at least on two separate occasions, and travelled the world. We met, and slept with, other species of humans: the evidence of our promiscuity forever written in our DNA. The origins of us is a beautiful, but complicated story.

Written by Lucy van Dorp (@LucyvanDorp) and Jan Freedman (@JanFreedman)

This post is based on the following research:

Lopez, S, van Dorp, L, & Hellenthal, G. (2016). ‘Human Dispersal Out of Africa: A Lasting Debate.’ Evolutionary Bioinformatics. 11 (S2). pp.56-68. [Full article]

Further reading:

Blome MW, et al. (2012). ‘The environmental context for the origins of modern human diversity: a synthesis of regional variability in African climate 150,000–30,000 years ago.’ J Hum Evol. 62. pp.563–92. [Abstract only]

Cann, R. L, Stoneking, M, & Wilson, A. (1987), ‘Mitochondrial DNA and human evolution’, Nature. 325(6099). pp.31-36. [Abstract only]

Cooper, A & Stringer, C. B, (2013), ‘Did the Denisovans cross the Wallace line?’ Science. 342(6156). pp.321-323. [Abstract only]

Darwin, C. (1859). ‘On the origin of species by means of natural selection’. Murray. [Book]

Darwin C. (1871). ‘The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex’. London: John Murray; 1871. [Book]

Gibbons, A. (2012), ‘Ancient DNA. A crystal-clear view of an extinct girl’s genome’, Science. 337(6098). pp.1028-1029. [Full article]

Goldstein D B, & Chikhi L. (2002) ‘Human migrations and population structure: what we know and why it matters.’ Annu Rev Genomics Hum Genet. 3. pp.129–152. [Abstract only]

Gunz P, et al. (2009). ‘Early modern human diversity suggests subdivided population structure and a complex out-of-Africa scenario.’ Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 106. pp.6094–6098. [Full article]

Krause, J, et al. (2010), ‘The complete mitochondrial DNA genome of an unknown hominin from southern Siberia’, Nature. 464(7290). pp.894-897. [Abstract only]

Lowery R. K, et al. (2013) ‘Neanderthal and Denisova genetic affinities with contemporary humans: introgression versus common ancestral polymorphisms.’ Gene. 530. pp.83–94. [Abstract only]

Pennisi, E, (2013), ‘More genomes from Denisova Cave show mixing of early human groups’, Science. 340(6134). pp.799. [Abstract only]

Prüfer, K, et al. (2013), ‘The complete genome sequence of a Neanderthal from the Altai Mountains’, Nature, 505(7481). pp.43-49. [Abstract only]

Reich, D, et al. (2011), ‘Denisova Admixture and the first modern human dispersals into Southeast Asia and Oceania’, The American Journal of Human Genetics. 89. pp.516-528. [Abstract only]

Roberts, A. (2009) ‘The Incredible Human Journey.’ Bloomsbury. [Book]

Sankararaman S, et al. (2014) ‘The genomic landscape of neanderthal ancestry in present-day humans.’ Nature. 507. pp.354–357. [Full article]

Stringer C. B, & Andrews, P. (1988) ‘Genetic and fossil evidence for the origin of modern humans.’ Science. 239. pp.1263–1268. [Abstract only]

Tattersall I. (2009) ‘Human origins: out of Africa.’ Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 106. pp.16018–16021. [Full article]

Templeton A. R. (2007) ‘Genetics and recent human evolution.’ Evolution. 61: pp.1507–1519. [Abstract only]

Thomson R, et al. (2000). ‘Recent common ancestry of human Y chromosomes: evidence from DNA sequence data.’ Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 97. pp.7360–7365. [Full article]

Wu X. (1981) ‘The well preserved cranium of an early Homo sapiens from Dali, Shanxi.’ Sciencia Sinica2 pp.200–206. [Full article]

Posted in Denisovan, Homo sapiens, Neanderthal | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Amidst the footsteps of giants: What beetles can tell us about the past

Picture this scene: thousands of years ago in Britain during the Pleistocene Epoch, when giants roamed the landscape. Herds of woolly mammoth, bison and reindeer grazed the steppes during cold periods, watched closely by skulking hyenas and prides of enormous cave lions. During warmer, interglacial periods, giant deer and straight-tusked elephants strode amid lush vegetation, and hippopotamuses wallowed in languid rivers. You may have even glimpsed a few long-distant relatives of our own, making their way in the wild.

But what about the small creatures? These incredible environments were not just populated by giant beasts. Like today, the land was crawling with insects and other invertebrates. I am interested in one group in particular: beetles. They were everywhere. Amidst the footsteps of the Pleistocene giants, scurrying amongst the grass and the leaf litter, flying through the air, and swimming in the ponds and streams. They are as fascinating as any of the great woolly behemoths, which is why I spend a great deal of time carefully sieving ancient mud to find tiny fragments of old, dead beetles.

This slightly peculiar field of science, called palaeoentomology (the study of fossil insects) has its roots in the late 19th century. A number of people on both sides of the Atlantic, were beginning to investigate Pleistocene faunas, including a few who began to study the fossil insects. However, these early workers set about cataloguing their miniature finds with a mistaken notion: they assumed that the insect fossils they encountered must belong to extinct species. Thus, they began to describe and assign new names to their specimens. The work of American palaeontologist and entomologist, Samuel H. Scudder (1837-1911), pays heed to the frustration that evidently accompanied these early ventures, using such suggestive names as Pterostichus destitutus, Platynus dissipatus and, Bembidion damnosum (the species name meaning deprived, broken and damaged!).

However, this was challenged in the mid-20th century by Carl H. Lindroth (1905-1979) and Russell Coope (1930-2011), who realised that the vast majority of Pleistocene beetle fossils could, with great patience, be matched to modern species. For Coope, this began a career which was instrumental in the development of the modern discipline, and his significance to the field cannot be overstated. In particular, he pioneered the use of fossil beetles as a tool for understanding past climates and, on this basis, was the first to suggest the occurrence of abrupt climate changes at the end of the last glaciation. Today, most Quaternary beetle specialists can trace a direct academic lineage to him (he was the supervisor of my supervisor’s supervisor: my great-grand supervisor). There are some fascinating, often amusing, snippets of conversations with Coope, which you can listen to here.

Professor Russell Coope, working in his home study during retirement (Image courtesy of AHOB and Sarah Lazarus)

Professor Russell Coope, working in his home study during retirement (Image courtesy of AHOB and Sarah Lazarus)

You may well ask, why are these bits of old beetles so useful for understanding past climates and ecology? How do they tell us about ancient environments? The answer is that beetles possess a very particular set of attributes, which make them perfect for this purpose.

First and foremost, given the right set of conditions, pieces of beetles can preserve exceptionally well. Heads, wings cases and other body parts are extremely resilient, and have characteristics which can be identified by comparing to modern beetle collections today.  (Some, like in the example below, even retain a metallic lustre!) We can work out what species these fragments belonged to, just as a vertebrate specialist can identify species from individual bones.

A fossil clypeus (head plate), 1mm long and over 600,000 years old, of Helophorus strigifrons (above), and a complete modern specimen of H. strigifrons from the collections at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery (Images by the author)

A fossil clypeus (head plate), 1mm long and over 600,000 years old, of Helophorus strigifrons (above), and a complete modern specimen of H. strigifrons from the collections at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery (Images by the author)

Secondly, beetles are extraordinarily diverse. There are more species of beetles than any other type of insect, with over 400,000 species formally described, accounting for over 20% of all known species of organism. (To put that in context, there are just over 4,500 different species of mammals!) They are correspondingly diverse in their ecological habits, occupying almost every conceivable terrestrial and freshwater environment on Earth, often with very particular habitat requirements and preferences. The presence of different species in an ancient deposit can be used to reconstruct past habitats in surprising detail.

Beetle diversityis astonising and beautiful (Image Clarke Thompson)

Beetle diversityis astonising and beautiful (Image Clarke Thompson)

Finally, like most insects, beetles are ectotherms (‘cold-blooded’). This means that their physiological, developmental and behavioural functions are all dependent on external temperature. Where they are able to live, and how successfully they are able to feed and reproduce is tightly controlled by local climatic conditions. Many species have a specific range of climatic conditions in which they will live, which we call their ‘climatic range’ or ‘envelope’. And for those of us interested in past climates, this is very useful.

By combining the ‘climatic ranges’ of different species found together as fossils, the overlap between these ranges (think of it like a climatic Venn diagram) provides a very accurate estimate of climatic conditions in the past. This is called the ‘mutual climatic range’ method, or MCR for short.

How the mutual climatic range (MCR) method of reconstructing past climates works. (Image by the author, after Elias 2010)

How the mutual climatic range (MCR) method of reconstructing past climates works. (Image by the author, after Elias 2010)

When we study the full array of beetles from an ancient deposit, we can build a remarkably complete picture of the local environment, accounting for both ecology and climate. Beetles have been, and continue to be, used to great effect in this way! They tell us how cold it was during glacial periods (when species now found only in Siberia and Tibet lived in Britain!), and how warm it was during interglacials. They help us to understand ancient forests, how they developed and the extent of human influence. When extracted from archaeological sites, these insects can even tell us about the day-to-day lives of our ancestors.

As part of my PhD research, I am investigating the ecology of the West Runton Freshwater Bed, in Norfolk. This was deposited around 600,000 to 700,000 years ago in an ancient wetland, and is known for its impressive and diverse megafauna, including the famous West Runton Mammoth. By studying the beetles from this deposit, along with fossil pollen and fungal spores, I am developing a detailed picture of the local environment. This includes reconstructing the ancient climate and landscape, how these changed through time and the processes driving those changes.

It’s amazing what bits of old, dead beetles can tell us about the past!

Written by Francis Rowney

Edited by Jan Freedman (@JanFreedman)

Francis Rowney is a PhD researcher at Plymouth University, studying the climates and ecology of Middle Pleistocene interglacials using a combination of beetles, pollen and fungal spores. He is supervised by Dr Nicki Whitehouse (Plymouth), Dr Ralph Fyfe (Plymouth) and Professor Danielle Schreve (Royal Holloway, University of London).

Further Reading

Coope GR (2000). ‘Coleoptera from Beeston and West Runton, Norfolk’. In Lewis SG, Whiteman CA

Preece RC (eds.) The Quaternary of Norfolk & Suffolk. Quaternary Research Association, London. pp

73-76. [Book]

Coope GR (2010). ‘Coleopteran faunas as indicators of interglacial climates in central and southern England’. Quaternary Science Reviews 29: 1507-1514. [Abstract only]

Coope GR, Shotton FW, Strachan I, Dance SP (1961). ‘A Late Pleistocene Fauna and Flora from Upton Warren, Worcestershire’. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 244(714): 379-421. [Abstract only]

Elias SA (2010). Advances in Quaternary Entomology (Developments in Quaternary Science 12). Elsevier, Amsterdam. [Book]

Olsson F, Lemdahl G (2010). ‘A forest history for the last 10 900 years at the site Storasjö, southern Sweden: implications from beetle assemblages’. Journal of Quaternary Science 25(8): 1211-1221. [Abstract only]

Scudder SH (1895). ‘The Coleoptera hitherto found fossil in Canada’. Geologic Survey of Canada Contribution to Canadian Palaeontology 2: 27-56

Scudder SH (1900). ‘Canadian fossil insects’. Geologic Survey of Canada Contribution to Canadian Palaeontology 2: 67-92

Whitehouse NJ (2006). ‘The Holocene British and Irish ancient forest fossil beetle fauna: implications for forest history, biodiversity and faunal colonisation’. Quaternary Science Reviews 25: 1755-1789. [Abstract only]

Whitehouse NJ, Smith D (2010). ‘How fragmented was the British Holocene wildwood? Perspectives on the “Vera” grazing debate from the fossil beetle record’. Quaternary Science Reviews 29: 539-553. [Abstract only]

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 4 Comments

In Patagonia

Patagonia. The name conjures up exotic windswept plains, adventure, and danger. A by-word for a region as foreign as Timbuktu. This remote section of Argentina and Chile holds many mysteries. In the south, Tierra Del Fuego, the legendary land of fire, where Darwin and Fitzroy spent time mapping and theorising on the Beagle’s long voyage. To the north, the extensive pampas and fertile grassland. Patagonia is a hard land, now home only to a few species: the rhea, the puma, some rodents, occasional guanacos. How different things were in the Pleistocene! Then, Patagonia had giant sloths, hippidiform horses, macrauchenia, giant jaguars, sabretooth cats, short-faced bears, native foxes, giant rodents, and other extinct species. It was essentially a uniquely South American Serengeti: a fully functioning ecosystem with megafauna, mesofauna, and microfauna.


Cueva del Milodon (Mylodon Cave), site of spectacular discoveries of extinct megafauna in the region of Ultima Esperanza, Patagonia, Chile. Here have been found the complete skin of the ground sloth Mylodon darwinii, along with bones of Smilodon, Arctotherium, Hippidion, and other mammals. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Dan Lundberg)

In new research, an incredible cross-disciplinary scientific analysis using genetics, radiocarbon dating, and modelling has investigated Patagonian megafauna. Here in the cold southern reaches, fantastic preservation, equal to that of the Siberian permafrost has allowed new insights to be made into the extinction of the Pleistocene giants. Researchers (myself included) looked at the phylogeny of the megafauna, and when they went extinct. Two big surprises resulted from this work.

Firstly, many of the populations that went extinct were actually completely distinct from their modern day congeners. The Patagonian guanacos, jaguars, and pumas were genetically separate from the animals found in South America today. For the guanaco and jaguar, the extinct Patagonian populations were probably at least on the level of subspecifically distinct. Cryptic extinctions of unique evolutionary lineages have been missed by just looking at the bones. Only when examining the DNA can we see how distinct populations have suffered the same fate as the other megafauna.


Life-sized model of Mylodon darwinii at the mouth of Mylodon cave. Image, author’s own

The second surprise came when modelling the radiocarbon data against the known appearance of humans in southern South America. Thanks to iconic sites like Monte Verde, and a vigorous archaeological record spanning the late Pleistocene to Holocene, we have a pretty good idea of when people made it to the lowest latitudes. Sophisticated Bayesian models were used to compare extinction dates (last appearance dates) for the megafauna and first appearance dates for humans. The result was a surprise. Humans and megafauna overlapped for at least a thousand years (perhaps even more than two thousand) before there was any sign of extinction. However, the extinction of multiple megafaunal species did appear to cluster together around 12,300 calibrated years BP. Looking at climate data from the same time period, we saw that this coincided with a distinct warming period. As this warming reached its peak, the megafauna all disappeared.


Some of the soft tissue preserved from Mylodon cave, including claws, dung, and skin. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Ghedoghedo)

Our conclusions from this wide study were that its not as simple as the “Blitzkrieg” model, where humans move into a region and the large animals go extinct within a few decades. In Patagonia, there appears to have been a synergistic interplay between human hunting and climatic conditions. If humans had not been around, the megafauna may have survived the stresses and upheavals of oscillations between warming and cooling as they had done for aeons previously. However, the combination of human hunting and then climate together proved too much for them to cope with.

Selection of Smilodon populator bones from Mylodon Cave. Image, author's own.

Selection of Smilodon populator bones from Mylodon Cave. (Image, author’s own)

Written by Ross Barnett (@DeepFriedDNA)

Other members of the team on Twitter are Dr Jessica Metcalf (@DirtySci), Dr Sarah Bray (@DrSarahBray), Dr Julia Vilstrup (@JuliaVilstrup), Prof. Ludovic Orlando (@LudovicLorlando), Dr Jeremy Austin (@DNATimeLord)

Further Reading:

Metcalf, J. L., R. Barnett, C. S. M. Turney, F. Martin, S. C. E. Bray, Julia T. Vilstrup, L. Orlando, et al. “Synergistic Roles of Climate Warming and Human Occupation in Patagonian Megafaunal Extinctions During the Last Deglaciation.” Science Advances in press (2016).[Full Text]

Does the Ground Sloth Still Survive in South America?

Borrero, L. A., and F. M. Martin. “Taphonomic Observations on Ground Sloth Bone and Dung from Cueva Del Milodon, Ultima Esperanza, Chile: 100 Years of Research History.” Quaternary International (2012).[Full Text]

Dillehay, T. D. “The Late Pleistocene Cultures of South America.” Evolutionary Anthropology (1999): 206-16.[Full Text]

Heusser, C. J., L. A. Borrero, and J. L. Lanata. “Late Glacial Vegetation at Cueva Del Mylodon.” Anales del Instituto de la Patagonia 21 (1994): 97-102.

Lönnberg, E. “On a Remarkable Piece of Skin from Cueva Eberhardt, Last Hope Inlet, Patagonia.” Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London (1900): 379-84.

———. “On Some Remains of “Neomylodon Listai” Ameghino Brought Home by the Swedish Expedition to Tierra Del Fuego 1896.” In Svenska Expeditionen Magellansländerna, 149-70, 1896.

Moreno, F. P., and A. S. Woodward. “On a Portion of Mammalian Skin Named Neomylodon Listai, from a Cavern near Consuelo Cove, Last Hope Inlet, Patagonia.”. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 5 (1899): 144-56.[Abstract]

Salmi, M. “Additional Information on the Findings in the Mylodon Cave at Ultima Esperanza.” Acta Geographica 14, no. 19 (1955): 313-33.

Woodward, A. S. “On Some Remains of Grypotherium (Neomylodon) Listai and Associated Mammals from a Cavern near Consuelo Cove, Last Hope Inlet, Patagonia.” Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 5 (1900): 64-79.[Abstract]


Posted in Extinction, Ground Sloth, Horse, Macrauchenia, Sabre tooth Cat, Short Faced Bear | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? A true story of the real Palaeolithic diet!

Food Warning: This blog contains (research by people who are) nuts (about ancient animals and peoples).

How do you eat an elephant?  The old motivational question is answered by ‘one bite at a time’. The same thing could perhaps be said about mammoths, and any other sort of well-preserved Pleistocene flesh. Here in Twilight Beasts Halls, we search news sources for strange tales of creatures long gone, for your reading pleasure, and often our own amusement too, if the truth be known!  Earlier this year, there was a newspaper article, stating that wealthy adventurers of the 1950s Explorers Club of New York were pretty well ripped off by the Roosevelt Hotel, who served sea turtle and claimed it was 250,000 year old woolly mammoth and/or Megatherium prime rump steak. In that instance, no megafauna made it to the dinner table, but there have been other cases where modern humans have consumed frozen Pleistocene creatures, retrieved from icy landscapes.

Inside the Explorers Club, where members paid far too much money to eat sea turtle, believing it to be mammoth and megatherium! Image from businessinsider.co.id

Inside the Explorers Club, where members paid far too much money to eat sea turtle, believing it to be mammoth and megatherium! Image from businessinsider.co.id

When I was researching our blog post on bison, I remembered reading how the palaeontologist who had found Blue Babe, the famous, wonderfully preserved 36,000 year old Yukon bison, had made a stew of some parts. When we aren’t manning social media, we do have chats with friends, and this had led to some entertaining chats off-line with Ruth Carden, ChristyAnn Darwent and Kelly Eldridge, all well-established Friends of the Beasts on Twitter! It was whispered by the two latter scientists that they knew colleagues who had actually eaten Ice Age meat. What on earth would it be like to eat meat that old, we wondered? Would it be horrifically ‘off’? Or just plain leathery and inedible? And did the Glacial Maximum gourmets survive their experiences, or did they … well…. have to sit on the loo for a very, very long time the next day? Here at Twilight Beasts we ask the questions other blogs are too afraid to! The wonderful Kelly and Chris made a point of contacting one of the few people who can say they most certainly have been on a (brief) Palaeolithic diet – and survived!

The following story is thanks to both Kelly and Chris. Names have been omitted where requested to protect the innocent… and the guilty!

The incredible body of Blue Babe. (Image by

The incredible body of 36,000 year old Blue Babe on display at the University of Alaska Museum of the North in Fairbanks. (Image by Brent Rostad. Public Domain)

Dr David Yesner is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Alaska Anchorage, and had met Mr X (as we shall call him) at the 3rd International Mammoth Conference, held in Dawson City, Yukon Territory, Canada, in 2003. Yesner was delighted to meet and converse with a fellow enthusiast of circumpolar megafauna, especially one who was as passionate and knowledgeable on the topic as Mr X. They kept in touch after the conference, until in 2011 they met up again, after Yesner was called to sit on two PhD defence committees in Europe.

Shortly after discharging his duties on the defense committees, Yesner found himself visiting Mr X at his house, which was crammed full of what is probably the largest private collection of mammoth remains in the world. Mr X has been collecting for more than forty years, and boasts an impressive assortment of materials (as well as an incredibly understanding spouse). A tour of the collection was followed by a home-cooked meal; during after-dinner drinks, the gentleman asked Yesner if he wanted to try some mammoth. As you do. “I just happen to have a piece of the Jarkov Mammoth sitting in my freezer,” he said.

The Jarkov Mammoth, in its ice cavern, preserved for the future. Image from sentinelles.liberation.fr

The Jarkov Mammoth, in its ice cavern, preserved for the future.
Image from sentinelles.liberation.fr

Now, you may have heard of the Jarkov Mammoth. This completely intact 18,000 year-old Mammuthus primigenus specimen, found by a young boy while out hunting on the Taymyr Peninsula in 1997, was blocked-out and airlifted to an ice cave in 1999, where it was slowly thawed out by researchers. Sitting at a kitchen table 5000 km and 12 years removed from its original resting place, Yesner consumed a small piece of its raw, frozen flesh.

“It melted in my mouth, but was very chewy,” he reminisced. “Imagine the worst freezer-burned meat you’ve ever eaten in your life.” Later that evening, Yesner also tried frozen marrow, scooped out of a mammoth bone that had been dredged up from somewhere in the North Sea. He said it tasted much better than the Jarkov meat; apparently gelatinous marrow doesn’t freezer-burn easily, no matter how many thousands of years old it is.

             Image taken from https://www.spreadshirt.com/mammoths+t-shirts – yes, you                can actually buy tee shirts for mammoth meals!


Yesner – and Mr X – join an exclusive club of palaeontologists who have put their money where their mouth is (literally) and consumed ancient meat. Charles Darwin may have sampled every species he wrote of, but in April 1984 Dr Dale Guthrie cooked up and ate part of the iconic frozen bison Blue Babe, stating that  “A small part of the mummy’s neck was diced and simmered in a pot of stock and vegetables. We had Blue Babe for dinner. The meat was well aged but still a little tough, and it gave the stew a strong Pleistocene aroma, but nobody there would have dared miss it”.

One of the participants, Björn Kurten added that none of the dozen or so scientists who shared the stew suffered any ill-effects from it, which if anything really made me realise how intensely cold the Ice Age actually was. The temperatures of the Pleistocene were cold enough to deep-freeze this bison so well that there were still traces of coagulated blood within the fatal wounds, which were inflicted by the claws of a cave Lion (Panthera spelaea). Place yourself in the mind-set of  surviving every day in those conditions, where if you paused too long you’d freeze; imagine the courage of the ancients to go out hunting in that kind of coldness. Understanding that tenacity and talent for survival, I found myself filled with a new admiration for H. sapiens and H. neanderthalensis alike.

Now, I’m not a meat eater, and haven’t been for many years, but some odd part of me envied those paleontologists who shared a big hearty stew of ancient bison or mammoth in the culinary footsteps of the peoples of the Ice Age, and how it must have felt, sitting down to the table with the shadow of our ancestors cast over the pot. Nigella and Gordon – eat your hearts out!


Written by: Rena Maguire @justrena and @ossiferous_ak

With added spice from @RuthFCarden and @cmdarwent

Further reading:

Turtle stew instead of mammoths! Read about it here.

Blue Babe: A messenger from the Ice Age. Here.

Guthrie, R.D., (1988). Blue Babe: the story of a steppe bison mummy from Ice Age Alaska. Alaska UA Museum. [Book]

Mol, D., Coppens, Y., Tikhonov, A.N., Agenbroad, L.D., MacPhee, R.D.E., Flemming, C., Greenwood, A., Buigues, B., De Marliave, C., Van Geel, B. and Van Reenen, G.B.A., 2001, ‘The Jarkov mammoth: 20,000-year-old carcass of a Siberian woolly mammoth Mammuthus primigenius (Blumenbach, 1799)’. In Proceedings of the 1st International Congress’ The World of Elephants ‘(Roma) pp. 305-309 .  [Full article]

Posted in Bison, Woolly Mammoth | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments