Humans occupied Madagascar thousands of years later than previously thought

New evidence unearthed by archaeologists from The Australian National University (ANU) shows that modern humans colonised the island of Madagascar thousands of years later than previously thought.

Lead archaeologist Dr Atholl Anderson of the School of Culture, History & Language, said the findings could spur a rethink of the historical timeline for exploration and colonisation for islands in the Asia Pacific and Oceanic regions.

“Our findings show that the first human occupation in Madagascar occurred about 1,500 years ago, not four or five thousand years ago as some people claim,” Dr Anderson said.

The study re-examined evidence used to claim humans lived on the island as early as 5,000 to 10,000 years ago based on extinct animal bones said to be damaged by human activity.

The team also analysed more than 3,000 animal bones from new excavations using a scanning electron microscope with powerful magnification to look more closely at possible cut-marks resulting from butchery.

The bones were broken down into two groups, bones of animals that still live on the island, and bones from extinct species such as giant lemurs, giant tortoise and elephant birds.

“There were very clear cut marks made by stone or metal blades on the bones of species that are still living on the island, but we could hardly find any on the bones of the extinct species,” he said.

“The few that were identified were all on bones younger than 1500 years old. Most of the bone damage in both groups consisted of grooves and scratches characteristic of trampling and scavenging.”

Dr Anderson said the findings cast doubt on recent theories around when people first began maritime voyages across the Indian Ocean.

“If the settlement of Madagascar is quite late, some of the arguments made recently about trans-oceanic voyaging going back 4,000 years ago are unlikely to be valid,” he said.

“We think the voyaging involved in the colonisation of Madagascar came around the Oceanic perimeter from Southeast Asia rather than directly across the ocean.”

The research has been published in a paper appearing in the journal PLOS ONE and is available here: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal. pone.0204368

FOR INTERVIEW

Dr Atholl Anderson
ANU School of Culture, History & Language
T: +643 5705651
E: atholl.anderson@anu.edu.au

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