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Direct Dating and Physico-Chemical Analyses Cast Doubts on the Coexistence of Humans and Dwarf Hippos in Cyprus

by Myriam Méziou - published on , updated on

By Antoine Zazzo, Matthieu Lebon, Anita Quiles, Ina Reiche, Jean-Denis Vigne. Plos One, August 18, 2015.

In the Mediterranean, the island dwarf megafaunas became extinct around the end of the Pleistocene, during a period of rapid and global climate change. In Cyprus, this coincided with the first human presence on the island, as attested by the rock shelter of Akrotiri-Aetokremnos where an Epipaleolithic anthropogenic layer (stratum 2) was found overlying a massive accumulation of pygmy hippopotamus (Phanourios minor (Desmarest, 1822)) [Boekschoten and Sondaar, 1972] bones (stratum 4). The relationship between the two layers is highly controversial and the role played by humans in hippo extinction remains fiercely debated. Here, we provide new, direct radiocarbon and physico-chemical analyses on calcined bones which elucidates the complex depositional history of the assemblage. Bone turquoise was identified using micro-PIXE analysis and depth-profiling together with Vis spectroscopy, demonstrating that these bones were not freshly burned. Bayesian modeling of the radiocarbon dates indicates that stratum 4 accumulated during the first half of the 13th mill cal BP and that calcination occurred several hundred years later. We conclude that accumulation occurred naturally during the beginning of the Younger Dryas and that Epipalaeolithic visitors subsequently used the bones as fuel, starting from the mid-13th mill cal BP. At that time, dwarf hippos were probably already extinct or at least highly endangered. Our results shed new light on the possible causes of hippo extinction, on the subsequent introduction of the wild boar and on the earliest occupation of the island by humans.

Deux radio-ulnas d'hippopotame nain provenant du site d'Akrotiri-Aetokremnos.
Deux radio-ulnas d’hippopotame nain provenant du site d’Akrotiri-Aetokremnos.
A droite un os non brûlé. A gauche un os calciné montrant le phénomène de turquoise osseuse. La réduction de taille est liée à la chauffe.
Crédits : Jean-Denis Vigne.

Le blog de Nicolas Constant en parle : L’énigme du massacre des hippopotames nains

View online : Read the article, Plos One