When Tracking Early Humans Turns Up Massive Rats

East Timor forests
Forests in East Timor. Credit: Wikipedia

Meat’s meat, and an ancient man’s gotta eat. Archaeologists with The Australian National University (ANU) were trying to better understand when humans first moved through East Timor when they found something. The fossils of seven giant rat species.

You know how a picture is worth a thousand words?

giant rat fossil

The jaw bone on the right? That’s your typical modern rat. The one of the left is what archaeologists found. And, humans were eating them.

“They are what you would call mega-fauna. The biggest one is about five kilos, the size of a small dog,” says Dr. Julien Louys, who is helping lead the project. We’re going to need a bigger trap…

How does that stack up against a modern-day rat? A large rat today weighs about half a kilo according to Dr. Louys.

On second thought, we’re going to need a shotgun.

The earliest records of humans on East Timor are about 46,000 years ago. And archaeologists know they lived with the rats for thousands of years. “We know they’re eating the giant rats because we have found bones with cut and burn marks,” said Dr. Louys.

I’m usually not OK with species going extinct, but I don’t mind in this case. As for what happened? Like many species, technology was their downfall. The archaeologists believe the introduction of metal tools was the reason for their extinction. Natives were able to clear forests, and the rats’ habitat, much faster and at a larger scale.

Understanding humans’ trek to Australia

The project, called ‘From Sunda to Sahul: Understanding Modern Human Dispersal, Adaptation and Behavior en route to Australia,’ looks at how humans first traversed the islands of Southeast Asia. Archaeologists are trying to understand how they did it and what impacts they had on the local ecosystems.

What archaeologists learn about the past may help future conservation efforts.

“We’re trying to find the earliest human records as well as what was there before humans arrived,” Dr Louys said.

“Once we know what was there before humans got there, we see what type of impact they had.”

Featured image credit: Wikipedia

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