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Australia Science

Ancient Cave Art May Depict Giant Bird Extinct For 40,000 Years 137

Posted by Soulskill
from the was-its-best-friend-a-wooly-mammoth dept.
grrlscientist writes "Recently studied Australian Aboriginal rock art may depict a giant bird that is thought to have become extinct some 40,000 years ago, thereby making it the oldest rock painting on the island continent. The red ochre drawing was first discovered two years ago, but archaeologists were only able to confirm the finding two weeks ago, when they first visited the remote site on the Arnhem Land plateau in north Australia. 'Genyornis was a giant flightless bird that was taller and heavier than either the ostrich or emu. It had powerful legs and tiny wings, and probably closely resembled ducks and geese, its closest living relatives. ... Interestingly, Genyornis bones have been excavated in association with human artifacts in Cuddie Springs in the Australian state of New South Wales. It is likely that humans lived alongside these birds, and some scientists think that humans may have contributed to their extinction." Jamie recalled that in the essay "A Lesson from the Old Masters," in the volume Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms, Stephen Jay Gould thanks our ancestors who drew Irish Elk on cave walls for "providing the only possible evidence for a hump that would otherwise have disappeared into the maw of lost history."
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Ancient Cave Art May Depict Giant Bird Extinct For 40,000 Years

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  • by nurb432 (527695) on Monday May 31, 2010 @02:34PM (#32409124) Homepage Journal

    Do we always have to blame man?

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by ZERO1ZERO (948669)
      It's OK! Some scientists think that humans may NOT have contributed to their extinction.

      There tha's better.

    • by maugle (1369813) on Monday May 31, 2010 @02:41PM (#32409192)
      OK, you're part of some primitive tribe living in the same area as a bunch of giant, flightless, and probably very tasty birds. Wouldn't you prefer hunting those huge birds instead of smaller animals that are more difficult to catch?

      Since they didn't have any concept of "sustainability", it's very easy to imagine those humans contributing to the birds' extinction.
      • OK, you're part of some primitive wolfpack living in the same area as a bunch of giant, flightless, and probably very tasty birds. Wouldn't you prefer hunting those huge birds instead of smaller animals that are more difficult to catch?

        Since they didn't have any concept of "sustainability", it's very easy to imagine those wolves contributing to the birds' extinction.

        • by RockDoctor (15477)

          Since they didn't have any concept of "sustainability", it's very easy to imagine those wolves contributing to the birds' extinction.

          The point is that there isn't any evidence of a dramatic increase in the population of wolves (or dingos, or marsupial lions, or whatever) coincident with the extinction of the Genyornis, while there is evidence of the human population increasing infinite-fold (from zero to a positive integer) at about the right time.
          This is all subject to uncertainty of dating - but the appea

    • by v1 (525388) on Monday May 31, 2010 @03:16PM (#32409474) Homepage Journal

      and some scientists think that humans may have contributed to their extinction."

      Well for starters, imagine the omlets you could get from that thing! Eggs were a primary food source for almost every hunter-gatherer society back in those times. It certainly wouldn't be the only example of man hunting a species to extinction.

      Australia is an isolated continent, and as such it works almost like an island, with a very fragile, mutually-dependent ecosystem. If you want to get more abstract with this, one could even say that man was responsible for their extinction yet never hunted them or their eggs... maybe man for some reason hunted some specific lizard to extinction, which also happened to be their primary food source? Weird subtle interactions like that can occur on islands.

      Man is good at causing these sorts of problems because as a species he's very organized. If Grok figures out that those eggs are easy to find and good eating, it doesn't take 25 generations of evolution to breed "nest hunting" behavior into the village. It takes a few months locally, maybe a few years across the entire area. Other species just can't adapt to something that fast. I don't think it's proper to "blame man" for this, it's just the next advancement in evolution. But it is unfortunate. And I think it's something that we just need to understand and accept at some level. Particularly for our behavior in the past when these subtle yet potent interactions weren't understood or respected.

      • Australia is an isolated continent, and as such it works almost like an island

        Australia is an island.

        • by v1 (525388)

          Island: any piece of sub-continental land that is surrounded by water.

          So, antarctica, asia, japan, iceland, see, they're ALL islands by the broader definition. Technically, if you had even a small lake on the moon, everything else, all the other land, would be an "island". But then we get into "what's a continent?" Most agree that australia is a continent, so I suppose that knocks it out of the running for islandness.

          By most common discussion though, japan is about the largest landmass still considered a

          • Japan is about the largest landmass still considered an "island"


            Madagascar is not talking to you as of today...
            • Actually, Greenland is the holder of the title of worlds largest island.. Just saying...
              • correct, my argument was that Japan is not the largest landmass considered to be an island, Madagascar springs to mind as one that is much larger, though not necessarily 'the' largest.I think that new Zealand would beat Japan for that matter
          • ABout is right: Japan is an archipelago, not a single island.

            Its total land area is less than that of Greenland, New Guinea, Borneo, Madagasgar, Baffin Island, or Sumatra.

            It is pretty big, with the biggest island slightly bigger than Britain (with close to twice the population)

      • as such it works almost like an island..


        but..., but..., never mind!
      • A documentary I watched a few years ago suggested the most likely scenario was that the aboriginal practice of regularly burning off the countryside changed the flora to the point the mega fauna couldn't survive. Coprolites indicate a major change in the birds diet, just as they were disappearing.

        So, given the current state of evidence, the most likely reason for the mega fauna extinction in Australia isn't hunting, but destruction of the environment. The more things change the more they stay the same :-/

      • If Grok figures out that those eggs are easy to find and good eating, it doesn't take 25 generations of evolution to breed "nest hunting" behavior into the village. It takes a few months locally, maybe a few years across the entire area.

        Yes but it could take half the season on CBS's Survivor [cbs.com]...

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by shermo (1284310)

      We know the Maoris did the same to the Moa in New Zealand, and there seem to be a lot of similarities here.

    • by thePig (964303)

      One major reason why the blame is on man is that these species did not co-evolve with man.
      By the time humans reached say Australia, they were already very intelligent and were the apex predator of all the habitats he encountered, due to organisation, fire and tools.
      Since they did not co-evolve, these birds which were not afraid of humans since they have not seen humans before. Thus, they became easy prey to humans before they could evolve to learn fear for humans.
      Actually, humans are blamed for mega fauna e

      • A bit of trivia: The Tasmanian Aborigines were cut off from the mainland about 30kyr ago and did not know how to make fire.
        • by thePig (964303)

          Actually the leading theory suggests that they did have the knowledge of fire, but then lost it. Many other island cultures do show this behaviour - due to isolation.

    • Do we always have to blame man?

      It's not personal, there's no need for a guilt trip about climbing to the top of the food chain before agriculture was invented.

  • It tastes like chicken...hmm!

  • by BlackBloq (702158)
    There must most defiantly refer to the venerable Chocobo!I knew it wasn't just a game! Now where did they bury the huge swords?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chocobo
  • I like how they claim they can use the crayon scribbles to tell the difference between an emu and this Genyomis.

    From TFA:

    "Initially, we thought it was another big emu," said consulting archaeologist Ben Gunn, a founding member of the Australian Rock Art Research Association who was documenting the Niwarla Gabarnmung site for the Jawoyn Association.

    But then we figured, nah, its probably this big giant extinct bird instead...

    • Re:Crayola (Score:5, Insightful)

      by osu-neko (2604) on Monday May 31, 2010 @02:55PM (#32409308)

      But then we figured, nah, its probably this big giant extinct bird instead...

      Well, yes. When you find a picture that looks like a bird, but not quite like the emus you knew were around, you might think it's a badly drawn emu. But when you discover that the features that made you think it was badly drawn turn out to exactly match the features of some other species, you can (a) continue to assume it's a badly drawn emu that happens to, by remarkable coincidence, be badly drawn in just the right way to make it looks rather like some other species, or (b) you can now assume it's that other species.

      Occam's razor is better satisfied by assume it is what it most resembles, not a badly drawn something else, with the coincidence that the badly drawn features happen to match the features of something else.

      • Occam's razor is better satisfied by assume it is what it most resembles, not a badly drawn something else, with the coincidence that the badly drawn features happen to match the features of something else.

        But what if the artist was the first Picasso?

  • by Dragoniz3r (992309) on Monday May 31, 2010 @03:02PM (#32409352)
    So, we think the bird went extinct 40k years ago, so we're using that to date the painting as being that old? Does that seem backwards to anyone else? How about we date the painting, then maybe we can get a better estimate of exactly when these birds went extinct?
    • by PopeRatzo (965947) * on Monday May 31, 2010 @03:26PM (#32409596) Homepage Journal

      So, we think the bird went extinct 40k years ago, so we're using that to date the painting as being that old?

      Of course not. There could have been a 35000 year-old member of the tribe who painted the picture.

      There has been a steady stream of evidence for human civilization much much earlier than is currently accepted. If I were a betting man, I'd bet that in my lifetime, there's going to be a revision of just how old humanity really is. Since anthropologists went way out on a limb 100 years ago and tied their estimates for the beginnings of human civilization to some notion of biblical "history" they have been working very hard to protect themselves from any challenge. Any evidence for civilization going back 25,000 or 55,000 or 150,000 years is simply ignored as being an "outlier". It must be spurious, they say, because it does not fit with our current theories. If those theories were to fall, so would the doctoral dissertations and published manuscripts of hundreds and hundreds of highly respected members of their fraternity.

      Every so often, someone like, say, Michael Tellinger, or Robert Bauval, who is a member in good standing of the club, dares to present evidence suggesting that the current estimates of human origins are way off. Those people are quickly and efficiently made to not exist in the collective consciousness of anthropology. When it comes to dealing with people who challenge conventional wisdom, anthropologists can be practically Stalinist in the ruthless way they can forget formerly prestigious fellows ever existed.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        I find your assertions interesting, and would be gratified if you could supply a few links to support both the earlier origin hypothesis and the closed ranks of anthropologists. Not criticising, I'm genuinely interested.
        • here's one (Score:1, Informative)

          by Anonymous Coward
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by PopeRatzo (965947) *

          Well, unfortunately, if anthropologists closed ranks on someone, it's unlikely that they're still in the field. Usually the early origins model are killed in the crib, at the point of dissertation.

          When I did computer work for the Oriental Institute at the Univ of Chicago some years back, I encountered a professor who very quietly and very discreetly believed that human origins went back a lot further. He'd seen grad students do some amazing work in South West China with artifacts that just should not have

          • Hmm.. Hancock and Tellinger actually advocate someone else's theories while admitting they aren't professional archaeologists. If you are familiar with the fields of archaeology, ancient history, and anthropology or folklore or even psychology, their theories discredit themselves.

            It's one thing to suggest that pre-dynastic Egyptians might have been a bit more organized and ambitious than generally known, and that they should be credit with the foundations of more than a few ancient Egyptian monuments and te

            • by PopeRatzo (965947) *

              Hancock and Tellinger actually advocate someone else's theories while admitting they aren't professional archaeologists.

              Do you have any idea how much archaeology has been done by "amateurs"?

              Most of it.

              I regard with suspicion any theory of civilization's origins that amounts to replacing "God" with "space aliens"/"ancient Atlantean solons", and "Eden" with "Lost Atlantis", etc. I also regard with suspicion any theory of civilization that implies "humans are too stupid to figure out agriculture/writing/build

              • Actually, I would be interested in that if I ever get up to Chicago. The Oriental Institute's museum is one of the ones I want to see someday--I've an avid amateur (and writer's) interest in Egyptology and Assyriology (as they called it in the 19th century--it's Ancient Near Eastern Studies now, right?)

                I find it hard to believe that pre-dynastic Egyptian civilization is totally ignored, given Flinders Petrie's and others extensive excavations of the Naqada civilizations. There had to be something before Naq

      • Of course not. There could have been a 35000 year-old member of the tribe who painted the picture.

        Maybe there was an old photo they passed down through the generations? Or an engraving on a silver teapot.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      How about we date the painting

      I don't think it is easy, if even possible. Don't forget it was scribbled on a sheet of rock. The sheet was created by natural processes, so no use to date it. The ocher also is a mixture of natural material (clay and iron oxide) and I don't think there is a way to date its use either. So only some kind of adhesive to get the paint to stick to the rock might contain carbon which could be dated. But the amount is probably very small and can be contaminated (the paintings were ex

      • by jd (1658)

        Clay can be dated, but it depends on specific circumstances. Baked clay will absorb radiation at a fixed rate, which is then released on re-heating. (Thermoluminescence dating.) It also absorbs water at a deterministic rate but this relies on it being dry to start with. Sun-dried is fine.

      • Agree it's seems difficult to date a painting, the culture changes very slowly, the painting tells a story and when the artist paints the picture he does so by retelling the story at the same time. The original may have been repainted continiously for (ten's of) thousands of years.
    • by zerro (1820876) on Monday May 31, 2010 @03:57PM (#32409990)
      of course, if we RTFA, we note that they plan on doing just that "Further studies, such as radiocarbon dating of the paint, are planned."
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Dragoniz3r (992309)
        You must be new here :)
        • by jd (1658)

          So are you saying Slashdot readers are object-oriented? Otherwise, how would they be new rather than malloc()ed?

          • by Mr Z (6791)

            Six of one, half a dozen of the other...

            You can new non-objects, and (with "placement new") you can malloc objects!

            One things for sure, C and C++ code can never truly be freed. Have you ever tried that on a function pointer?

    • by wkcole (644783)

      So, we think the bird went extinct 40k years ago, so we're using that to date the painting as being that old? Does that seem backwards to anyone else?

      Probably, but that doesn't mean that it *IS* backwards.

      How about we date the painting, then maybe we can get a better estimate of exactly when these birds went extinct?

      RTFA, and the sources it cites.

      What is really interesting about this is the age of the rock art, which would seem to be as old as any human art anywhere and make the case for the Jawoyn Aborigines having one of the oldest cultures in the world. Dating rock art tends to be imprecise to the point of near impossibility in many cases, dating bird remains in the 40kya range is much less so. TFA states that there is a plan to attempt to 'radiocarbon' d

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by jd (1658)

        Usually, in such circumstances, there's a charcoal source that is connected to the art. But there are many forms of dating and I wouldn't trust the article to have been written with an exceptionally technical audience in mind. Creswell Crags' cave art was dated via the limestone deposited over the figures. Clay, under specific circumstances as I've listed elsewhere in the replies, can be dated. Anything exposed to cosmic rays can (in theory) be dated by the ratio of the isotopes. (Cosmic rays alter the nucl

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by bwilli123 (683409)

        What is really interesting about this is the age of the rock art, which would seem to be as old as any human art anywhere and make the case for the Jawoyn Aborigines having one of the oldest cultures in the world. .

        from the original article

        The Jawoyn people say they are excited the painting could be Australia's oldest dated rock art. The Jawoyn are a group of Indigenous peoples who are the traditional owners of the land in Australia's Northern Territory...

        What leads you to believe that as successive waves of humans entered Australia that the current occupants are in any way related to the painting's creators? Were the original inhabitants pushed further south,overrun,wiped out,walked to Tasmania? http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/05/070509161829.htm [sciencedaily.com]

        "At the time of the migration, 50,000 years ago, Australia and New Guinea were joined by a land bridge and the region was also only separated from the main Eurasian land mass by narrow straits such as Wallace's Line in Indonesia. The land bridge was submerged about 8,000 years ago...

        Given 30,000 years plus at the front door entrance to Australia I think the Jarwoyn are the least likely descendants of the original artists.

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by wkcole (644783)

          What is really interesting about this is the age of the rock art, which would seem to be as old as any human art anywhere and make the case for the Jawoyn Aborigines having one of the oldest cultures in the world. .

          from the original article

          The Jawoyn people say they are excited the painting could be Australia's oldest dated rock art. The Jawoyn are a group of Indigenous peoples who are the traditional owners of the land in Australia's Northern Territory...

          What leads you to believe that as successive waves of humans entered Australia that the current occupants are in any way related to the painting's creators? Were the original inhabitants pushed further south,overrun,wiped out,walked to Tasmania? http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/05/070509161829.htm [sciencedaily.com]

          "At the time of the migration, 50,000 years ago, Australia and New Guinea were joined by a land bridge and the region was also only separated from the main Eurasian land mass by narrow straits such as Wallace's Line in Indonesia. The land bridge was submerged about 8,000 years ago...

          Given 30,000 years plus at the front door entrance to Australia I think the Jarwoyn are the least likely descendants of the original artists.

          You seem to have stopped reading that article a paragraph ahead of the answer to your question. One of the key findings from that genetic tracing work is that unlike many other places, Australia had only one genetically significant wave of immigration. Geographically, I believe it is also not quite right that Arnhem Land was the 'front door' into Australia, since Cape York was the most persistent part of the connection to New Guinea.

          In addition, there is some continuity between essentially modern Jawoyn

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by dbIII (701233)
      Carbon dating on the implements used to mix the paint was used to get the age according to the news reports on the radio yesterday.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    It must be a surfin' bird!

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 31, 2010 @03:10PM (#32409416)
    Perhaps it's worth considering that Australia's neighbour, New Zealand, has had pretty much the largest flightless bird, at 12ft (~4m) high the Moa [wikipedia.org], hunted to extinction by the Maori. It's considered to be a cousin of the Australian Emu. Little need for wings with no mammals around for all those thousands of years..

    Relatedly NZ has had by far the world's largest eagle [wikipedia.org], often depicted in indigenous culture carrying away small humans (think "children").
  • by Spykk (823586) on Monday May 31, 2010 @03:11PM (#32409428)
    Who is to say that the descriptions of the bird were not passed down in legends? It seems entirely possible to me that the bird was painted after they had become extinct.
    • I drew a dinosaur - therefore they still exist Oo O Oooo O O O OO o o oo
      • I drew a dinosaur - therefore they still exist Oo O Oooo O O O OO o o oo

        Consider the implications of someone drawing a picture that showed Saturn (with rings) 1000 years ago.

        Of course, I'm sure you would have also invented all those 'obvious' inventions as well had you lived 200 years ago. Don't ignore the benefit of hindsight.

    • by ilguido (1704434)
      I think that there are better explanations for this paintings (like bad artists or bad science), however the Kafirs sculpted and engraved figurines of horses for centuries, without seeing a real horse. ( a quick reference for the sceptics: http://madamepickwickartblog.com/?p=9431 [madamepick...rtblog.com] )
    • by wkcole (644783) on Monday May 31, 2010 @08:26PM (#32412728)

      Who is to say that the descriptions of the bird were not passed down in legends? It seems entirely possible to me that the bird was painted after they had become extinct.

      The answer to precisely that question is in the article, lifted directly from one of its source articles.

      More generally, the surprise about the age of this rock art isn't a matter of a century or two, or even really a millennium or five. The paleontologists and archaeologists are saying 40kya, the rock art expert is saying 5-10kya. There are very few cultures in the world which are known to have postulated anything older than 10kya as the beginning of humankind, and those which have done so tell stories of old times that are far from accuracy or precision. Getting the beak, leg, and claw shapes of an extinct bird passed down correctly through 30ky+ would be an unrivaled feat of trivial fact preservation.

  • Whoa, no pictures! (Score:1, Insightful)

    by grub (11606)

    Please remove all pictures of the bird. The bird is a sacred animal to my religion. Any pictures of the bird will lead to a holy war of the Birdists again you infidels.
  • Midwest (Score:4, Informative)

    by DrugCheese (266151) on Monday May 31, 2010 @03:19PM (#32409516)

    I've read stories of American Indian culture talking about the giant birds in the midwest states. South of me here along the Mississippi near Alton Illinois there apparently used to be a giant painting of a bird on the side of a bluff near a cave. Unfortunately the bluff was destroyed by the nearby state prison for gravel.

    • Why does everybody think that really primitive people couldn't write science fiction?
      Maybe that drawing is the caveman equivalent of "Land of the lost".

      • by bogjobber (880402)
        Because they weren't painting Sleestaks, they were painting a bird that actually existed.
  • A cousin of the Moa? (Score:5, Informative)

    by delire (809063) on Monday May 31, 2010 @03:21PM (#32409538)
    Last post disappeared to /dev/null. Trying again.

    It's perhaps worth considering that Australia's neighbour New Zealand had what's probably the world's largest flightless bird at 4m tall (12ft) , the Moa [wikipedia.org]. Much like the Kiwi, it simply didn't need to keep wings as their were no mammals with which to compete. It was soon hunted to extinction by Maori settlers some 500 years ago. Of note it's considered to be a relative of the Australian Emu..

    While the rest of the bird kingdom in NZ devolved their wings, the world's biggest eagle, The Haast Eagle [wikipedia.org] enjoyed the easy life, often making short work of the Moa from time to time.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by bar-agent (698856)

      The terror bird [wikipedia.org] predated the Moa and Haast's Eagle by eras (or epochs, not sure). It was around during the Cenozoic and wide-spread. Although moas were bigger, the terror birds were a tougher customer. Instead of wings, they apparently had short arms tipped with a claw that they used to spear and hold on to their prey, and a meat-cleaver of a beak.

    • by saforrest (184929)


      While the rest of the bird kingdom in NZ devolved their wings, the world's biggest eagle, The Haast Eagle enjoyed the easy life, often making short work of the Moa from time to time.

      I read something once where a scientist was conjecturing about what the first interaction between a human and a Haast Eagle, a raptor adapted to carry off and eviscerate 2-meter tall bipeds, must have been like.

      [Proto-Maori guy stepping out of seafaring canoe]
      Wow, nice island. Hey, what the hell is that?

  • a Great Leonopteryx

  • Oh Crap! (Score:2, Funny)

    by zerospeaks (1467571)
    The young earth creationist are going to claim this one as "evidence" for a young earth.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Here's a stupid question: What if the drawing(s) are fiction?

  • by Anonymous Coward

    First off, the scientists *somehow* come up with the magic number of 40,000 and say that is how many years ago the birds died out. Then they find a painting on a wall that *could* be one of those birds, and they assume the painting must then be 40,000 years old. Usually, the rock gets it's age from what's in it, and the fossil gets it's age from the rock. This leaves me wondering why in all the world we're still stupid enough to treat our theories like they are proven fact, when most of us don't even kno

    • There there. Don't let those pesky scientists with their inconvenient "education" get you down.

      Back to church for you, you'll be much happier there.

  • by Psychotria (953670) on Monday May 31, 2010 @05:48PM (#32411358)

    Interestingly the drawing shown in the article looks remarkably like some drawings and descriptions of bunyips that I've seen and read about that the indigenous Australians described to colonial settlers (When I say some drawings I mean some of the earlier drawings post-colonisation. As time progressed after European settlement the drawings and descriptions seem to have diverged from the earlier descriptions). To me it does not seem too far fetched that remnants of this creature have been passed down through the generations eventually becoming myth or legend. So, have we found the bunyip?

  • Did Jesus ride a Genyornis? We don't know, but I bet he did!

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