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Australia Science

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

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?

  • 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.
  • 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.

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

    by grub ( 11606 ) <slashdot@grub.net> on Monday May 31, 2010 @03:15PM (#32409460) Homepage Journal

    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.
  • 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.

  • 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.

  • by zippthorne ( 748122 ) on Monday May 31, 2010 @11:57PM (#32414390) Journal

    I've heard "gamey" used to describe all manner of meats (including Bison, of all things) which, once I've tried them, have turned out to be flavorful and delicious. I've come to the conclusion that "gamey" means "doesn't taste like bland chicken" thus putting it outside of the comfort zone of the McDonald's generation of "connoisseurs."

    Also, one of those animals, the pig, is certainly *not* an herbivore, and coincidentally is the second most delicious of the bunch. Undomesticated pigs, who are both not Herbivores, and actually have the diet to prove it, are even more delicious than the domesticated variety in this writer's opinion.

    Therefore I'm hard pressed to conclude, having never tried other predators, mammalian or fowl, that they would necessarily be less delicious than the animals I have heretofore consumed.

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