The Evolutionary History of Extinct and Living Lions

I’m fairly obsessed with cave lions. If one were to open up my head and look at my brain’s RAM it would be something like 70% facts about extinct species of cat, 20% stuff that my wife and kids tell me to remember, 10% background processing needed to survive. As someone who has always been drawn to obscure knowledge, being one of the perhaps dozen or so people on the planet who has an in-depth appreciation of a species that went extinct 14,000 years ago deeply appeals to me.

Cave lions were magnificent apex predators that somehow managed to share the landscape with Eurasian peoples for three hundred centuries. During that time we painted them, we sculpted them, we hunted them, and were hunted by them in turn. They were as native to Europe as modern lions are to Africa and India. That’s the line I’ve taken in my book [shameless plug] The Missing Lynx, and learning about Pleistocene megafauna has forever changed the way I think about what is “natural”.

Our new paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, PNAS (pronounced penis), is a massive collaborative effort that called on experts from the UK, USA, Spain, Denmark, China, Russia, Norway, Malaysia, Brazil, and Canada. The story starts way back in 2011. I was 31, with a 3 year old daughter and another on the way, and with friends in Copenhagen I used what little free time I still had left to write a Marie Curie grant application to look at the genomics of lions, with the idea of identifying genetic signals unique to the extinct North African Barbary lion. Project “Search for Innate Markers of Barbary Affinity”, or SIMBA for short, was envisioned as an international collaboration using my prior knowledge of lion genetics, the world-class facilities in Copenhagen for palaeogenomics, and the skills of experts in lion biology and genomic analysis to answer the question. Our collaborators had already assembled museum samples of lions from their complete natural range, including Pleistocene cave lions. I lived with my family in Copenhagen for two years with the sole aim of processing said lion samples and identifying the ones with the best preserved DNA to sequence more fully. At the end of that time we had produced genomic libraries from our best 14 samples: 1 cave lion from Siberia, 1 cave lion from the Yukon, 1 lion from Gabon, 1 lion from Sudan, 2 lions from Senegal, 1 lion from RSA, 2 extinct Cape lions, 3 extinct Barbary lions, 1 Iranian lion, and 1 Asian lion. For the first time we were able to use complete nuclear DNA, not just mitochondrial genomes to look at lion relationships. This was only supposed to be the first phase of Project SIMBA, with phase 2 being analysis of living zoo and menagerie individuals to screen for potential Barbary ancestry in the mix. As Barbary lions went extinct in the wild in the 1950s but were popular exhibits in even the first zoos of the post-medieval era, the possibility remains that some of our generic zoo lions could trace part of their ancestry back to North Africa. However, as things are wont to do, life got in the way of phase 2 of the project and it has taken nearly 9 years from start to finish of phase 1.

“Sultan” a Barbary lion in the New York Zoological Park in 1906. Public Domain Image.

A little bit of a detour into the nitty-gritty of actually “doing science”. It took months back in 2011 to put together the application case for why we should get funding and a 6-month wait to find out if we were successful. The money to fund this research for two years came from the European Union, before Brexit was anything more than a glint in Farage’s jaundiced eye. The ability to move freely from the UK to Denmark was crucial to this project, and can’t be overstated. This is the reality of doing science in the world today. It relies on international collaboration, free movement, and time to apply for funding. Getting money for research is insanely competitive and each year sees a drop in success rates. Many of the big sources of funding are only given to 5-10% of applicants. Each year, maybe 9 out of 10 grant applications are unsuccessful. Each one of these rejections represents the culmination of hundreds of hours of (usually unpaid) work and the dreams and aspirations of researchers who just want to do science. Even the successfully funded projects come with money for two or three years maximum work. Having to juggle doing the work you are paid (and desperately want) to do, while keeping an eye on the future is incredibly stressful. Most labs, even the great ones, are only one or two missed funding opportunities away from breaking up just from lack of money to cover their overheads. This was the case with my involvement in our study. After the requisite two years of funding I applied to a few funding agencies for more money for related projects with no success. I also applied for lecturing positions with the idea that teaching would still allow time to properly analyse and report on the data we had generated. From 2014 to 2017 I failed to secure anything that would fit the needs of our young family despite dozens of applications and a handful of interviews. In the meantime I took work delivering lecture content (on zero-hours contracts) at a university that declined to interview me for a permanent position teaching the same material. I worked for the excellent charity The Brilliant Club. I taught online courses for another university. I travelled 800km round trips to cover lectures at yet another university. Altogether trying to juggle the need to earn money, be the primary caregiver for our two children, and work on finishing SIMBA was just too much. Something had to give, and of course it was SIMBA and other academic work. It has taken a lot of personal reflection to come to terms with that decision. Despite this, since 2014 I’ve been an author on 24 peer-reviewed papers and reviews including 5 first author, and 2 last author works. I’ve not been idle!

All this is a long-winded way of saying I’ve found that working in science is hard, and many obstacles are put in the way for people that want to do it but have other responsibilities too. It’s taken me a lot of time and mental effort to reconcile this with my own needs and to make peace with the fact that for as long as academia continues to be an insecure career that requires its practitioners to uproot everything every 2-3 years, I don’t want to be part of it. I’m a good scientist, but a poor academic.

Back to the paper. My involvement consisted of countless hours in sterile clean rooms, suited and booted against contamination to extract and amplify DNA from museum samples and permafrost subfossils. The real meat of the work was done by collaborators who analysed the gigabase dataset of lion genomes I helped generate to test our assumptions about lion evolution. While I was flailing around outside of academia, joint first author Marc de Manuel really took the reins and steered the project towards completion. Collaborators in the USA and China gave invaluable access to present-day lion genomes and sequencing facilities to extend the reach of the study. In particular, access to high quality genomes from modern lions from India, Botswana, and Tanzania allowed us to anchor our samples to the surviving modern diversity.

Underneath all that PPE it really is me, about to work on some ancient lion DNA in the Copenhagen clean labs. Image © Ross Barnett

Our study’s conclusions are threefold. First of all we get a very detailed and precise handle on the timing of the separation of cave lions and the ancestors of modern lions. This appears to happen around about half a million years ago and tallies remarkably well with the fossil evidence and appearance of the ancestral cave lion (Panthera leo fossilis) in the bone records of Europe.

Secondly, we applied some pretty complex analyses to the question of whether there is evidence of cave lions and the ancestors of modern lions ever interbreeding. We know from detailed genomic analyses of the other big cats that hybridisation has been rife in the prehistoric past. Jaguar and lion. Lion and tiger. Snow leopard and lion. Mass hysteria!

So given that species with quite different behavioural cues had hybridised it made sense to look at whether cave lions and lions ever interbred after they split. Especially when there were known regions of potential overlap in southwestern Eurasia. Surprisingly, we didn’t find any evidence at all of hybridisation between cave lions and modern lions. This is in sharp contrast to the different lineages of modern lion that we identified. The deepest split, occurring 70,000 years ago, is between lions from West Africa, North Africa and Asia and those from the rest of Africa. This likely represents the influence of central rainforest expansion during the Pleistocene cutting off the west and north of the continent from the rest of the population since lions cannot hunt in densely forested areas. Within these lineages we found evidence of interbreeding: lions from central Africa show mixing between lions from northern African and southern African populations. More weirdly, Asian lions seem to show signs of having mixed with southern African lions. Perhaps as a result of now flooded connections along a southern dispersal route through the Arabian peninsula.

Thirdly, we get an excellent handle on diversity levels within different populations. We found the Indian lion to have incredibly low levels of genetic diversity, reflecting their long history of human persecution and a bottleneck to historic levels of <50 individuals within the past century. Interestingly, we don’t identify any signal of low diversity levels in either the extinct cave lion or extinct Barbary lion, suggesting that they were doing quite well before we came along.

Phylogeny of modern and ancient lions based on their nuclear genomes, showing separation between different lineages.

Thanks to the incredible analyses of my colleague Marc de Manuel and our coauthors we’ve managed to pull together the first paper that has genomes from not one but four different extinct lion groups: the cave lion, the middle eastern lion, the Cape lion, and the Barbary lion. I think I can stop thinking about lions for a while at least.


Written by Ross Barnett (@DeepFriedDNA)

Further Reading:

de Manuel, M., R. Barnett, M. Sandoval-Velasco, N. Yamaguchi, F. G. Vieira, M. L. Zepeda Mendoza, S. Liu, M. D. Martin, M. H. S. Sinding, S. S. T. Mak, C. Carøe, S. Liu, C. Guo, J. Zheng, G. Zazula, G. Baryshnikov, E. Eizirik, K. P. Koepfli, W. E. Johnson, A. Antunes, T. Sicheritz-Ponten, S. Gopalakrishnan, G. Larson, H. Yang, S. J. O’Brien, A. J. Hansen, G. Zhang, T. Marques-Bonet, and M. T. P. Gilbert. 2020. “The evolutionary history of extinct and living lions.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. [Full Text]

Posted in American Lion, Cave Lion, DNA, Homo sapiens | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 18 Comments

America’s Ass

If you saw Avengers: Endgame, then you probably talked about it with your friends afterwards. The story. The action. The loss. And the ass. Yes. That ass.

Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) comments on Captain America’s old suit, saying it does nothing for his derriere. A bit of a harsh comment. Fortunately, Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), has Captain America’s back(side), and jumps in with “As far as I’m concerned, that’s America’s ass.” A few scenes later and Captain America (Chris Evans), has a close fight with himself from the past, and wins. Before walking off, he looks at himself, and says “That is America’s ass.”

If you haven’t seen Avengers: Endgame, then that probably sounds like the strangest paragraph you have ever read. Quite understandable. Iron Man. Ant-Man. Captain America fighting himself. But, it’s a little nod of appreciation. It is a fine ass. (If you have seen it, then no doubt that you agree.) And it does link (almost) to this wonderful Pleistocene beast, so forgive the odd introduction.

Captain America (Chris Evans) commenting on his own rear end.

In the beautiful tropical rainforests of North America, 52 million years ago, we see evidence of the very first horses. Much smaller than today’s familiar species, the dawn horse, Eohippus, was tiny – about the size of a wolf. Eohippus had four toes (horses today move on one toe), and would have been quite fast moving through the thick vegetation. This little beast spread far from North America through to Europe, and many different species evolved from isolated populations.

Horses were a hugely diverse group, with numerous species around from 52 million years ago until just a few thousand years ago. North America had several species trotting across the landscape, whilst South America had none. For over 30 million years, South America was an isolated, drifting landmass. It’s own unique flora and fauna evolved here (including sloths and armadillos). South America was slowly drifting northwards towards North America, and around 2.8 million years ago underwater volcanoes and sediment build up created a link to the two huge landmasses. This new link allowed animals from North America to move into South America, and vice-versa.

The Great American Interchange: the animals in blue had moved from North America into South America; the animals in green had moved from South America into North America. (Image Public Domain)

Several species of horse travelled down into South America, with one species evolving that links to our slightly unusual introduction.

As species moved between the landmasses, some became isolated from other populations, and evolved into new species. In South America an unusual horse evolved, Hippidion devillei. As ever with the naming of extinct species, there is some debate. Some researchers prefer to place it in the genus Onohippidium. The distinction? A small indent in their snout indicating a different genus. Those in the Hippidion camp argue that this is too small and variable to warrant a whole different genus. And the debate continues.

Hippidion or Onohippidium, this horse evolved around 2.5 million years ago in South America. Fossils found at Tarija, in Bolivia, indicate that the short legs were adapted to living on hilly environments, rather than open plains. It was also pretty distinct from other horses around. With shorter legs, it looked more like an ass* than a horse. It had a very elongated nasal bone, which hints at a prehensile lip for feeding on trees and shrubs.

America’s ass, Hippidion, with it’s short, stocky legs, and prehensile upper lip. (Image Twilight Beasts)

Eagle eyes readers, who still have America’s ass on their minds (I don’t blame you), will be wondering why I tenuously linked Captain America’s derriere to a horse that evolved in South America. It wouldn’t have worked, but (fortunately I get to keep the introduction), some populations of Hippidion devillei did move north, into the Americas. Fossils have been discovered in California, so this wonderful little ass-like horse, was America’s first ass.

Fossils recovered from sites in South and North America are not very common, suggesting that this species was not as abundant as other species found. This little animal vanished just 8.000 years ago. It’s not a simple story of how. Cut marks have been found on some fossils, showing that humans butchered them – and possibly hunted them. It also seems Hippidion wasn’t around in very large numbers, and the climate was changing which would have affected the already small populations.

Dozens of species of horse galloped, trotted, and scurried, in the northern hemisphere for over 50 million years. Today, there are just 7 species surviving (1 horse, 3 donkeys, and 3 zebra), none of which are native to the Americas where they originated from. Hippidion wasn’t strictly an ass, but it wasn’t far off. It was closely related to modern day horses. It looked like an ass. A mighty fine ass.

Written by Jan Freedman (@JanFreedman)

*Horse is an interesting noun because it generally describes any animal in the Equidae family. It’s a common name, not a scientific name. Any extinct species in this family, we will call it a horse. Common names to animals are given by people to identify them in their local environment. (A ladybird in England, is a ladybug in American. A plant species can have several different common names depending on where you live.) The scientific name tells us what species it is. The surviving members of the horse family have common names, quite simply because they have been around for people to name them: horse, zebra, and donkey. Donkeys, or asses, are in the same genus as horses around today. So, when describing extinct species, we use modern equivalents to compare them too. Hippidion and all the other extinct ‘horses’ don’t have a common name. It wasn’t a donkey. But it also wasn’t a horse. It did, however, look like an ass.

Further reading:

Alberdi, M. T., & Prieto, A. (2000). ‘Hippidion (Mammalia, Perissodactyla) de las Ceuevas de las provincias de Magallanes y Tierra de Fuego.’ Anales Instituto Patagonia, Serie Cs. Hs. (Chilie). 28. pp.147-171. [Full article]

Der Sarkissian, C., et al. (2015). ‘Mitochondrial genomes reveal the extinct Hippidion as an outgroup to all living equids.’ Biological Letters. 11. 20141058

Croft, D. A. (2016). Horned Armadillos and Rafting Monkeys. Indiana University Press. [Book]

Macfadden, B. J. (2010). ‘Pleistocene horses from Tarija, Bolivia, and validity of the genus Onohippidium (Mammalia: Equidae).’ Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. 17 (1). pp.199-218. [Abstract only]

MacFadden BJ (2013) ‘Dispersal of Pleistocene Equus (Family Equidae) into South America and Calibration of GABI 3 Based on Evidence from Tarija, Bolivia’. PLoS ONE 8(3): e59277. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0059277

MacFadden, B. J., & Shockey, B. J. (1997). ‘Ancient feeding ecology and niche differentiation of Pleistocene mammalian herbivores from Tarija, Bolivia: morphological and isotopic evidence.’ Paleobiology. 23(1). pp77-100. [Abstract only]

Orlando, L, et al. (2008). ‘Ancient DNA clarifies the evolutionary history of American Late Pleistocene Equids.’ Journal of Molecular Evolution. 66(5). pp.533-538. [Abstract only]

Prado, J. L., & Alberdi, M. T. (). Fossil Horses of South America. Springer Link. [Book]

Sanchez, B., Prado, J. L., & Alberdi, M. T. (2006). ‘Ancient feeding, ecology and extinction of Pleistocene horses from the Pampean Region, Argentina. Rev. Asoc. Paleontol. Argent. 43(2). pp.427-436. [Full article]

Shockey, B. J., et al. (2009). New Pleistocene cave faunas of the Andes of Central Peru: radiocarbon ages and the survival of low latitude, Pleistocene DNA. Palaeontologia Electronica. pp.1-15. [Full article]

Weinstock, J., et al. (2005). ‘Evolution, systematics and phylogeography of Pleistocene horses in the New World: a molecular perspective.’ PLoS Biology. 3(8). e241. [Full article]

Posted in Horse | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

The most (and least) read posts of 2019

We like to share our most read posts, along with our least read posts (so we can share the love). Have a little browse through – all hold wonderful clues to the recent past.

Least read post of 2019

  1. It’s Miller Time: Hugh Miller found something strange. But what was it? A giant deer? A reindeer? Find out in this post!

2. Big find in little China: Discover some of the earliest humans in China, dating back to 100,000 years ago.

3. Forever Young: The beautiful Florida Keys Deer, and how it has evolved to look young.

A beautiful Key Deer (Odocoileus virginianus clavium) on Big Pine Key, Florida. (Image by Joseph C Boone, from here)

4. Mini-beasts, giants, and mega-floods: We all know about mammoths and sabre tooth cats. But what can the tiniest creatures tell us about the ice age?

5. Nice beaver (redux): Read a little about beavers in Britain, and why they vanished.

The most read posts of 2019

  1. The stuff of night-mares: There was once an enormous horse. Bigger than you would ever imagine!

2. Lost as the Moa is lost: The giant, ground-dwelling bird, the Moa, disappeared just around 500 years ago.

3. Remarkable creatures: Armadillos are truly amazing creatures. Giant armadillos? Well, they are remarkable.

One of the largest of the pampatheriidae, Holmesina septentrionalis, compared to a 6 foot tall human.

4. You only live twice: There were some strange creatures in Australia during the Pleistocene. This may be one of the weirdest.

5. The power of wonder: Take a glimpse at ice age art, and see how our ancestors really saw life around them.


The three of us at Twilight Beasts wish you a very happy and healthy 2020.

Rena (@JustRena), Ross (@DeepFriedDNA) and Jan (@JanFreedman).

Follow us on Twitter  (@Twilightbeasts)  and Instagram (@TwilightBeasts)






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Ex Profundis

“Tis the part of a wise man to keep himself today for tomorrow, and not venture all his eggs in one basket.

Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote

The most perfect thing in nature, arguably, is the egg. A living capsule: it is the complete nursery, foodstore, protector and temporary home. From the tiniest hummingbird to the largest crocodile, the perfection of the egg gives them all a headstart.

Eggs and extinction have a long history together. The 75 or so eggs of the great auk (Pinguinis impennis) changed hands for enormous sums in the 19th century, increasing in investment value as the last living individuals were harried to extinction in Iceland. The auk eggs’ Jackson Pollock camouflage and unique patterning lend them a melancholy beauty noticeable to even the most casual observer. The Victorian mania for oology just one of the many factors that helped to push this species over the edge. Thankfully egg-collecting is a dying hobby; its adherents having decimated some of Britain’s rarest species in their obsession.* UK osprey and eagle nests still need the protection of dedicated wardens to thwart the occasional nest-raider. Eggs attract obsessives, drawn to their perfection. Eggs have stories to tell.

Cervantes is a small town about 100 miles north of Perth in Western Australia. In 1992, three primary school students found an enormous egg (32cm long!) in some dunes beside the beach. Instantly intrigued, the case received much redtop press. Could it have been an example of the Dromornithids, a.k.a. the Demon Ducks of Doom? Perhaps the Pleistocene giant Genyornis newtoni? Or from the Miocene giant Dromornis stirtoni? Both of these extinct Australian birds laid large eggs, with fossil eggshells of Genyornis contributing data on the timing of the Pleistocene extinction in Australia.

Alas, it appeared clear that the Cervantes egg was not from either of these ancient giants. The dune system the egg was found in was Holocene in age (i.e. from the last 10,000 years) and radiocarbon dating showed that the egg was a very young 1,928±73 years old, dating to the 1st or 2nd century AD. Long after any giant Australian birds were around (except the emu, Dromaius novaehollandiae, which lays big eggs, but nowhere near as giant as the Cervantes egg). Close inspection of the outer structure of the egg, and its dimensions, told a much stranger tale. This egg was from Aepyornis maximus, the Madagascan elephant bird.

Velizar Simeonovski’s wonderful reconstruction of communal nesting in Aepyornis, from the book Extinct Madagascar.

Madagascan beaches are still full of elephant bird eggshell as this recent picture shows. Image © James Haile

Regular readers will know that the largest egg, nay the largest single cell, ever to evolve is that of the extinct Madagascan elephant bird (Aepyornis maximus, I refrain from using the shiny new taxon of Vorombe titan, until more data is forthcoming). The eggs of Aepyornis command high levels of devotion. Used as water carriers by native Malagasy people prior to contact (they can carry up to ten litres!), Western scientists have long coveted them. While Madagascan beaches are still littered with the eggshell from successful hatcheries, complete eggs are much rarer. Around 80 are found in museum collections worldwide. Another 30 or so are thought to be in private collection. Sir David Attenborough famously has one, gifted to him when filming Zoo Quest, and radiocarbon dated a few years back. Although it is now rightly illegal to export complete elephant bird eggs from Madagascar there are quite a few of these relics still circulating in the global antiquities market. Not to mention the steady trade in “reconstructed” eggs, made from piecing together any old bits of Aepyornis eggshell until a facsimile of a whole egg is produced. Complete and intact eggs can fetch enormous prices. $205,000 was paid for one intact egg in 2014. Two centuries of brisk trade has meant that Aepyornis eggs can be found in nearly all the major museums of the world.

So, the Cervantes egg was from a Madagascan elephant bird. How on earth did it end up in Western Australia?

Remarkably, it’s not the only example of long-distance egg travel to this part of WA. Another Aepyornis egg was found in the Scott River south of Perth in 1930, near the town of Augusta. The intact, buoyant, rugby-ball-sized floaters must have ridden the predominantly West to East South Indian Ocean currents the 5,000 miles from Madagascar to Australia. Distinctive King Penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus) eggs have made a similar crossing from the Kerguelen islands to Augusta, showing that the route is something of a conveyor belt**. The Cervantes and Scott River eggs remind me of that hoary old tale by H. G. Wells, “Aepyornis island”. In the story, a specimen collector finds three intact elephant bird eggs, and through a series of misadventures floats away from Madagascar and onto a deserted island. On the island, one of the eggs hatches and the Aepyornis chick becomes the collectors companion for a time. Perhaps someone should check on the Cervantes and Scott River eggs. Just in case.

The Scott River egg in 1930. Photo by Douglas Elford, WA Museum.

How the southern Indian Ocean currents could have swept eggs from Madagascar and the Kerguelen islands to Western Australia.

*In the UK it is illegal to collect wild bird eggs, and illegal to hold any wild birds eggs collected on or after 1954. For more information, see RSPB.

**If nothing else these enormous sea crossings should show that taphonomy, the study of how fossil sites have formed can be incredibly complex.

Written by: Ross Barnett (@DeepFriedDNA)

Further Reading:

Burney, D. A., L. P. Burney, L. R. Godfrey, W. L. Jungers, S. M. Goodman, H. T. Wright, and A. J. Jull. “A Chronology for Late Prehistoric Madagascar.” J Hum Evol 47, no. 1-2 (Jul-Aug 2004): 25-63. [Abstract]

Long, J. A., P. Vickers-Rich, K. KHirsch, E. Bray, and C. Tuniz. “The Cervantes Egg: An Early Malagasy Tourist to Australia.” Records of the Western Australian Museum 19 (1998): 39-46.[Full Text]

Miller, G. H., J. W. Magee, B. J. Johnson, M. L. Fogel, N. A. Spooner, M. T. McCulloch, and L. K. Ayliffe. “Pleistocene Extinction of Genyornis Newtoni: Human Impact on Australian Megafauna.” Science 283 (1999): 205-08. [Full Text]

Schläpfer, K. “Aepyornis Eggs: History, Characteristics and Market.” (2015).[Full Text]

Wells, H. G. “Aepyornis Island” 1894 [Full Text]

Posted in Elephant Bird, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


If you think of the weirdest mammal you can, chances are a tapir would pop into your mind. They are pretty odd. Kind of like a mad-scientist’s experiment between a pig and an elephant gone wrong.

Perhaps naively, I had always assumed there was just one species, the tapirs living in the Amazon (Tapirus terrestris, the Brazilian tapir). I learnt that there are actually four different species in all, and they are not just found in Brazil. Baird’s tapir (T. bairdii) can be found across Mexico and a few countries in the north of South America. There’s the mountain tapir (T. pinchaque) of South America, with it’s woolly shaggy hair covering it to keep it warmer in the cooler mountain ranges. And the Malayan tapir (T. indicus), the last surviving tapir from Asia. All these beautifully-strange species are vulnerable to extinction.

The Brazilian tapir, Tapirus terrestis, the tapir I’ve seen in zoos and on TV. Just one of four tapir species! (Image Bernard Dupont. Public Domain)

Tapirs are full of really neat features. My favourite, and the most diagnostic, is that large nose: it’s proboscis. Much more flexible than an elephant’s, it can move in any direction to grab onto branches to eat leaves. Large, splayed toes spread the body weight allowing these fairly large mammals to live in wet, boggy, muddy environments. Being mostly nocturnal, their eyes are cloudy-looking and they have rather poor vision. That large muscle protruding from their face makes up for it: tapirs have an excellent sense of smell. They use it to search for food or for a mate. Tapirs will mate in water or on land, and they can mate several times whilst the female is on heat, for a rather modest length of time – between 10 and 20 minutes. (In humans, the average is somewhat disappointing: around 6 minutes. I hasten to add that this is an average.)

Closely related to rhinos and horses, the first fossils of the tapir family (the Tapiridae) are found in 50 million year old rocks in North America. They were a hugely successful group. Several species evolved, and they spread far across the northern hemispher. During times of low sea levels, species made their way over into Asia, and even Europe. Around 2.9 million years ago, when North and South America joined together, tapirs made their way into South America for the first time.

Fossil tapir skull found in South Carolina. On display at Charleston Museum. That large hole in the head is the nasal cavity, and supports the flexible but short trunk. (Image Jan Freedman)

With so many species in the last 50 million years, it is no surprise that there was an enormous one, Tapirus augustus (sometimes referred to as Megatapirus augustus). This was a ruddy big tapir, around 1.5 metres tall, and 3 meters long.

The giant tapir, Tapirus augusus, was almost as tall as a human. (Image Twilight Beasts)

A plethora of fossils across Asia give us an evolutionary story for this giant. Huge grasslands across Asia during the early Pleistocene, around 2 million years ago, would have helped the spread of tapirs across the continent. A population of one species, T. sanyauensis, appears to have increased in size in the Early to Mid-Pleistocene, the ancestor of T. sinensis. A few hundred thousands years later, a population of T. sinensis was isolated from other populations and continued to get bigger, and during the Mid to Late-Pleistocene we see the giant T. augustus. This is a very simplified story, and in reality many isolated populations just carried on without changing much, whilst others died out. Evolutions isn’t a neat ladder leading from one species to another: it’s a very busy, very complicated tree.

We know a bit more about the giant tapir thanks to a myriad of sites across China hold fossils being found alongside hominins, so they are well recorded and published. Fossils of Homo erectus have been excavated at Gongwangling in Eastern China, dating between 1.15 and 1.63 million years old. Their landscape was share with some species found in the region today, along with extinct deer, huge hyenas, long-vanished rhinos, and the giant tapirs. Human teeth were excavated at Huanglong Cave in Eastern China, dating between 100,000 and 40,000 years old. Along with several human teeth, likely belonging to our species H. sapiens and not H. errectus, stone tools have been recovered along with over 25 different species of large mammals. Species of extinct rhinos, deer, proboscids, hyenas, and the giant tapir have all been found. Many of the bones are fragmentary, indicating that this cave may have been a home for groups of H. sapiens at some points in the past. And these groups may have been bring food back to this cave, giving a glimpse into the range of animals they ate.

From the species found at these sites, we can work out the likely environment that the giant tapir lived in. The assemblages indicate that the environments were not much different from the region today. These giant tapirs lived in warm, sub-tropical forests.

The funky skull of the giant tapir. (Image Ryan Somma. Public Domain)

Our giant tapir was around until relatively recently, shuffling in the forests of Asia until just around 4000 years ago. It’s difficult to identify exactly why they went extinct. Humans have been suggested as the cause of the extinctions of many large mammals, but here, humans (H. erectus and H. sapiens) and giant tapirs overlapped for hundreds of thousands of years. Yet there is evidence that they were food in the past, just as the four species are hunted by humans today. Habitat loss from changing climate or destruction by humans for farming may have played a role. Or it may have been a combination of both. For large mammals, with slower breeding than smaller ones, these pressures happening unnaturally fast will have had an impact on populations.

Tapirs and humans have had a long history of living alongside one another. And they are very symbolic in some cultures. In some Asian countries, there are stories of tapirs eating nightmare’s. It’s an interesting and quite scary bit of folklore, but quite unusual for a herbivorous animal. It’s not difficult to imagine it’s origins, as stories were told round a fire, with the rustle of leaves close by. The flickering flames briefly lighting the well camouflaged, weird shaped body of a tapir. With their solitary lifestyle, tapirs are a little bit mysterious. I like to imagine what it must have been like to hear that rustle in the forest of a giant tapir passing by a group of people quietly telling stories.

Written by: Jan Freedman (@JanFreedman)

Further reading:

Bien, M. N., & Chia, L. P. 1938. ‘Cave and rock-shelter deposits in Yunnan.’ Bulletin of the Geological Society of China. 18. pp.325-347. [Full article]

Corlett, R. T. 2007. ‘The impact of hunting on the mammalian fauna of tropical Asian forests.’ Biotropica. 39(3). pp.292-303. [Full article]

Hooijer, D., A. 1951. ‘Two new deer from the Pleistocene of Wanhsien, Szechwan, China.’ American Museum Novitates. 1495. pp.1-18. [Full article]

Hulbert, R. C., Jr. 1995. ‘The giant tapir, Tapirus haysii, from Leisey Shell Pit 1A and other Florida Irvingtonian localities.’ Bulletin of the Florida Museum of Natural History. 37(2). pp.515-551. [Full article]

Jin, C. Z., Pan, W. S., Zhang, Y. Q., et al. 2009. ‘The Homo sapiens Cave hominin site of Mulan Mountain, Jiangzhou District, Chongzuo, Guangxi with emphasis on age.’ Chinese Sciences Bulletin. 54. pp.3848-3856. [Full article]

Lord Cranbrook & Piper, P. J. 2013. ‘Paleontology to Policy: the Quaternary history of Southeast Asian tapirs (Tapiridae) in relation to large mammal species turnover, with a proposal for conservation of Malayan tapir by reintroduction to Borneo.’ Intergrative Zoology. 8. pp.95-120. [Full article]

Lui, W., et al. 2015. ‘The earliest unequivocally modern humans in Southern China.’ Nature. 526(7575). pp. 696-699. [Full article]

Shen, G., et al. 2002. ‘U-Series dating of Liujiang hominid site in Guangxi, Southern China.’ Journal of Human Evolution. 43. pp.817-829. [Full article]

Xianzchu, W. U., et al. 2006. ‘Huanglong Cave, a new late Pleistocene hominid site in Hubei Province, China.’ Chinese Sciences Bulletin. 51(20). pp.2493-2499. [Full article]

Zhao-Yu, Z., et al. 2015. ‘New dating of the Homo erectus cranium from Lantian (Gongwangling), China.’ Journal of Human Evolution. 78. pp. 144-157. [Full article]

Posted in Giant tapir | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

On the dhole

It’s funny when you think about it. Canids famously have a swimming style named after them but they hardly ever made it to any islands. Compared to elephants, hippos, and tortoises and the ease with which they seem to have colonised remote archipelagos, dogs don’t seem to have strayed far from land. Except when moved by people. Natural colonisations are few and far between and more likely to be the result of getting stranded after sea level rise (think of the grey foxes of the California channel islands or the extinct Falkland islands wolf). One exception that breaks this rule lived in Pleistocene Sardinia, a Mediterranean island that has never been connected to the mainland. In amongst the dwarf hippos and dwarf elephants that populated many med islands, the Sardinian canid is an anomaly. It’s not even a wolf, the one wild European canid that people are familiar with. It’s something different. Something from a separate branch that until the Holocene was a vital part of the European fauna. Sardinia had its own dhole.

Sardinian dhole (Cynotherium sardous) Reconstruction by Mariomassone CC-BY-SA 4.0

Dholes are the “Red Dogs” of Kipling’s Jungle Book: fierce and efficient killers that today live in Indonesia and Mainland Asia. Looking like a red fox on steroids, dholes are pack animals that can easily take down buffalo and deer. In the Pleistocene they were also common in Europe, and roamed even into North America*.

The Dhole (Cuon alpinus). Image ©Ross Barnett

Dholes (Cuon alpinus). Image ©Ross Barnett

Sardinia’s dhole, Cynotherium sardous, is not a direct relative of the modern dhole, Cuon alpinus. Instead it probably shares a common ancestor with the dholes and painted dogs (Lycaon pictus). This ancestral form, Xenocyon lycaonoides, was widespread in Europe during the early Pleistocene and presumably doggy paddled its way to Sardinia. At the point in time during the Pleistocene, Corsica and Sardinia were joined into a larger island due to lowered sea levels. On arrival, Xenocyon found itself in an insular environment bereft of large prey animals. Instantly, natural selection worked its magic and strong selection pressure started favouring smaller individuals who could more efficiently hunt small prey, and required fewer calories to reach maturity. It’s a classic example of the island rule. The big get small and the small get big. Remarkably consistent across elephants, mammoths, hippos, deer, rodents, birds, and yes, humans too. The famous hobbit (Homo floresiensis) of Flores shows what happens to large human like species under the selection regime of an isolated island.

Size was just one aspect modified by natural selection in the Sardinian dhole. Luckily we have a very good series of fossils from the skull and post-cranial remains of many individuals to look at. They clearly show other adaptations that are unique among canids. Firstly, the neck bones show signs of being extremely flexible and hyper-strong. Additionally, muscle attachment scars show that the shoulder had a wide degree of freedom of movement and that the triceps were enormous. The triceps is the muscle that does the opposite job to the biceps- it’s the muscle you would use when pushing yourself up off the ground during a push up. It’s the one that extends the arm. All this points towards an animal where explosive leaps from a stalking stance allowed it to quickly grab and shake small prey to death.

Some of the skeletal adaptations of Cynotherium sardous. Image by George Lyras & Alexandra van der Geer CC-BY-SA 2.0

The end result of island dwarfing for the Sardinian dhole was a reduction in size to an estimated 10kg in the latest adult specimens known. Despite ruling their tiny kingdom for most of the Pleistocene, they seem to disappear around 11,000 years ago. Just when humans arrive on the island.

The results of island dwarfing on Sardinia from the large ancestral Xenocyon lycaonoides to Cynotherium sardous. Image by George Lyras & Alexandra van der Geer CC-BY-SA 3.0

*Bizarrely, dholes are known from Beringia, and one site in Mexico (San Josecito cave). The fossils are super diagnostic so there can be no doubt that they are what they are but that’s one hell of a geographic gap for what must have been a widespread species. Really makes you think about the gaps in the fossil record.

Written by Ross Barnett (@DeepFriedDNA)

Further Reading:

Evolution of Island Mammals: Adaptations and Extinction of Placental Mammals on Islands. edited by A. A. E. van der Geer, G. A. Lyras, J. de Vos and M. D. Dermitzakis: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. [Book]

Lyras, G. A., and A. A. E. van der Geer. “Adaptations of the Pleistocene Island Canid Cynotherium Sardous (Sardinia, Italy) for Hunting Small Prey.” Cranium 23, no. 1 (2006): 51-60. [Abstract]

Lyras, G. A., A. A. E. van der Geer, M. D. Dermitzakis, and J. de Vos. “Cynotherium Sardous, an Insular Canid (Mammalia: Carnivora) from the Pleistocene of Sardinia (Italy), and Its Origin.” Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 26, no. 3 (2006): 735-45. [Abstract]



Posted in dhole, Extinction, Giant Maltese Dormice, Hippopotamus, Mouse Goat | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Interview with the mammoth

Archaeology brings you some strange and marvellous places. They never told me that in the prospectus. I’m currently writing this, away up north in Kikinda, in the Banat province of Serbia, a region of vibrance and colour and richness of history, matched by the warmth and hospitality of its people. Whether it’s the fields of swaying sunflowers, making the landscape look like a golden sea, or the scarlet sunsets illuminating the deep bark of the plum trees, now heavily laden with darkest rich purple fruit, Serbia has utterly enchanted me. Any nation which can boast burek, rakija, Urnfield culture and mammoths is alright by me.

Voyvodina, Lush and green in summer!

Getting a mammoth interview!

Oh, I didn’t tell you about the mammoths, did I? Serbia wasn’t always the land of luscious fruit and vegetation it is now. Climate changed through the Holocene of course, and when humans arrived they altered the landscape by way of farming and animal husbandry. Once this dazzlingly verdant country was cold steppes, which was when Kika and her kind held sway. It’s an interesting area for the Ice Age as it was a boundary which allowed steppe animals to graze. Kika is a near-as-dammit complete ( 90% of bone present) Mammothus trogontherii found almost on the doorstep of Kikinda museum.Standing at about 4.7m in height, weighing over 7 tons when alive and tusks of over 3.5 m in length, Kika was quite a powerful animal, and lived to ripe old age of 64 before she was snagged down in a marsh, where it’s likely predators did what predators do, hence the missing shoulder bones. She’s frankly an icon here, her image is used everywhere, and I’m pretty lucky to get an up close and personal interview with this Very Important Proboscidea. So with a little imagination (because we all know fossils, artefacts and old things talk, if we listen!) here’s the transcript!

TB: Kika, first of all thank you for this interview, it’s not every day I get to meet such a European star of the Pleistocene!

K. Thank you for having me on your blog. I am very proud to represent my kind, the steppes mammoth, Mammothus trogontherii as the symbol of the human settlement Kikinda. They even have a Mammoth Fest each year to mark my (re) birthday!  In fairness I don’t remember my own birthday – and they say elephants never forget. I have forgotten, perhaps, because it always was cold! Now I celebrate in sunny September each year!

[laughs quietly]

I find the celebrity very strange, I am just a humble mammoth, but I am wise, having lived a long life breathing (I was likely about 64 of your human years when I fell asleep in the Cold Time). They tell me this as my tusks have many, many rings, which show my age, just like a tree. But I very much enjoy now these times when people from all over the world come to visit me and I share my memory and wisdom. It also pleases me to see my land look so green and beautiful, so much fruit and richness of trees and plants, we could only dream of such places. So much talk now among my human friends of climate change,  I worry that careless humankind will harm this, and it will again be like the Cold Time , when all hungered.

A humble mammoth – Kika’s replica in the courtyard of Kikinda Museum

TB: So, can I ask you about the deep prehistoric past of Serbia? What do you remember about it?

K: I lived almost a half a million years before this present time. We existed even before what you call the woolly mammoth, Mammuthus Primigenius . The humans say the great woolly mammoths are descended from us. I think we were better looking, but that is only my opinion! Although the long hair might have suited me? What do you think?

TB: * nods agreement*

K: The Balkans and Carpathians were very different indeed. No dark purple plums falling from trees, no ripe quinces like today – oh how I wish I was not bones, and could taste those! During the Cold Time ice spread from the Alps and Dinara mountains, across the Balkans. All the mountains of eastern Serbia and Bulgaria were covered in ice. Here we had steppes grasses, and while summers were cool they were welcomed greatly by all creatures. 10C was balmy for us, providing vegetation other than the grasses. Winters were cold , but not as bad as the frozen lands northwards. How did any living thing survive those times? I am still surprised at the temperatures here in modern Serbia now! In the summer, I see the people eating frozen milks, and wearing such light coverings, I cannot help but wonder if the sunshine would have taken the ache from my poor old joints! I was a little slow with rheumatism. It was my undoing, of course as Serbia also had marshes, which were not easy to get out of. Who knows? I may have breathed well past 70 years had it not been for those marshes! But I cannot complain, we ruled those grass lands, along the basins and river valleys of Pannonia . I have friends who know of Celts and Romans and all the peoples who came here through the millennia when I slept – they called my homeland the Pannonian Basin. The humankind and their animals, they made their homes here too, and occasionally found the remains of our kind, and wondered that we ever walked the earth – I suppose we do seem a little improbable!

I hear my friends in the Museum of Kikinda call those ice free plains of the Balkans ‘refugia’. And they were indeed sanctuary for many creatures, although it makes me sad our kind no longer walk the earth. I led the herd, as a grande dame should. Some of the creatures I am glad no longer exist here, for they had blood in their minds and always hungered. I think the little street cats, when they lie dreaming amidst the flowers in the museum gardens in sunshine, imagine themselves as the great fanged cats of the Cold Time. But they are little, and very sweet, and only the scuttling insects fear them.

This is not a sabre toothed cat, although Kika thinks it might want to be!

TB: How did you come to be found again after all that time?

K: Oh that is a strange story! Years and dates mean nothing to me now, but I have been told that your year of 1996, humankind were making holes in the ground to create a home for a humans called Toza Markovic” – you call this kind of home a factory? They make bricks which now make human homes. In my day, humankind made homes in caves and dug out shelters. I admit, I never saw them myself, but I knew some of the great deer who saw them for themselves. They were not very keen on humans; they said they were smelly little bad tempered things. I cannot judge, I never met one when I was breathing – this is just what the great deer said, but they were  terrible ones for cuss words! Anyway! To make this factory, the humans dug holes like the great sloths, only 21m deep! They really were digging into the past, for soil is like a time machine, it holds many secrets of plants and bones. I was found there, in a layer of the blue clay which is what was left of our old marshland, and they found me there almost as I was when I entered the long sleep in the mud. I had become old and tired and not very fast, and I sunk into the sticky muddy water, and that is where I left the Breathing Way, until I awoke as Wise Bones – you call us fossils, but we carry great wisdom within us.

Wise bones

When they saw me, they were very excited, as I was very much complete apart from a few bones, which the wretched local hyenas may have made off with. Not that it ruins my looks – I rule this museum, and my image represents Kikinda – and where are they now, eh?

Anyway, the humans formed a herd of their own to protect me, with help from an even larger herd, the humans call the European Union. They helped the Kikinda municipality, the National Museum of Kikinda where I now live, the regional chamber of economy, Natural History Museum in Belgrade ( I have not been there, they say it is beautiful but very large and noisy) the Faculty of Philosophy in Belgrade University, and of course the company “Toza Markovic” who now owned the land I slept in. We all share a love for our past, and well … it’s my past. I am very grateful they have worked so hard to show what my time was like.
All of these people who want to tell the story of the Cold Time! Humans call themselves palaeontologists, archaeologists, cultural tourism and marketing experts – even people who made moving pictures of me! I do enjoy being in Kikinda. I am sure Belgrade would be beautiful, if you were a mammoth from what would become Belgrade! But this is my home. I ruled my herd here, and I can still give a good stern stare down my tusks to the unruly or inattentive, be they small human children or learned doctors!

TB: What would you like to tell the readers of Twilight Beasts?

K: I would love them to come visit me here in Kikinda! My human friends here would like that too, as there are many layers of history they can tell of. Just as during the Cold Time this land was a bridge between the frozen lands and the steppes, where life was possible, so too it became a bridge for humans, travellling east to west on the little Tarpan horses (and I found that they are gone  too – this also makes me sad, they were always so friendly, carried so much gossip about new grazing grounds, although they were, mostly , how do you say now, airheads?). The humans brought metals and stories and often bloodshed, even more bloodshed than the big cats of my time, but they changed history. This land became the corridor which created Europe as it is understood today – I learned that from watching the stories about the People of the Urns, who left their Unbreathing to rest in great clay pots, with their favourite objects. And after them, so many other people it makes my tusks shake with wonder!

A rather excellent simulation of an Urnfield burial, Bronze Age Serbia, in Kikinda Museum.

My history is your history – we all are pages in this story, which get turned for the next generation, carrying that story ever forward. Please, come meet me here and chat with me and my human friends!

Written by Rena Maguire (@JustRena)

Some refs for further reading!

Kmeťová, P., 2013. „Masters of Horses “in the West,„Horse Breeders “in the East? On the Significance and Position of the Horse in the Early Iron Age Communities of the Pannonian Basin. Interpretierte Eisenzeiten. Fallstudien, Methoden, Theorie. Tagungsbeiträge der5, pp.247-258. [Full article]

Sümegi, P., Gulyás, S., Molnár, D., Náfrádi, K., Törőcsik, T., Sümegi, B.P., Müller, T., Szilágyi, G. and Varga, Z., 2017. Ice Age Terrestrial and Freshwater Gastropod Refugia in the Carpathian Basin, Central Europe. In Biological Resources of Water. IntechOpen. [Full article]

Posted in Steppe Mammoth | 1 Comment

The power of wonder

There is no denying our fascination with wildlife. Shows such as Blue Planet, Planet Earth, and the more recent Our Planet, have had millions of viewers across the world. People, young and old, flock around cases full of taxidermy in museums, trying to get a glimpse of animals that can be found thousands of miles away. We all know that feeling of pure excitement seeing an animal in the wild. And people do travel the world to just see an animal: such is the power of wonder within us.

Memories may not be enough when we want to try to capture the moment. Today, of course, technology means we can take a photo instantly to record what we have seen. More often than not, a ‘selfie’ is involved: not so much as to show a sense of a scale of the animal, or even proof that you and the creature were there together, but for social reasons. A few years ago, good old fashioned film cameras would have captured the wildlife (without the craze of selfies). Going back further, sketches and paintings of wildlife would record what people saw.

We have been drawing animals around us for thousands of years. With no paper, people used raw materials to capture the life they had seen. Engravings of animals on rocks in Siberia date to around 5,000 years ago. In Africa there are engravings of local wildlife on rocks going back thousands of years to more recently. Engravings and paintings of Australian wildlife carefully etched on rock date back to 28,000 years at least. Around 10,000 years ago, people painted animals and strange symbols on the walls of a cave in Bulgaria. A huge number of caves in Spain contain ancient pictures on the walls, with the stunning pictures from Altamira standing out with their vibrant colours. There are over 300 sites in Europe with cave art preserved. Each unique. Each a rare photograph of the past.

The spectacular, vibrant red Bison from the Cave of Altamira, Spain. (Image Museo de Altamira y D. Rodríguez, Public Domain)

My favourite cave art comes from Lauscaux, a small area just outside the small town of Montignac, in the South of France.

Here, limestone rises out of the earth, forming a small hill, where pine trees created dry, dense woodland. The ground is covered in pine needles and slightly sandy soil, giving a soft and gently crunchy feeling under your feet. Apart from the occasional forester or exploring kids, 80 years ago few people visited here. Today it is very different. The site is cleared of pine trees, with grass and concrete paths giving people easy access to the cave. A cave that hold wonders from the past.

The woodlands were a regular exploration ground for four boys and their dog. On 12 September 1940, one of their little forays turned into a real adventure. Their dog, a little fox terrier with the quirky name of Robot, got trapped inside a hole and couldn’t get out. One by one, the boys climbed down to look for their faithful friend. After crawling several metres, the hole widened out into a passageway, leading to a large cavern. Inside the boys found Robot safe. They lit up the enormous walls with their light. And the children saw paintings. Paintings not seen for thousands of years. Horses. Bison. Great stags. The walls were alive with images of animals long gone from Lascaux.

They went to see one of their teachers, Mr Léon Laval, who saw the significance of the cave immediately. Extremely excited (apparently he danced with one of the boys!), he contacted an expert on Palaeolithic art in Paris, Abbé Breuil. He visited with Abbé Bouyssonnie and Dr Cheynier soon after. The three men, along with Mr Laval and the boys, visited the cave and soon declared it to be one of the most important sites of Palaeolithic art in Europe.

The awe-inspiring scene in the Great Hall of Bulls. (Image from Laming 1959, Plate 1)

The boys had discovered several caverns filled with images of animals no longer living in France. There were detailed drawings, elegant engravings, and perfect paintings. And not just static portraits of the animals. These illustrations were vibrant. They were alive. Herds of horses running. An angry looking bull with a spear in its leg. A herd of stag swimming through a river. The artists knew the animals well. They knew how they moved. How they behaved. And they captured it skilfully in their paintings.

The art was all drawn directly on to the cave walls, with the only source of light being from the warm flicker of flames. Several pieces of curved limestone with blackened centres have been found in the chambers, and lots of charcoal has been found near these stone objects: they were portable lamps. People were using cup shaped rocks to burn tinder so they could see inside the cave. This is quite extraordinary to imagine: deep inside a cave, some people brought in handheld lamps, and painted incredibly detailed animals on the cave walls. The charcoal from them has been radiocarbon dated to between 18,600 and 18,900 years ago.

Annette Laming, ex-French resistance fighter, and TrowelBlazer extraordinaire, studied the chambers of Lascaux in detail. She led the way for interpretation of Palaeolithic cave art: she didn’t just create theories on what they meant, she looked at the animals and their distribution in the chambers to help provide answers. She drew the complex cave layout, and examined each of the paintings in critical detail. This was a pretty new method back in the 1950s.

The layout of the Lauscaux cave, showing where teh different chambers are. (From Laming 1959, page 61)

The first large chamber you enter after walking through the entrance is the Great Hall of Bulls. The name is a nod to the enormous bulls 8 foot long bulls which jump out of the wall immediately, in a kind of wild west standoff. Other animals are drawn here, including horses, bovids, deer, a bear, and an unusual animal that appears to be drawn from imagination, called ‘the unicorn’. This chamber is big, about 10 yards wide and 17 yards long: enough space to step back and appreciate this early art. What is fascinating about the Great Hall of Bulls is the number of different painting styles here. There are detailed groups of horses galloping together. Others are incomplete animals, like the heads of horses and bovids. There are paintings drawn on top of other animals, showing that the paintings were not all drawn at the same time, and very likely not all drawn by the same person. With so many animals painted here, some with red ochre colouring, there is no obvious pattern to the layout. Some have groupings, like the galloping horses, but others look like they were simply painted where there was space.

The weird ‘unicorn’ creature in the Great Hall of Bulls. (From Laming 1959, Plate 2)

Deer running on the walls in the Great Hall of Bulls. Each individual deer is about 2 feet long. (From Laming 1959, Plate 4)

Walking through the Great Hall of Bulls, you will come to the Painted Gallery, which is a much thinner chamber. Here, the paintings have more distinct groups compared to the Great Hall of Bulls. Standing out from the other animals, a couple of large bovids and horses are painted high up on the wall, close to the ceiling. These are massive paintings, reaching around 9 feet across. Arrows are drawn around many of the animals, and one of the bovids has a line coming out of its chest: a possible spear or arrow. There are a smaller number of detailed heads of animals compared to the first gallery. It ends in a narrow tunnel, empty of paintings. The details of the animals in this gallery are wonderful: reds, blacks and greyish browns bring the walls with colour. Fascinatingly, the gallery is full of unusual dots, squares, and lines: undeciphered symbols the artists were using to communicate to their groups, or to their gods?

A beauitful horse, surrounded by arrows, in the Painted Gallery. (From Laming 1959, Plate 10)

The Lateral Passage is to the right of the Great Hall of Bulls. It is not a large chamber, and was filled with clay when it was discovered in 1940, but this has been excavated to reveal evidence of more paintings. With such a thin passageway, it looks like the humans who lived here rubbed a lot of the pigments off the walls. But here the outlines of the animals have been carved into the rock, so despite not much paint having survived, the presence of the artists is still found. Around 600 figures are carved here, carefully etched into the limestone walls. Interestingly, there are much fewer symbols in this part of the cave compared to the Painted Gallery.

At the end of the Lateral Passage, to the right, you come to the Chamber of Engravings. Here there are engraved, as well as engraved and painted, animals. Engravings of ibexes, horses, deer and bovids are drawn in groups, often moving together on the cave wall. Flint tools would have been used to carefully dig into the rock, scratching it to create the outline of an animal. Many of the engravings are drawn over earlier paintings, with some of the paint still visible. With engravings on top of older paintings, it is clear that artists had been using the cave for a long time.

Look closely and you can see a stags head carefully engraved on the rock. (From Laming 1959, Plate 22)

To the left of the Lateral Passage, is the Main Gallery: a thin and long passage, with paintings and engravings on both sides. Horses, ibex, bison, and other bovids, are all present. There are lots of colours in this passageway; chestnut-red, reds, grey-browns, and tones of black. They bring the accurately drawn animals to life. The art here shows groups of animals together, along with lines and more symbols. Lots of the lines are penetrating some animals: spears or arrows that have hit an animal, perhaps.

Almost hidden, in a small, almost inaccessible, shaft, is the Chamber of Felines. Abstract symbols are seen around drawings of horses, bison and cave lions. For such an inaccessible part of the cave, it must have had some meaning for the artists. Another strange shaft had a different style of drawing: one more sinister. A bison stands with its insides spilling out, and a man with a birds head laying on the ground, with what looks like an erection. Known as the Shaft of the Dead Man, towards the very back of Lascaux, is so much different to the other chambers. It was darker. More surreal. The human figure was not painted in the same detail as the animals, it was almost a stick man. Incredibly, it is the only human figure painted in the caves.

The odd stick man with a bird head and an erection, in Dead Man’s Shaft. Note the woolly rhinoceros to the left. (From Laming 1959, Plate 35)

Cave sites from the Pleistocene offer lots of clues to the past environments by the fossils that we find in them. Many cave sites are full of bones left over from meals by humans. Curiously there are few fossils that have been excavated at Lascaux. Deer horn spears, along with lots of charcoal was excavated from the Shaft of the Dead Man. In the Chamber of the Felines, a reindeer foot bone, along with a few horse bones were found. Annette Laming notes that the lack of fossils, or ‘waste’ in these caves indicate that they were perhaps more special than just a communal living space.

Despite not finding many fossils, a lot of archaeological material was excavated. Around 110 tools have been found in the sediments, most of which were used to make the engravings on the walls. Other unique objects were found too, all made of bone, including a sewing needle, an awl (used to pierce leather), a spall (flakes from knapping), and a reindeer antler that had been carved.

There are a lot of theories about cave art. Perhaps they were drawn as some kind of spiritual ceremony (the strange bird-man painting hints to something otherworldly). There are lots of paintings of animals with spears in them or arrows around them: perhaps they were drawn to speak to the gods for a successful hunt. Or maybe they were painted after a successful hunt to record the scene of the great hunters. Maybe it was just an artist or group of artists who enjoyed painting the animals. All of this is speculation: we will never be able to get into the minds of artists 19,000 years ago.

A beautiful drawing of half a horse, with a smile. (From Laming 1959, Plate 40)

Horse, bison, ibex, deer, giant deer, bear, and woolly rhinoceros are all depicted on the walls. This was a different ecosystem to the one there today. An ecosystem where large beasts roamed and ferocious predators stalked. Weirdly, there were no woolly mammoths drawn on the cave walls, whereas they are seen in other caves. There are also no smaller mammals, birds, or insects. These animals documented in the caves must have had some impact on the artists for them to be transferred from their minds to the cave walls.

This is an incredible place. Around 19,000 years ago people were in these chambers. They talked. They laughed. They painted beautiful images of the wildlife around them: a record of what was once there. The paintings capture the essence of the local animals. The artist or artists knew how to transfer what they were seeing on to the dark cave walls, lit only by flames. Their wonder has been preserved for thousands of years.

Written by Jan Freedman (@janfreedman)

Further reading:

Baumann, H. The Caves of the Great Hunters: How four boys discover an ice age cave – the cradle of man’s art. Hutchinson. [Book]

d’Huy, J., Le Quellec, J. (2010). ‘Les animaux fléchés à Lascaux: nouvelle proposition d’interprétation.’ Préhistoire du Sud-Ouest. 18(2). pp. 161-170. [Full article]

Dickson, B. D. (1992). The Dawn of Belief: Religion in the Upper Palaeolithic of Southwestern Europe. UA Press. [Book]

Heyd, T, & Clegg, J, eds. (2005). Aesthetics and Rock Art. Ashgate Publishing. [Book]

Laming, A. 1959. Lascaux. Paintings and Engravings. Pelican.

Lewis-Williams, D, (2004). The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art. Thames and Hudson. [Book]

Pettitt, P, (2008), ‘Art and the Middle-to-Upper Paleolithic transition in Europe: Comments on the archaeological arguments for an early Upper Paleolithic antiquity of the Grotte Chauvet art’, Journal of Human Evolution 55 (5): 908–917. [Abstract only]

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Messel: An Ancient Greenhouse Ecosystem

I love fossils. How can you not? The preserved remains of organisms no longer here. A glimpse into life so far back in time we can’t even begin to contemplate its vastness. Evidence that this was a real creature. Alive. Moving. Breathing. They really are incredible. What is even more incredible is that it’s extremely rare to become a fossil. An animal needs just the right conditions: to be quickly buried so no scavengers to pull apart their bodies, and fine sediment lacking oxygen so there are no worms or other critters in the mud to munch away at them.

That’s only the beginning. Once buried the body has to survive the intense pressure as tonnes and tonnes of sediment falls on top. After the body is replaced by minerals it’s not over. There’s the rocks being moved: pushed deep down, or thrust above land. The remains could easily be destroyed. With all this movement rocks will often heat up and melt, removing any evidence that life was preserved. If, eventually, the rock is finally exposed for a lucky fossil hunter to find it, there’s the risk that the rain or sun could destroy it first. There is an awful lot of luck involved whether or not an organism is fossilised. An awful lot.

Some scientists suggest that 99.9% of all organisms that have lived on Earth in the last 3 billion years have not fossilised. That’s an enormous number of animals and plants that have lived at some time in the past. What we see in museums is just a tiny fraction of life that was once here.

The beautiful fossil of Sinosauropteryx from China. A small dinosaur from the Cretaceous, the preservation is exceptional! The fine feathers covering the body have been preserved. (Image Public Domain)

There are some fossil sites that give extraordinary views into the past. The Burgess Shale in Canada and Quingjiang site in China, preserve dozens of animals that swam in the seas when large life really began 540 million years ago. Rancho La Brea, in California provides a snapshot of the Late Pleistocene life in and around Hollywood. China is discovering beautifully preserved dinosaurs, lots with their feathers still showing. There is one fossil site that I remember seeing brought alive by David Attenborough’s Lost World series: the Messel Pits in Germany.

I was delighted to receive a new book all about Messel to review. When I tore open the padded brown envelope, I carefully pulled out the book, and flicked through the pages. I actually gasped. It was beautiful.

Messel: An Ancient Greenhouse Ecosystem.

Edited by Krister Smith, Stephan Schaal and Jörg Harbersetzer, Messel: An Ancient Greenhouse Ecosystem is dedicated to the Messel Pits. These editors are all specialists who have worked for decades at the Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum in Frankfurt. The chapters are all written by experts from across the world, who are all leaders in their field in their certain topics. It was a little disappointing to see that only 5 collaborators out of 28 were women. A better balance would have been nice to see.

It’s split into easy chapters, about the site, the ecosystem, and the animals they have found. The title of the book, Messel: An Ancient Greenhouse Ecosystem, gives it away that it’s not really a book written for the general public. The text needs a lot of background knowledge, sentences are pretty long, and it’s not that welcoming to the non-expert. It’s not a popular science book. It’s not a quick-reference guide. And actually, that’s okay. Because it is a beautiful book. The non-expert can still learn a lot from it.

The Messel Pits are a pretty spectacular site. Near the little village of Messel in Germany, oil shale deposits have been mined since the 18th century. The first fossils were found in the late 1800s, and since then thousands have been excavated. Messel Fossil Pit became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995. And with very good reason. The fossils here are exceptional. They are so well preserved, the soft parts can be seen. Hair can be seen. Even the wings of flies can be seen.

The stunning fossil of Masillamys, an extinct, early rodent. (Image Public Domain)

Around 48 million years ago, collapsed volcanic craters formed deep lakes in the Messel area. Over around a million years the lakes filled up with sediments. These sediments are packed with incredibly preserved fossils. So well preserved because the sediment was very fine, and the bottom of the lake was deep enough that there was no oxygen, so there were not many animals living there to eat up any dead animals that fell down there. There are not just fossils of freshwater animals like fish and turtles, but lots of land animals too, from insects to monkeys. With so many land and water animals being found in the sediments, it looks like the collapsed volcanoes were still a little active, and their rumbling insides released gas (like carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulphide), which suffocated the animals.

I love how the book chapters take you through the different groups of animals and plants that have been found. Not only are the photos of the fossils some of the sexiest photos you will ever see, but they show you how incredibly rich life was here 48 million years ago. The insects are spectacular. With images and detail, we discover giant ants, weird flies, and stunning jewel beetles. The reptiles are unreal, with exquisite detail of their skeletons. And the mammals are just spectacular, clearly showing the outline of the fur. Even if you just got the book for the photos of these remarkable creatures, it would be more than worth it.

A beautiful jewel beetle from the Messel Pits. (Image Torsten Wappler, Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt Public Domain)

The book isn’t a coffee table book full of beautiful photos. It brings together all the research from the study of the incredible finds. The history, the delicate, painstaking preparation of the fossils, the most up to date discoveries are all included in this book. X-rays, 3D scans, reconstructions all help to place these extinct creatures on the tree of life.

All the amazing fossils that have been found here show us what life was like here 48 million years ago. It was an incredibly rich ecosystem. In the forests alongside the lakes, there were early horses, giant ants, crocodiles, snakes, bats, monkeys and so many more species. It was an environment as rich as a tropical rainforest is today. This unique site lets us look in unbelievable detail at what life was like here 48 million years ago. This book gives so much detail about life here, you can’t help but be transported back in time.

Written by Jan Freedman (@JanFreedman)

Smith, K. T., Schaal, S. F. K., & Hebersetzer, J. Eds. 2018. Messel: An ancient Greenhouse ecosystem. Senkenberg. [Book]

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Branching out!! A review of The First Foresters: explore the Neolithic in Scotland’s Native Woodlands by Kim Biddulph and Matt Ritchie.

Do you remember your first time? The first time you realised the millennia which had existed before you, I should say!  Maybe it was standing on a hill and looking onto a landscape below scattered with raths and mounds, or perhaps a family trip to some rugged moorland, where silent grey stones maintained their tolerant silence no matter how many times you climbed on them. Or perhaps it was a random flint arrowhead or fossil found, in river or at seashore, holding time in the palm of your hand. Do you remember that fleeting moment when you felt the weight of the ages which came before you, as soft as a feather on impact, but leaving your imagination racing,  when you realised that  people far beyond your grandparent’s time had lived, loved, worked, died, believed things we knew nothing of and lived a very different life. And yet… were they so different?

That is a moment many of us have no coming back from, and it’s important. The wonder of the child spills into a lifetime of curiosity in palaeontology, palaeoecology and archaeology. This is why it is important, in this post-truth time of rewritten false pasts, to establish clear and critical thinking in a way children can deal with, while also appreciating and marvelling at the past. So, I call exhibit A , which demonstrates a clever and lively way forward, providing a strong emphasis on the skill of storytelling, of being out of doors, respect for nature and the forest, plus connecting with our ancient past. I present to this blogging jury The First Foresters: Explore the Neolithic in Scotland’s native woodlands by Kim Biddulph and Matt Ritchie.


The First Foresters, released April 2019, by Kim Biddulph and Matt Richie

Quite simply, nobody does archaeology and environmental awareness and promotion better than Scotland, and this project is a joint venture between Archaeology Scotland, Outdoor and Woodland Learning and Forestry and Land Scotland. Kim Biddulph is no stranger of course to the Beast Team, having had us on her podcast talk about all sorts of things, but mostly Jean Auel books!  You can listen to that one right here but she’s also active in many educational facets of British archaeology.

Matt Ritchie was responsible for the highly imaginative and creative commissioning of this book. He is an archaeologist and National Environment Advisor for Forestry and Land Scotland. His ‘ordinary’ (does that word apply to archaeology? I’d argue no!) work involves the protection, conservation and presentation of the historic environment in Scotland’s national forests. There was also extra input from Dr Gavin McGregor and Ingrid Shearer of Northlight Heritage. The lavish illustrations  are by Alan Braby and Alice Watterson, photography by John MacPherson, and a set of very human characters created Alex Leonard and Kim Biddulph. The linocut artwork is by Liz Myhill, while the maps and plans were drawn by Headland Archaeology. The ubiquitous National Museums Scotland contributed images of stone axes.


Meet the Neolithic family! The clan created by Alex and Kim to tell the story of the first farmers of Scotland.

The text is primarily for use with Level 2 children (that’s ages 7 to 11 for other parts of the world) under the Scottish Government’s Curriculum for Excellence education manifesto. That being said, a tweak here and there could be applied to the material and probably engage awkward Freshers to have some getting-to-know-you fun in a seminar.

The 1500 years of the Neolithic, from around 4000 BC to 2500 BC, is one of the most important historical phases in European human history, as it is the period when the Twilight Beasts of these islands truly did fade into legend. New ways of living came lapping onto the land, as steadily as a rising tide.  Humans became settled in one place, adopted agriculture, destroyed forests to claim farming land, and animals became domesticated. This period redefined the Mesolithic relationship with creatures and the environment.


One of my own photos of the Neolithic stones of Kilmartin Glen, a timeless place where sheep still graze, just not the same breeds! For a bit more on Neolithic sheep types, try here

This little book contains a potent emphasis on environmental awareness, incorporated with attention to structures and material culture, such as timber circles and cursus monuments of the Neolithic, as well as polished stone axe heads, before challenging the participant to enter into a Neolithic mind-set – and asks is that even possible in the modern world? That’s surprisingly deep question that most adult experimental archaeologists will sigh, shrug and smile wryly at. Not a bad idea to make kids realise that we cannot ever step in the same river twice! My personal favourite activity is the construction of a wooden circle in class. I remain slightly relieved that my own daughter is not an age where this would have caught the imagination too far, and I’d have woken up surrounded by a ritual mound of books and shoes… though you never do know! It’s an activity I could see being incredibly useful , with a  few more analytical tweaks, to the average First Year undergraduate archaeology student.

The section dealing with the Neolithic mind allows an exploration of what is believed, and why, and how cultures and ideas change. It explores in an easy to understand manner how Neolithic land use brought rules connected to the cycles of growth, tethering humans as much as animals to domestication, and how forests represented primeval, uncontrollable forces. This may well be very different from the earlier hunter-gatherers of the Mesolithic, who followed more fluid rhythms of nature set by the movement of creatures. The text also acknowledges, humans being the contrary being they are, that there were also groups who didn’t quite conform to either 100% Neolithic or Mesolithic trends!


One of the wonderful illustrations by Alan Braby, coloured by Ian Kirkwood, of a defleshing platform. During the Neolithic, bones were likely picked at open air sites ( The Giants Ring at Ballynahatty, outside Belfast, is one such site), then the clean bones were interred in cairns, elsewhere. Look at the little ‘Westray Wife’ figure in the midst of all this!

The book also presents a very welcome realistic expectation and explanation of what archaeologists actually do, which of course can make young’ns consider it as a genuine career choice. There’s a strong emphasis on the skill of storytelling, of being out of doors, respecting nature and the forests, and directly experiencing the heartbeat of nature, faint though it may be in the modern world, drowned out by bleep and purr of smartphone and Chromebook.

Lavish illustrations are museum adventures waiting to happen, encouraging observation of objects on display – the little carved wooden idols, the pots and the stone axes. They are on the right side of imaginative and full of verve in their use of bright primary colours, reminiscent of a colouring book.

All in all, this book is a delight to introduce young folks to the environment, archaeology and how we interact with the past – and it with us. If you have young ones, use the book on walks and trips. They, and possibly you, may never look at the landscapes and forests of wherever you are without asking lots of questions and thoughts.

And do you want to know the best bit of it all? You can download it free of charge, gratis, for nowt, right here!

What are ye waiting for? Go get out of doors, and look for the Neolithic!


Other places to check apart from the links provided?



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