Was ancient Cypriot cave a prehistoric diner?

Wed Aug 19, 2009 9:15am EDT
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By Michele Kambas

NICOSIA (Reuters Life!) - Thousands of prehistoric hippo bones found in Cyprus are adding to a growing debate on the possible role of humans in the extinction of larger animals 12,000 years ago.

First discovered by an 11-year-old boy in 1961, a tiny rock-shelter crammed with hippo remains radically rewrote archaeological accounts of when this east Mediterranean island was first visited by humans.

It has fired speculation of being the first takeaway diner used by humans to cook and possibly dispatch meat. It also adds to growing speculation, controversial in some quarters, that humans could have eaten some animals to extinction.

In Cyprus, where islanders' love of the barbeque is alive and well to this day, it would have been the pygmy hippo, or "Phanourios minutus," an endemic species resembling a large pig which apparently vanished around the same time people appeared on the island.

"We claim that humans likely were at least partially responsible for their extinction," said Alan H. Simmons, a professor and former chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Half way down a cliff on Cyprus's southern coast, researchers dug up thousands of remains of the animal which is thought to have roamed the island for perhaps a million or more years during the Pleistocene period, and then died out around 12,000 years ago.

Today, nothing remotely resembling a pygmy hippo roams Cyprus. Its largest wild mammals are timid sheep, strictly protected from an army of enthusiastic hunters, and donkeys.

HUMAN IMPRINT   Continued...

<p>A pygmy hippo skull dating from 10,000 B.C. found at Akrotiri-Aetokremnos in Cyprus is shown in this undated handout photo. REUTERS/Alan H. Simmons/Handout</p>