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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.
With permission from Cypriot antiquity authorities and primary funding from the National Geographic Society and the National Science Foundation, Simmons led excavations on the site, Akrotiri-Aetokremnos, in 1987, 1988, 1990, and in 2009 concluded a smaller scale excavation of the area.
"There were over 500 individual hippos represented at the site ... for some reason they (humans) stored the bones, instead of throwing them into the sea, perhaps for use as fuel," said Simmons, who has written a book on the subject.
Together with thousands of pygmy hippo bones, as well as several large birds and a few dwarf elephants, the archaeologists discovered man-made implements on the same site, pointing to a link between humans and the animals.
Radiocarbon dating puts the site at around 10,000 BC, some 3,000 years earlier than most scholars had assumed humans had arrived on the island.
Simmons says a small group of humans could have triggered extinction of the animals, which were already under stress from cold and dry climatic changes around 12,000 years ago. Many animals went extinct around the same time.
"There are two extinction scenarios: that they went extinct due to climate changes at the end of the Pleistocene or that humans contributed to their extinction," he told Reuters.
The hippo itself, like other animals, swam across from the nearest land mass.
"These animals swam from the mainland full-sized and then, due to isolation, no prey, and limited food, underwent the dwarfing process, which is well documented on islands," said Simmons. "This could occur relatively quickly."
"We believe that they were primarily taken, processed and cooked at the site ... and maybe, some at least, were consumed there," said Simmons.
"But they also then could have been sent out to other related sites in the vicinity, although documenting contemporary sites has proven difficult."
Whether the humans using Aetokremnos were permanent occupants of Cyprus or long-stay visitors is a matter still open to debate. It is likely, says Simmons, that the hunters may not have lived on the island, but were traveling in search of meat or other resources.
Cyprus is between 30 and 60 km from the nearest land mass, and such voyages would have required considerable sea-faring skills.
The skills of prehistoric humans should not be under-estimated, said Simmons.
"These were pretty sophisticated people. Certainly if they could figure out how to navigate the Mediterranean, even at a small distance, they knew what they were doing."
Editing by Steve Addison