giant ostrich Crimean cave

Bird three times larger than ostrich discovered in Crimean cave

Bird three times larger than ostrich discovered in Crimean cave

First evidence that giant ostrich-like birds once roamed Europe

giant ostrich Crimean cave
PaleoArt of the bird discovered in a Crimean cave. It weighed three times the largest living bird, the common ostrich. Credit: Andrey Atuchin

A surprise discovery in a Crimean cave suggests that early Europeans lived alongside some of the largest ever known birds, according to new research published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

It was previously thought that such gigantism in birds only ever existed on the islands of Madagascar and New Zealand as well as Australia. The newly-discovered specimen, discovered in the Taurida Cave on the northern coast of the Black Sea, suggests a bird as giant as the Madagascan elephant bird or New Zealand moa. It may have been a source of meat, bones, feathers and eggshell for early humans.

"When I first felt the weight of the bird whose thigh bone I was holding in my hand, I thought it must be a Malagasy elephant bird fossil because no birds of this size have ever been reported from Europe. However, the structure of the bone unexpectedly told a different story," says lead author Dr Nikita Zelenkov from the Russian Academy of Sciences.

"We don't have enough data yet to say whether it was most closely related to ostriches or to other birds, but we estimate it weighed about 450kg. This formidable weight is nearly double the largest moa, three times the largest living bird, the common ostrich, and nearly as much as an adult polar bear."

It is the first time a bird of such size has been reported from anywhere in the northern hemisphere. Although the species was previously known, no one ever tried to calculate the size of this animal. The flightless bird, attributed to the species Pachystruthio dmanisensis, was probably at least 3.5 metres tall and would have towered above early humans. It may have been flightless but it was also fast.

While elephant birds were hampered by their great size when it came to speed, the femur of the current bird was relatively long and slim, suggesting it was a better runner. The femur is comparable to modern ostriches as well as smaller species of moa and terror birds. Speed may have been essential to the bird's survival. Alongside its bones, palaeontologists found fossils of highly-specialised, massive carnivores from the Ice Age. They included giant cheetah, giant hyenas and sabre-toothed cats, which were able to prey on mammoths.

Other fossils discovered alongside the specimen, such as bison, help date it to 1.5 to 2 million years ago. A similar range of fossils was discovered at an archaeological site in the town of Dmanisi in Georgia, the oldest hominin site outside Africa. Although previously neglected by science, this suggests the giant bird may have been typical of the animals found at the time when the first hominins arrived in Europe. The authors suggest it reached the Black Sea region via the Southern Caucasus and Turkey.

The body mass of the bird was reconstructed using calculations from several formulae, based on measurements from the femur bone. Applying these formulae, the body mass of the bird was estimated to be around 450kg. Such gigantism may have originally evolved in response to the environment, which was increasingly arid as the Pleistocene epoch approached. Animals with a larger body mass have lower metabolic demands and can therefore make use of less nutritious food growing in open steppes.

"The Taurida cave network was only discovered last summer when a new motorway was being built. Last year, mammoth remains were unearthed and there may be much more to that the site will teach us about Europe's distant past," says Zelenkov.

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Dramatic change in ancient nomad diets coincides with expansion of networks across Eurasia

Dramatic change in ancient nomad diets coincides with expansion of networks across Eurasia

nomad pastoralists diets
Map of millet and wheat/barley consumption over time: a) 1000-500 cal BC, b) 500-200 cal BC, and c) 200 BC-AD 400. Credit: Map of millet and wheat/barley consumption over time: a) 1000-500 cal BC, b) 500-200 cal BC, and c) 200 BC-AD 400

A meta-analysis of dietary information recorded in the bones of ancient animals and humans recovered from sites scattered across the Eurasian steppe, from the Caucasus region to Mongolia, demonstrates that pastoralists spread domesticated crops across the steppe through their trade and social networks. Researchers from Kiel University sifted through previously published stable isotopic data and applied new quantitative analyses that calibrate human dietary intake against environmental inputs. The results have allowed them to better isolate the timing of the incorporation of agricultural products into the diets of pastoral nomads and, crucially, link burgeoning socio-political networks to this dietary transformation.

Through a big data project that explored over a thousand stable isotope data points, researchers were able to find evidence for an early transition to agriculture - based on dietary intake across Eurasia. "Our understanding of the pace of crop transmission across the Eurasian steppe has been surprisingly unclear due in part to a focus on the excavation of cemeteries, rather than settlements where people threw out their food," says Alicia Ventresca Miller, lead author, formerly of Kiel University and currently at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. "Even when settlement sites are excavated, the preservation of carbonized seed remains is often poor. This is what makes stable isotope analyses of human remains from this region so valuable - it provides direct insights into the dietary dynamics of ancient pastoralists who inhabited diverse environments."

Millet spreads across the Eurasian steppe

Millet, originally domesticated in China, appears to have been occasionally consumed at low levels by pastoralists inhabiting the far-flung regions of Siberia and southeastern Kazakhstan, possibly as early as the late third millennium. This initial uptake of millet coincided with the expansion of trans-regional networks across the steppe, when objects and ideas were first regularly exchanged over long-distances.

However, it was not until a thousand years later that millet became a regular feature of pastoralist diets. This timing coincides with the intensification of complex political structures at the transition to the Iron Age. Burgeoning socio-political confederations drove a marked increase in the exchange of costly prestige goods, which strengthened political networks - and facilitated the transfer of cultigens.

Wheat and Barley in the Trans-Urals

Despite taking part in these political networks, groups in the Trans-Urals invested in wheat and barley farming rather than millet. A dietary focus on wheat and barley may have been due to different farming techniques, greater water availability, or a higher value on these cultigens. "Our research suggests that cultigens were converted from a rare luxury during the Bronze Age to a medium demarcating elite participation in political networks during the Iron Age," states Cheryl Makarewicz of Kiel University.

Regional variation in millet consumption

While herding of livestock was widespread, not all regions adopted millet. In southwest Siberia, dietary intake was focused on pastoral animal products and locally available wild plants and fish. In contrast, the delayed adoption of millet by populations in Mongolia during the Late Iron Age coincides with the rise of the Xiongnu nomadic empire. "This is particularly interesting because it suggests that communities in Mongolia and Siberia opted out of the transition to millet agriculture, while continuing to engage with neighboring groups," explains Ventresca Miller.

This study shows the great potential of using the available isotope record to provide evidence for human dietary intake in areas where paleobotany is understudied. Further research should clarify the exact type of grains, for example broomcorn or foxtail millet, were fundamental to the shift in dietary intake and how networks of exchange linked different regions.

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Original publication:

Ventresca Miller and Makarewicz, Intensification in pastoralist cereal use coincides with the expansion of trans-regional networks in the Eurasian Steppe, Scientific Reports (2019). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-35758-w

 

Press release from Kiel University / Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel