A team of scientists exploring a cave in western Madagascar have discovered an ancient painting which they are calling the “only known drawing of an extinct giant lemur” that once lived in the island’s remote western forests until at least 1,000 years ago.
Researchers from the Natural History Museum explain on the museum website that Madagascar used to be home to giant lemurs, which they say could grow to the size of silverback gorillas. Except for the discovery of a few bones, no tangible evidence of what these giant animals actually looked like previously existed, which makes the discovery of this new cave painting particularly exciting.
Exploring the Island of Prehistoric Megafauna
The island of Madagascar is located off the south-eastern coast of continental Africa and is still today home to a diverse range of lemurs. Archaeological finds, such as cut marks on bones found in the northwest, and stone tools in the northeast, tell archaeologists that Madagascar was visited by foragers around 2000 BC. However a 2018 paper published in Science Advances explains that “Early Holocene humans might have existed on the island 10,500 years ago” when a huge range of megafauna, that no longer exists today, dominated the island. This group of megafauna included the largest birds ever to exist, elephant birds , as well as giant tortoises, the Malagasy crowned hawk-eagle and pygmy hippos.
Research has found that when early Holocene humans first lived on the island, it was also inhabited by a wide range of now extinct megafauna, including the giant sloth, elephant birds, giant tortoises and pygmy hippos. (Image: ©Julian Hume )
In a new paper published in the Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology , Museum researcher Julian Hume , who studies extinct animals of the Indian Ocean, describes the painting as the “only known drawing of a giant sloth lemur” to have been found in the caves of western Madagascar. In a second paper, published in Quaternary Research , Hume also describes a new fossil site which determines giant lemurs existed on Madagascar until at least 1,000 years ago, a long time after humans first settled the island.
Multiple experts agree that the only creature the cave drawing could represent is the now extinct giant sloth, said to have existed only in Madagascar. ( © Burney et al. 2020 / tandfonline)
Bizarre Ancient Animal Thought to Represent the Now Extinct Giant Sloth
Hume has concluded that Madagascar was home to multiple species of giant lemurs, some which, according to an article on the Natural History Museum website, “were the size of silverback gorillas that likely spent much of their time on the forest floor.” While the image found in the cave painting doesn’t look like you would expect, multiple experts have all agreed that the only creature it could represent is the now extinct giant sloth which is said to have been found nowhere else in the world.
The paper in the Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology says sloth lemurs were highly specialized animals “reaching up to the size of sheep” that would have hung from tree branches and slowly made their way through the dry forest canopies, and that the sloth lemur Babakotia was “a really bizarre species,” compared to modern sloths that use their claws to hang upside down. Rather, the Babakotia’s fingers were elongated and curved to one side forming “rigid hooks” disabling the lemurs to use their hands for anything else.
On the left, a life restoration of the giant sloth lemur. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 ) On the right a male crowned lemur photographed at Ankarana Special Reserve in Madagascar. (Image: CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The team of scientists discovered the fossils of four different species of giant lemur, along with bones from the extinct Madagascan aardvark, or bibymalagasy, and also the remains of extinct giant cuckoos and giant fossa, which was about two thirds larger than the species that survives today. Carbon dates for these bones show that giant lemurs survived into the last millennium. The researchers concluded that one of the main causes for the extinction of most of these large animals “was people,” and that the cave, which is located in a remote dry forest, was one of the last remaining refuges for some of the megafauna.
Skull of the extinct giant sloth lemur, Babakotia radofilai. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Astonishing Discovery of Complex Matrix of Ancient Symbols
What the researchers said was “astonishing” is that the cave art included abstract symbols which have only previously been found in a cave site on the island of Borneo, some 7,500 kilometers away, and that date to “2,000 years ago.” This is about the same time that the first Indonesians arrived in Madagascar and it is highly likely that that they carried these symbols with them, a theory which if correct makes the cave site, and painting, anything from 1,000 to 2,000 years old.
The cave art found, also included abstract symbols only previously seen at a cave site on the island of Borneo, 7,500 kilometers away. (Burney et al. 2020 / tandfonline)
The art discovered in the cave also contains lettering resembling ancient Arabic script from Ethiopia, and human figures with head shapes which, the paper explains, “bare a passing similarity to the ancient Egyptian gods.” And while this mixing of Indonesian, African and Malagasy cultural symbols from thousands of years ago is incredibly alluring and suggestive, the researchers said all this was still rather speculative for the time being.
Top image: The cave painting, believed to represent the now extinct giant sloth lemur, was discovered in the a limestone cave located in a nature reserve in western Madagascar. Source: gudkovandrey / Adobe Stock