Giant Prehistoric "Kangaroos" Killed Off by Humans

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About 90 percent of mainland Australian megafauna disappeared about 46,000 years ago, soon after humans first settled the continent, studies have found.

Flannery said these extinctions were mirrored in Tasmania 3,000 years later, when the "Bass Strait dried up and a land bridge formed between Victoria and Tasmania, allowing [people] in."

Extinctions of large animals were "one of the key signatures, if you like, of the arrival of humans," he said, naming other places the phenomenon likely occurred.

"In the Americas 13,000 years ago, the same thing happened. In Madagascar 2,000 years ago, the same thing. New Zealand 1,000 years ago, the same thing."

On Caribbean islands, he said, "giant sloths survived for about another 6,000 or 8,000 years after their extinction date on the mainland. Why? Because people hadn't gotten to those islands. Now we are seeing the same thing with Tasmania."

Easy Prey

Evidence points to a rapid extermination that may have occurred within a thousand years, Flannery said.

"We have no evidence of any sort of specialized hunting technology at all. It's quite likely that these things didn't recognize humans as a threat, so perhaps a wooden spear or a club was enough to kill them."

Gavin Prideaux, a paleontologist at Flinders University in Australia, said that, while Aboriginal people weren't known to have used stone spear tips until around 5,000 to 6,000 years ago, they used fire to toughen several species of Australian hardwoods to make formidable spears.

"This is a first major step towards understanding what happened in Tasmania," Prideaux said.

However, only the giant, kangaroo-like Protemnon has been shown conclusively to have co-existed with people, he said.

"There may very well be others, but at the moment, that's where it stands."

Prideaux added that many more megafauna fossils are likely to be found on Tasmania, "because there has been so little exploration. We need to find those, get them dated, and build up a picture."

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