Cave Art May Show What Happened to Giant Lemurs

By David Burney, National Geographic/Waitt grantee 

Until now, Madagascar did not even make the list of regions around the world with prehistoric cave art. But recently, faint charcoal sketches of animals, humans, mythical creatures, and enigmatic symbols were discovered by Roger Randalana and his staff of rangers as they explored the remote 17,000-hectare Beanka Nature Reserve, their new area of responsibility near Maintirano, in central western Madagascar.

Among the surprising images may even be a “kill scene,” giving visual evidence of human hunting of Madagascar’s now-extinct giant lemurs.

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Charcoal drawings in a remote cave newly discovered in Madagascar may include an extinct giant lemur “kill scene.” (Photo by David Burney)
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The actual charcoal scene is drawn on a smooth limestone cave wall, seen above. Here, Dr. Julian Hume of the Natural History Museum (UK) makes a full-scale redrawing of the images. (Photo by David Burney)

With the support of a National Geographic Society/Waitt grant, I went there with Owen Griffiths (creator of the reserve) and fellow scientists with an interest in the caves and extinct creatures—and now cave art—of the Indian Ocean region.

In the cliffside rock shelter called Andriamamelo, we found an amazing panorama of living, mythical, and extinct animals. The cave is named after an elderly resident of the nearest village, who says the art was probably done by a magician of the “Vazimba” people, a semi-mythical hunter-gatherer group of western Madagascar.

Since the original charcoal drawings are very faint, Dr. Hume made full-scale copies.
Since the original charcoal drawings are very faint, Dr. Hume made careful copies that capitalize on the filtering and analysis abilities of the human eye and brain. (Photo by David Burney)

Dr. Julian Hume, a British paleontologist in our group who is also an accomplished artist specializing in depictions of extinct species, set to work sketching each drawing at 1:1 scale. His depictions helped us visualize the images, most of which are quite faint and difficult to photograph.

Shadows of the Past

Some of the panels seem to depict fairly complete scenes. Most intriguing was an image we interpret tentatively as an extinct large sloth lemur, perhaps Palaeopropithecus or Babakotia. The figure is seen on its back with legs in the air, which fits nicely with some of our colleagues’ studies of the joint anatomy of these subfossil primates, which suggest that they normally hung upside down from tree limbs. To the right of the presumed lemur stand two smaller animals, perhaps dogs. In the background on the opposite side is a very faint feature, which Julian interprets as a human with a weapon extended, perhaps a bow or throwing-stick.

Another scene, with what looks like desert vegetation in the background, features fanciful creatures including a humanoid body with an animal head complete with long straight snout or beak—very Egyptian-looking. Throughout the panels, a peculiar M-shaped symbol suggestive of a spindly three-legged animal recurs, often with a bulbous “head.”

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Another panel seems to be a landscape that includes a character local Malagasy believe to be a sorcerer. (Photo by David Burney)
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Dr. Hume’s reconstruction of the center of the landscape panel shows an apparently long-necked creature (left) and a humanoid figure with a beaked head on the right. (Photo by David Burney)

Strange stuff! It’s not quite like anything we have seen anywhere in cave art. There is another cave site found recently in southwestern Madagascar with many symbols that look like writing in an ancient African script, and a few other human and animal figures. At Andriamamelo, only one short sequence of the geometric shapes and enigmatic figures in these panels looked like writing, and it was not anything any of us could read. It looks vaguely like Arabic. Maybe it was the artist’s signature?

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A recurrent image in the art is an M-shaped figure with a bulbous “head.” (Photo by David Burney)
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Dr. Hume’s drawings highlight the recurring theme from a panel with many of these mysterious symbols. (Photo by David Burney)

How Old Is It?

Obviously, the next thing to do is to try and radiocarbon date the art. Dating by Accelerator Mass Spectrometer has become so sophisticated that it is now possible to date tiny samples, weighing less than 1/1000 of a gram, from ancient charcoal drawings.

We now have permission from the government of Madagascar to return next summer to collect dating samples. If they are very old by Malagasy standards, say 1,000-2,000 years, I will not be too surprised.

But if they are very young—within the last few centuries since European contact—that would perhaps be even more exciting. If, that is, the “kill scene” is indeed what we think it is: the only known depiction from Malagasy folk art of the hunting pressures that may have sealed the fate of many of Madagascar’s extinct giant lemurs, elephant birds, and other disappeared giants.

Although a single piece of indirect evidence may not tell us anything about what caused the extinction of all the large native animals of Madagascar, the symbolism of the hunt is irresistible for a paleoecologist like me who has spent more than three decades trying to figure out what drove this great transformation of the island.

NEXT: Giant Lemur Fossils Discovered Underwater in Madagascar

Funded by the National Geographic Society

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