Papua New Guinea Megafauna

New discovery reveals giant four-legged kangaroos existed as early as 20,000 years ago

Illustration of PNG megafauna species Hulitherium, Thylacine, Protemnodon, Tree-kangaroo, Bulmer’s fruit bat and Bruijn’s long-billed echidna (from left to right): Hulithium thomasetti, Thlacinus sp. see. T. cynocephalus, Protemnodon name, Protemnodon tumbuna, Dendrolagus noibano, Aproteles bumerae (present), Zaglossus bruijni (present) in New Guinea, Upper Montane Forest. Credit: Peter Schouten (End of Megafauna)

The dominance of Papua New Guinea’s megafauna continued long after the arrival of humans.

A new study suggests that a giant kangaroo that used to traverse the highlands of Papua New Guinea on all fours may have lived as recently as 20,000 years ago, long after the big-bodied megafauna became extinct on mainland Australia.

To learn more about PNG’s fascinating natural history, paleontologists from Flinders University and archaeologists and geoscientists from the Australian National University (ANU) have reexamined megafauna bones from the rich Nombe Rock Shelter fossil deposit in Chimbu province.

New dating methods from research show that when humans first arrived in the PNG Highlands about 60,000 years ago, numerous giant mammal species, including the extinct thylacine and a marsupial resembling a panda (called Hulithium tomasettii), were still present.

Nombe Rock Shelter

Excavations at the Nombe Rock Shelter carried out in 1979 during early field work led by the Australian National University. Photo credit: Barry Shaw (ANU) / Archeology in Oceania Journal.

Surprisingly, two large extinct kangaroo species, one of which walked on four legs instead of two, may have survived in the region for another 40,000 years.

“If these megafauna species actually survived much longer in the PNG Highlands than their Australian counterparts, it could be because people visited the Nombe area infrequently and in small numbers until 20,000 years ago,” says ANU professor Archaeological Sciences Tim Denham, co-lead author of the new study published in the journal Archeology in Oceania.

“Nombe Rock Shelter is the only site in New Guinea known to have been inhabited by humans for tens of thousands of years and preserves remains of extinct megafauna species, most of which are unique to New Guinea.

“New Guinea is a forested, mountainous, northern part of the formerly more extensive Australian continent called ‘Sahul’, but our knowledge of its faunal and human history is poor compared to that of mainland Australia,” says Professor Denham, who initially conducted field research on the Australian continent Continent performed PNG Highlands in 1990.

Research co-author Professor Gavin Prideaux of the

Flinders University
Founded in 1966, Flinders University is a public university in Adelaide, South Australia. It was named in honor of British navigator Matthew Flinders, who explored and surveyed the South Australian coast in the early 19th century.

” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[{” attribute=””>Flinders University Palaeontology Laboratory, says the latest Nombe study is consistent with similar evidence from Kangaroo Island, previously produced by Flinders paleontologists, that also suggests megafaunal kangaroos may have persisted to around 20,000 years ago in some of the less accessible areas of the continent.

He says many general assumptions about megafaunal extinction timelines have been “more harmful than helpful.”

“Although it is often assumed that all of the megafaunal species in Australia and New Guinea became extinct coast to coast by 40,000 years ago, this generalization is not based on very much actual evidence,” says Professor Prideaux. “It is probably more harmful than helpful in resolving exactly what happened to the dozens of large mammals, birds, and reptiles that were living on the continent when people first arrived.”

The Nombe rock shelter, located in the vicinity of the Nongefaro, Pila, and Nola communities in PNG, would have been infrequently visited by nomadic groups of Highlands peoples in prehistoric times.

The hidden rock shelter was first excavated by archaeologists in the 1960s, but the most intensive phase of fieldwork was conducted in 1971 and 1980 by ANU archaeologist Dr. Mary-Jane Mountain, who is also an author on the latest paper. Her initial research yielded the first detailed description and interpretation of the Nombe site and played a pivotal role in shaping our understanding of the human history of the PNG Highlands.

“Mary-Jane (Mountain) initially hypothesized that megafauna at the site may have survived for tens of millennia after human colonization, but this has only been confirmed with the advent of new techniques in archaeology, dating, and palaeontological science,” Professor Denham says.

Professor Prideaux says these new applications of modern analytical techniques, or new excavations at the Nombe site, would further confirm timelines of late surviving megafauna and duration of occupation by people in PNG.

Reference: “Re-evaluating the evidence for late-surviving megafauna at Nombe rockshelter in the New Guinea highlands” by Gavin J. Prideaux, Isaac A. R. Kerr, Jacob D. van Zoelen, Rainer Grün, Sander van der Kaars, Annette Oertle, Katerina Douka, Elle Grono, Aleese Barron, Mary-Jane Mountain, Michael C. Westaway and Tim Denham, 16 September 2022, Archaeology in Oceania.
DOI: 10.1002/arco.5274

The study was funded by the Australian Research Council. 

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