Cave Art May Show What Happened to Giant Lemurs

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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.

Charcoal drawings in a remote cave newly discovered in Madagascar may include an extinct giant lemur “kill scene.” (Photo by David Burney)
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 —> Read More