Research shines light on super-sized dangers 20,000 years ago

 Giant killer marsupial lions that jumped on their prey from trees, wombats the size of small cars and six-metre-tall kangaroos, early Aboriginal Australians may have lived among a menagerie of super-sized — and sometimes deadly — creatures for up to 20,000 years, according to scientists in Queensland.

New research by a team from Griffith University shows that life wasn’t a walk in the park for Australia’s earliest known inhabitants 55,000 years ago. There would have been a whole continent of “extraordinary beasts” to contend with.

Dr Michael Westaway, from the university’s Research Centre for Human Evolution, said it was previously thought the giant animals had become extinct shortly after the first Australians arrived, probably in bamboo rafts, from South-East Asia.

But he said new evidence showed that was not the case. So-called mega fauna had still been walking Australia at least 17,000 years later, creating a potentially formidable environment.

“Some of them (the megafauna) were decidedly unfriendly,” Dr Westaway said. “Thylacaleo I think is the origins of the whole drop bear myth. It’s like a very nasty, carnivorous koala.

“It lived in trees and would drop on its prey and tear them apart. There were lots of giant roos with the tooth marks of this marsupial lion. And it had premolars like secateurs. They were very sharp and nasty and it had jabbing claws,

“It was a particularly beastly creature. Then there was Megalania which is this 20 to 25-foot goanna, aggressive as a komodo dragon. It was probably an ambush predator.

“There were some pretty nasty beasts there.”

Dr Westaway said the timing of the giant animals’ extinction has been called into question after his team’s dating of a fossil of a Zygomaturus trilobus, a wombat-type marsupial as big as a bull, from the Willandra Lakes World Heritage area in New South Wales.

The animal had been alive 33,000 years ago — about 17,000 years after megafauna had previously been thought to be extinct.

He said the findings also raised questions about whether deteriorating climatic conditions and a more arid landscape had caused the giant animals and people to seek refuge in the Willandra Lakes area, bringing both in close contact.

“It’s the land that time forgot, really,” Dr Westaway said.

He said more research was needed. Early Aboriginal rock art depicting some giant animals also needed to be given more attention, while dreamtime stories could give an insight into some of the giant beasts.

The researchers are working in the Willandra Lakes area with the region’s traditional custodians.

Wendy Caccetta

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