First South Americans May Have Eaten Giant Sloths And Arrived By Ocean Crossing

By Ben Wolford on November 20, 2013 2:09 PM EST

The first South Americans may have eaten giant versions of this modern sloth.
The first South Americans may have eaten giant versions of this modern sloth.

A pile of giant sloth bones discovered in Uruguay might hold the key to understanding how the Americas were populated tens of thousands of years ago.

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If the markings on those bones are in fact the doing of early human tools, it means that people were in South America 30,000 years ago, long before previously thought, according to research published Tuesday in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. If that's true, they may have come to the New World across an ocean rather than across the Bering Strait, as many population theories suggest.

It also means Americans had an appetite for big, meaty mammals, the goliath ancestors of the shaggy modern sloth.

"If our interpretation is correct and the sloths were consumed, they might have been an interesting source of meat because of their very large size," said lead author Richard Fariña in an interview with Discovery News.  

Unlike the slow tree sloths familiar to us, these animals, mostly of the Lestodon armatus variety, were enormous — up to four tons and 15 feet tall, as big as a small elephant, according to National Geographic. The bones were discovered at the bottom of a drained creek bed near a small town called Sauce, outside Montevideo.

When scientists from the University of the Republic in Uruguay examined the bones, they saw deep, asymmetrical scratches on the surface "similar to those produced by human stone tools."

By 30,000 years ago, Neanderthals were still roaming Eurasia, and Homo sapiens in Africa were creating a variety of stone-made instruments. But at that time in the Americas, many scientists don't believe there were people there at all. Some say the first Americans arrived as late as 13,000 years ago. For people to be hunting halfway down the coast of South America 17,000 years earlier would turn other theories upside down and lend more credibility to conjecture about ocean crossings from Africa and Europe.

Some scientists even believe there were people in America way before the ones who might have left the sloth bones.

"130,000 years before the present, Africa suffered from a very dry climate, which was the origin of the deserts," archaeologist Niéde Guidon, who worked on the study, told Discovery News. "People tried to find food in the sea, and the streams and winds (flow) from Africa to the northeast of Brazil. It is possible to think that some boats arrived at the coast of Piaui," in Brazil.

None of this is conclusive, though. Nat Geo reports that the scientists acknowledge the possibility that thousands of years of erosion and resting under a creek has created the same markings that stone tools can make. (Though the scientists also found something that looks like a scraper that might have been made by humans.)

"It certainly isn't going to hurt to have [the new discovery] on our collective radar screen as we continue to contemplate the peopling of the New World," a University of Oklahoma archaeologist, Bonnie Pitblado, told National Geographic.

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