40,000 Years Ago, Our Ancestors Were Eating Rats the Size of Small Dogs

You might be happy that they’re gone, but their disappearance could hold valuable lessons for modern conservation efforts

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Nov 8 2015, 4:24pm

Dr Julien Louys holds the jaw bone of a giant rat species discovered on East Timor, up against a comparison with the same bone of a modern rat. Image: Stuart Hay, ANU

Rats have always played a lead role in the grand drama that is human civilization, although they've almost always tended to be cast as the villains—and not without reason. They steal our pizza, infest our cities, and who could forget that one time where they helped decimate over a third of Europe's population.

Given their tendency to be a vector for some pretty nasty diseases, it's understandable that humans have become bitter about having to cohabitate with these beady-eyed vermin. Before you pass too much judgment, however, it turns out that at one point in history rats were, if not our friends, than at least our food, and may very well have helped the first humans in Southeast Asia flourish.

Although rats generally aren't considered to be a healthy part of a balanced breakfast, the rodents that our ancestors were dining on weren't your average New York gutter rats. As part of an ongoing project tracking the movement of the earliest humans in Southeast Asia, a team of archaeologists from the Australian National University have uncovered the fossils of seven species of giant rats on the island of Timor, the largest of which clocked in at around five kilograms.

"[These rats] are what you would call megafauna [and] the biggest one is about…the size of a small dog," said Julien Louys, a postdoc fellow with ANU's School of Culture, History, and Language, who helped lead the study. "Just to put that in perspective, a large modern rat would be about half a kilo."

At ten times the size of their modern counterparts, these mega-rats are the stuff of nightmares. But for the first humans arriving on East Timor about 46,000 years ago, they may very well have been a dietary staple, as evidenced by the cut and burn marks found on the rat bones.

Although Louys and his colleagues were not the first to document these giant rats, which were originally discovered in East Timor in 2010, they are the first to contextualize them within human history to uncover how early civilizations were capable of drastically altering surrounding ecosystems.

According to Louys, who returned from his most recent archaeological expedition to East Timor in August, humans may have subsisted on these rats for thousands of years and may have co-existed with them as recently as 1,000 years ago. For Louys and his colleagues, the question is what brought these giant rats to extinction, which may end up providing a valuable lesson for modern conservation efforts.

"We're trying to find the earliest human records as well as what was there before humans arrived. Once we know what was there before humans got there, we see what type of impact they had," said Louys. "The reason we think they became extinct is because that was when metal tools started to be introduced in Timor, people could start to clear forests at a much larger scale."

At a time when we are witnessing unprecedented rates of species extinction, demystifying the far reaching effects of human development may very well prove crucial to the survival of our own species. Nonetheless, it's hard to not feel at least a little thankful that these mega-rats no longer roam the earth because you know as well as I do that if these things were still around, there's not a pizza enthusiast on Earth who would feel safe.