Irish Elk: prehistoric animal lived some 2,000 years after 'extinction'

Anna Liesowska

Source - http://siberiantimes.com/science/casestudy/features/f0072-scientists-reveal-prehistoric-animal-lived-longer-than-previously-thought/

Standing two metres tall, the giant deer was assumed to be extinct about 10,300 years ago, but new research finds it was still alive across Siberia.

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Picture: The Siberian Times
A team of Siberian scientists is among those that have contributed to breakthrough research on the extinction of a giant deer that once roamed the Earth.

It had been previously thought that this animal, also known as the Irish Elk, a massive creature that stood 7ft (2 meters) tall and had antlers up to 10ft (up to 3.5 meters) wide, all but died out at around the time of the end of last Ice Age about 10,300 years ago.

Distinctive animals because of their sheer size, they first appeared 400,000 years ago and were common in Ireland, Britain, and mainland Europe and Asia. However now new data suggests not only did they live longer than that, but also survived in Siberia in the Holocene Era, about 9,000 years ago, much further than anyone ever knew.

Indeed, in an article published in the highly-ranked scientific journal, Quaternary Science Reviews, the experts have extended the early Holocene habitat of the animal at least 2,400km to the east.

The development comes following analysis of fossils found at various locations in Siberia.

Inside map

Early Holocene refugia of giant deer in Eurasia. Numbers next to black-and-white circles indicate the youngest calibrated dates (median values, rounded to the next 10 years) for giant deer remains. Picture: Yaroslav Kuzmin

Dr Yaroslav Kuzmin, a Senior Researcher at the Institute of Geology and Mineralogy in Novosibirsk, Russia, said: 'We can today significantly update the model of the final extinction of the giant deer.

'Previously we knew that the habitat of giant deer was dramatically reduced from about 12,000 years ago. It was also known that about 10,300 years ago in Western and Northern Europe, including the British Isles and Scandinavia, existed one of the last habitats of the deer. The last 'stronghold' of giant deer was identified in the Trans-Urals region of Asia, where it lived until 7,500 years ago, as it was published in one of the top scientific journals, Nature, in 2004, by Dr Anthony J. Stuart (now at Durham University, UK) and his colleagues.

'But now we have confirmed that there were at least two habitats: the European and Siberian.'

The emergence of an unknown population of giant deer across Siberia thousands of years after the species was said to have died in this region has come from the discovery of remains in various parts of the western and eastern Siberia.

n 2004, a British-Russian team of scientists analysed the remains of a deer found in 1886, about 130km east of Ekaterinburg in the Trans-Urals region, and said they believed this animal dated back to 7,500 years. This unexpected result was subsequently published in Nature by A.J. Stuart and co-authors.

Now examinations of other bones and fossils found in Siberia have confirmed that theory and revealed that the Irish Elk survived long after the Ice Age far from its European home.

Among the remains found over the past 15 years are: 1) fragment of antler discovered at the Sopka 2 ancient cemetery in Baraba steppe, in Western Siberia, and 2) a complete upper jaw with teeth in a burial ground called Preobrazhenka 6 in the same region. The main cultural remains from these sites are associated with the Bronze Age which is dated to no older than about 4500 years ago.

Inside man and deer skeleton

The srawing comparing the skeletons of the Giant deer and modern man. Picture: Yaroslav Kuzmin
n 2012, work on the construction of a reservoir and dam for the Boguchany hydroelectric station on the Angara River, in Eastern Siberia, uncovered more bones, including six joint neck vertebrae.

At the site of Sosnovy Tushamsky, located on a large island in the main channel of the Angara, six more bones were found. And on Ust-Talaya, on the left bank of the Angara River, four neck vertebrae and other remains were unearthed.

Dr Kuzmin said: 'It was intriguing. No one had found giant deer remains before in this area, though palaeontologists worked there rather actively.

'The second thing was that all the findings were made at archaeological sites. They seemed to us rather young, not older than about 4,000 to 6,000 years old. These new findings were a kind of trigger in our work: again giant deer remains at possibly young archaeological sites. We needed to solve this puzzle.

'In Eastern Siberia, on the Angara River, the fossils were found 'in situ', in other words, they had not been moved from their original place of deposition. The cervical vertebrae were together, lying in the anatomical position, meaning that initially it was a whole piece of giant deer meat, with the muscles and tendons, just thrown on this place for some unknown purpose.

'On the Western Siberian sites we saw another picture. There, people obviously found the fossils in some other place and brought them to their settlements, as some interesting thing or as the object of worship. There is also a possibility that these bones belong to the older cultural component, calls Neolithic, which is represented at these sites by random artefacts. It was clear that the animal had not been killed by those people, it had died in some other place.

'In Eastern Siberia ancient people obviously hunted these giant deer as they existed together at the same time.'

Inside jaw preobrazhenka Inside verterbrae

The antler of giant deer from the Sopka 2 site and the upper jaw of giant deer from the Preobrazhenka 6 site, pictured by Sergey Vasilyev. Neck vertebrae of giant deer from Ust-Tushama 1 site, pictured by Vyacheslav Slavinsky

He added: 'Prominent scientist and the expert in the field of radiocarbon dating Prof. Johannes van der Plicht (University of Groningen, the Netherlands) was also intrigued with these findings and agreed to help us with radiocarbon dating. After we got results, it became clear that the giant deer lived in Siberia in the times of Early Holocene.

'The latest date we have got for the fossil found at Preobrazhenka 6 is that they are 8,800 years old, while the finding from the Sopka 2 site, also in the Baraba steppe region, is relatively 'young' as well at 8,900 years old. The dating of the fossils from the Angara River were also surprising. The ‘youngest’ date is 10,400 years ago.'

What the findings show is that the Irish Elk, presumed to have died in Europe and become extinct at the very end of the Ice Age, was alive and well in Siberia thousands of years later. 

Dr Kuzmin said: 'We do not know if the Siberian habitat was continuous or consisted of two separate sub-habitats: one in central Western Siberia and the Trans-Urals, and a second one in the middle course of the Angara River.

'We need somehow to fill in the gaps in our knowledge about the giant deer habitat and its migration.

'The other thing we need to do, and we are going to start this work soon, is to obtain the direct radiocarbon dates for several known findings of the giant deer fossils in Siberia. 

'We plan to make a big review on this as the continuing of the topic, as it seems to us very promising.'

The giant deer is a distant relative of the modern fallow deer. Its height was almost two metres, and the huge antlers reached a span of up to 3.5 metres. The remains of the giant deer were found everywhere in Europe, particularly in the bogs of Ireland, which led to their name of Irish Elk.

Because of the size and structure of the antlers, scientists have concluded that they lived in open landscapes and fed mainly on herbaceous vegetation, rather than the branches of trees or shrubs. 

The new study on the giant deer is already available in the Quaternary Science Review.