Cypriot Cave Suggests Humans Hunted the Pygmy Hippo to Extinction

A cave containing the bones of hundreds of pygmy hippos has turned a long-held belief about the fate of these miniature creatures on its head. The cave is at the site of Akrotiri-Aetokremnos, on the southern tip of the Mediterranean island of Cyprus and archaeologists in the past have generally accepted the idea that the pygmy hippo must have died out before neolithic man first set foot on the island in around 10,000 BC.

However, a team of experts who excavated the site has strong evidence to suggest otherwise. They argue that the animal bones are from the same era as human tools also found at the cave and that this suggests that pygmy hippos were living on Cyprus about 12,000 years ago, along with the first humans to set foot on the island. The implication is that the pygmy hippos didn’t survive for long after the appearance of man, who may have hunted them to extinction on the island.

The cave at Akrotiri-Aetokremnos, half way down a cliff face overlooking the sea, contained both the pygmy bones as well as chipped stone blades, which is the first time that these animals have been associated with humans on Cyprus. This summer, some 19 years after the site’s first excavation, the archaeologists involved returned to Cyprus to remove the remaining parts of the archaeological area that is being lost due to coastal erosion.

Alan Simmons, from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, was one of the original archaeologists who excavated the site between 1987-1990 and he later wrote a book on the subject of the ‘pygmy hippopotamus hunters of Cyprus’. He told Heritage Key that he got a permit to excavate the site in 1987 and the findings made by his team led them to the conclusion that the pygmy hippopotamus did not die out before man first found its way to the island.

The site at Akrotiri-Aetokremnos contained the remains of at least 500 individual pygmy hippos as well as the remains of other animals, including three dwarf elephants and some large birds. It establishes a human presence on Cyprus during the 11th millennium BC, which makes it one of the earliest inhabited Mediterranean islands. The findings at the site also question the belief that an island such as Cyprus could not support a hunter-gatherer culture.

The site was initially discovered by amateurs according to this report by Reuters, an 11-year-old British schoolboy first came across the site in 1961. The bones found at the excavation site are now displayed in the Limassol District Archaeological Museum and the national museum in Nicosia.

According to Simmons, the former use of the site is ‘somewhat controversial’. He says: Some do not believe that the bones and people were associated, but we argue that they were, and the use was essentially a processing site, with some of the animals consumed on-site as well.

While the pygmy hippo’s fate was sealed on Cyprus, the small pig-sized creature has fared only a little better elsewhere it still exists in the swampy marshlands of western Africa, in particular Liberia, but it is an endangered species.

Photos by Alan H. Simmons and RC_Fotos.