We Ate Giant Omelettes in Antiquity

We Ate Giant Omelettes in Antiquity
Illustration of Genyornis newtoni being hunted by a giant lizard in Australia about 50.000 years ago. Photo: Peter Trusler, Monash University

The Croods portray the narrative of a prehistoric family struggling to meet in a still largely undeveloped world. While the family spends most of their time in their caves - at their father's request - they look for food, especially large bird eggs.

Who are the Croods?

After the cave they live in is destroyed by an earthquake, the Croods are forced to move out of their home canyon and embark on a journey led by Grug, the father of the family. Hoping to find a new place to take shelter, the Croods encounter a mysterious world, woven with extraordinary adventures and unknown before, during this journey. Nature in this new world is completely different. Moreover, they encounter an interesting young man named Guy. The 19-year-old young girl Eep will like Guy the most, who loves to travel and make new inventions all the time. Knowing how to start a fire, Guy will play an important role in changing the lives of the Croods.
The film, written and directed by Kirk De Micco and Chris Sanders, who come from the kitchen of animation, accompanies the pleasant adventure of a family living in prehistoric times.

While most of the animals depicted in the movie are purely fictitious, the behavior of large birds to collect and consume their eggs is entirely real. For over 100.000 years, our African ancestors have been eating ostrich eggs and making art out of their shells. Even if humanity spread its metaphorical wings and spread all over the world, this behavior remained with us.

When humans first arrived in Australia about 65.000 years ago, they were ready to collect the biggest eggs they could ever get their hands on.

The evidence these early Australian cultures left behind suggests they were successful, but there is some contention over which bird species they harvested. Now, a new analysis of the proteins found in eggshells tells us they ate the eggs of Genyornis newtoni, the last living species of a group of birds known as the 'Devil Ducks of the Apocalypse'.

The protein analysis that led to the identification of the species was done by Beatrice Demarchi and her colleagues from the Department of Life Sciences and Systems Biology at the University of Turin. The results of their research were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Genyornis stood two meters tall and weighed 200 kilograms. We don't know exactly what it will look like as it has been dead for a long time and has a limited number of bone remains. “It would have looked more like a giant goose or a duck,” Demarchi said. "It was undoubtedly a flightless bird with some characteristics shared with ostriches, including a large chest and small wings, but it would have looked more like a large goose or a duck."

Burnt eggshells discovered among the remains of ancient humans provide evidence that humans ate these gigantic eggs. Scientists investigating these places discovered two different types of eggshells, one from emu and one from an unknown source. According to archaeological records, eggshells were burned when humans first arrived in Australia. This lends credence to the theory that they prepared and consumed them as they did with other gigantic, flightless birds in Africa, India, and Eurasia.

Let's Get to Know Emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae)

It is the longest living bird species after its relative ostriches among the ratites. It is endemic to the Australian mainland and is the largest living bird on the continent. It is the only living member of the genus Dromaius. In the past, the habitat of emus included all of Australia, as well as the southern islands of Tasmania, Kangaroo Island, and King's Island, but after 1788, the subspecies on these islands became extinct due to the influence of the Europeans who came to the island. Taxonomically, they are found in common with their closest relatives, the crested ostriches, in the family casuariidae. The closest species to emus is the southern crested ostrich.

If we go back to our article;

The controversy surrounding the origin of the mysterious eggs came from their unusual properties. The shells are relatively thin compared to ostrich eggs. This means that the egg itself is probably relatively small. This was not necessarily in line with what was expected of Genyornis.

comparison of genyornis and emu femur
A large thigh (left) from Genyornis newtoni and a slightly smaller thigh on your right than an emu. Photo: Trevor worthy

“Genyornis was a huge bird.” This creature's thigh bone is enormous. So you would think the egg would be the same size and thickness as an ostrich, but ostrich eggs are much thicker. "The whole argument was based on the morphological features of these eggshells, so the thought arose that it could have been an egg from an extinct megapod," Demarchi said.

The Progura bird, a chicken-like bird that weighs only 5 to 7 kilograms - far from really the great Genyornis - was chosen by the alternative hypothesis. To answer the question once and for all, scientists tried to extract DNA from the shells, but found that they were too old and the climate was too hot for the DNA to remain undamaged. Instead, they looked at the proteins found in eggshells and compared them to proteins found in various living birds.

“If you compare the proteins of a group of living birds, including megapods, you can build a generation that is good at separating large groups. All the ostriches went one way, all the land birds went the other way, and then there are the waterfowl. When we extracted protein from the eggshell, we found that it never fell into the chicken and megapod group,” Demarchi said.

The proteins show that the eggshells came from a bird more closely related to existing ducks and geese, supporting the Genyornis hypothesis. Unfortunately, most of the devil ducks were out long before humans arrived in Australia, and the added pressure of our presence in the area has proven too much for Genyornis to manage. They became extinct about 50.000 years ago. Unfortunately, we can no longer prepare the omelette as before.

source: syfy


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