Ancient proteins resolve controversy over the identity of Genyornis eggshell

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The controversy over the taxonomic identity of the eggs exploited by Australia’s first people around 50,000 y ago is resolved. The birds that laid these eggs are extinct, and distinguishing between two main candidates, a giant flightless “mihirung” Genyornis and a large megapode Progura, had proven impossible using morphological and geochemical methods. Ancient DNA sequencing remains inconclusive because of the age and burial temperature of the eggshell. In contrast, ancient protein sequences recovered from the eggshell enabled estimation of the evolutionary affinity between the egg and a range of extant taxa. The eggs are those of a Galloanseres (a group that includes extinct Dromornithidae, as well as extant landfowl and waterfowl), Genyornis, and not of the megapode (Megapodiidae, crown Galliformes). The realization that ancient biomolecules are preserved in “fossil” samples has revolutionized archaeological science. Protein sequences survive longer than DNA, but their phylogenetic resolution is inferior; therefore, careful assessment of the research questions is required. Here, we show the potential of ancient proteins preserved in Pleistocene eggshell in addressing a longstanding controversy in human and animal evolution: the identity of the extinct bird that laid large eggs which were exploited by Australia’s indigenous people. The eggs had been originally attributed to the iconic extinct flightless bird Genyornis newtoni (†Dromornithidae, Galloanseres) and were subsequently dated to before 50 ± 5 ka by Miller etnbsp;al. [Nat. Commun. 7, 10496 (2016)]. This was taken to represent the likely extinction date for this endemic megafaunal species and thus implied a role of humans in its demise. A contrasting hypothesis, according to which the eggs were laid by a large mound-builder megapode (Megapodiidae, Galliformes), would therefore acquit humans of their responsibility in the extinction of Genyornis. Ancient protein sequences were reconstructed and used to assess the evolutionary proximity of the undetermined eggshell to extant birds, rejecting the megapode hypothesis. Authentic ancient DNA could not be confirmed from these highly degraded samples, but morphometric data also support the attribution of the eggshell to Genyornis. When used in triangulation to address well-defined hypotheses, paleoproteomics is a powerful tool for reconstructing the evolutionary history in ancient samples. In addition to the clarification of phylogenetic placement, these data provide a more nuanced understanding of the modes of interactions between humans and their environment.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2109326119
Issue number43
Number of pages9
Publication statusPublished - 2022

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