In 2003 a team of Swiss archaeologists stumbled upon the fragment of an enormous tibia while sifting through Neanderthal and early Homo sapiens remains near a prehistoric Syrian settlement. "The bone was so big we guessed it belonged to a giraffe, but that would have been too exotic for the region," says University of Basel archaeologist Thomas Hauck.
The tibia fragment remained a curiosity until this year, when Hauck turned up enough other supersize skeleton pieces to deduce that they belonged to a giant camel standing 13 feet high and weighing 1.5 tons. Giant camels are known to have existed alongside smaller camels and other megafauna in North America millions of years ago and are thought to have migrated across the Bering Land Bridge into Asia. Until now, archaeologists believed that even ordinary camels appeared in the Middle East only about 10,000 years ago. Hauck's finds date to about 100,000 years ago, pushing the appearance of camels in the Middle East back at least 50,000 years. "This discovery opens a new and exciting window into the time period, especially because humans may have interacted with them," says Florida Museum of Natural History mammal expert Richard Hulbert.
"It seems like the bones were intentionally broken, probably to get the marrow out," Hauck says, raising the possibility that the animals were regularly hunted. Even more intriguing, the remains were found near bones of Neanderthals, not early modern humans, suggesting that it was our big-boned cousins who were hunting the big-boned camels. But that doesn't necessarily rule out Homo sapiens's getting in on the game. "In this time span you have both Homo sapiens and Neanderthals in a kind of coexistence," Hauck says. "We are sure they crossed each other here in Syria."