October 06 2006 at 07:55PM
By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
Damascus - Swiss researchers have discovered the 100 000-year-old remains of a previously unknown giant camel species in central Syria.
"This is a big discovery, a revolution in science,". Professor Jean-Marie Le Tensorer of the University of Basel told Reuters. "It was not known that the dromedary was present in the Middle East more than 10 000 years ago."
"Can you imagine? The camel's shoulders stood three metres high and it was around four metres tall, as big as a giraffe or an elephant. Nobody knew that such a species had existed."
It attracted migrating herds, such as antelope, and man Tensorer, who has been excavating at the desert site in Kowm since 1999, said the first large bones were found some years ago but were only confirmed as belonging to a camel after more bones from several parts of the same animal were recently discovered.
"We found the first traces of a big animal in 2003, but we were not sure it was a giant camel," he said.
A group of humans apparently killed the camel while it was drinking from a spring, said Tensorer, adding that 100 000-year-old human remains were discovered nearby at the once water-rich site in the desert steppe.
The human bones were transported to Switzerland, where they underwent anthropological analysis.
"The bone is that of a homo sapiens, or modern man, but the tooth is extremely archaic, similar to that of a Neanderthal. We don't know yet what it is exactly. Do we have a very old homo sapiens or a Neanderthal?" said Tensorer.
"We expect to find more bones that would help determine what kind of man it was."
Man has been present in what is now modern Syria for 1.5 million years. The area played a key role in the migration of the first human beings towards Asia and Europe, he said.
Kowm, the site where the remains were discovered along with flint and stone weapons, is a 20-km (14 mile) wide gap between two mountain ranges that had a number of springs.
The site, which was first surveyed in the 1960s and where evidence of a 1 million-year-old human settlement has been found, is considered a "reference for early prehistory in the Near East", Basel University said in a recent research paper.
It attracted migrating herds, such as antelope, and man. Archaeological layers covering a period of several hundreds of thousands of years were discovered, which is unusual for such an open site, he said.
"It was a savannah more or less," Tensorer said. "The camels then ate probably what they eat today."