They still exist, the giants. But to see giant tortoises in the wild today you have to travel to remote archipelagos like the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific or the Aldabra Atoll in the Indian Ocean. The carapaces of these mighty beasts can grow to over a meter in length. For the distant relatives living in Europe today, however, the limit is usually 20 centimeters.

But that wasn’t always the case: a giant tortoise species with a shell more than half a meter long lived on Sicily around 12,500 years ago. This was reported by a research team in the “Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society”.

“A few years ago, excavators in Palermo reported to me that they had found a giant thigh bone from a turtle,” recalls co-author Uwe Fritz from the Museum of Zoology at the Senckenberg Natural History Collections in Dresden. The fossil was discovered in a Copper and Bronze Age burial site in the Zubbio di Cozzo San Pietro cave in northern Sicily. Things found there are usually around 4000 years old. The youngest remains of a similar giant found on the Balearic island of Formentera are significantly older at 195,000 years.

Fritz wanted to isolate genetic material from the fossil in order to investigate the relationships to the turtles living today in the Mediterranean region. But co-author Christian Kehlmaier found no usable remains from the museum. Even in the relatively warm climate of a Mediterranean island, there is a good chance that bones from the Copper and Bronze Age still contain evaluable genetic material. The colleagues in Italy found the solution to this riddle when they determined the age of the find using the so-called radiocarbon method. The tortoise had lived much earlier, probably around 12,500 years ago.

How the thigh bone and some other, much smaller remains of this turtle got into the burial site remains unclear. “But the new, very reliable age also means that such very large species lived in Europe much longer than previously thought,” explains Fritz.

Such large armored carriers were easy prey for the Stone Age people of Sicily. “Turtles live rather leisurely and can therefore hardly outrun many enemies,” explains Fritz. Instead, they would rely on their armor, pull their heads and legs into the protective housing in the event of danger and simply wait until the enemy gives up, the Senckenberg researcher describes the defense strategy.

But even Stone Age people learned to overturn this recipe for success, which has been tried and tested for millions of years. For example, until modern times, sailors simply turned the Galapagos giant tortoises on their backs. The animals can hardly turn around under their own power and so had to travel on ships as living but defenseless provisions. A find in Florida shows that turtles were hunted for their meat as early as the Stone Age. The remains of a large tortoise, pierced with a spear and fried in its shell 12,000 years ago, were found there.

Something similar probably happened to other giant tortoises. “As soon as people appeared, at least the large tank carriers and with them the particularly worthwhile prey quickly disappeared,” explains Fritz. The giants have survived to this day only on remote islands that humans only reached in the past few centuries.