Swiss and Syrian archaeologists working in Syria's Palmyra desert claim to have uncovered the remains of a giant camel that lived 100,000 years ago and once stood "as big as a giraffe or an elephant".
Researchers at the University of Basel first came across a set of extraordinarily large bones three years ago while excavating in the El Kowm area, 250km north of the capital Damascus, but were only able to confirm the remains came from a camel once further fragments were found this summer.
"We found the first traces of a big animal in 2003, but we were not sure if it was a giant camel," Jean-Marie Le Tensorer, a pre-history professor at the University of Basel, told Reuters. "This is a big discovery, a revolution in science."
The ancient camel would have stood approximately three metres tall, almost twice the size of modern-day camels, and was apparently killed by humans as it drank from a spring.
The find is scientifically remarkable not only because of the animal's incredible size but also because it proves that the dromedary camel species existed in the area at a much earlier date than had been previously thought - possibly as much as 90,000 years earlier.
"It was not known that the dromedary was present in the Middle East more than 10,000 years ago," said Professor Le Tensorer. Bone fragments were also found in different layers of rock suggesting the giant camels had existed in the region for thousands of years.
Human remains discovered near by, including tools made from animal foot bones that dated from the same period, suggested the camel was killed by humans but scientists are unsure whether those remains come from the homo sapiens or Neanderthal species.
Peter Schmid, an anthropologist from the University of Zurich, called the camel find a sensational evolutionary discovery. "This find is sensational as it could help us understand the evolution of the camel," he said.
The Syrian government has been particularly excited by the discovery because it places the evolutionary ancestor to the modern-day camel, an animal of immense importance to Arab culture, squarely inside Syria.
Bassam Jamous, head of the country's Department of Antiquities, told the Syrian Arab News Agency: "This discovery shows that the Syrian desert is where the camel, the so-called 'ship of the desert' first emerged on Earth."
Evidence of human habitation in Syria dates as far back as 1.5 million years and the El Kowm region, a 14-mile plain nestled between two mountain ranges, is a particularly rich area for Paleolithic finds. More than 180 sites, some dating as far back as 750,000 years, have shown that the area was of great importance to nomadic tribes and animals because of an abundance of water sources there.
Researchers were concentrating on excavating two ancient springs when they found the camel's remains. At the time the giant camel lived, the area would have been savannah grassland, not the desert of today.