Homo sapiens is No Ordinary Species

When did big game hunters first start driving other species to extinction? If you go by the Young Earth Creationist’s calendar, even before the dawn of time. In this, the third installment of our series on detrimental denial, we’re going to look at how hunting by humans has been wiping out our fellow animal species since the earliest of times.

According to Richard Leaky and Roger Lewin, authors of The Sixth Extinction: Patterns of Life and the Future of Humankind, “…In recent years it has become undeniable that the evolution of Homo sapiens was to imprint a ruinous signature on the rest of the world, perhaps from the beginning periods.”

In a chapter examining the sudden loss of North American mammals, such as elephants, mastodons, giant sloths, horses, camels and the American lions, paleoanthropologist Leaky and his co-author wrote: “Within a flicker of geological time, between 12,000 and 10,000 years ago, these animals were among some 57 similarly large mammal species to go extinct in North America while a much larger number did so in the southern continent.”  In naming the culprit, Leaky went on to say that stone-aged peoples’ “…north to south population expansion left a trail of destruction, as hunters were easily able to kill large, lumbering prey unused to a new kind of predator. The animals probably had no innate fear of humans, as is often the case in regions of the world that have evolved in the absence of humans; they would therefore have been particularly vulnerable to efficient hunters.”

In the mid-1800s, Scottish geologist Sir Charles Lyle noted of the disappearance of so many North and South American megafauna, that human hunting “is the first idea presented to the mind of almost every naturalist.” But it wasn’t until 1911 that Alfred Russel Wallace, co-developer of the theory of evolution and natural selection, decided, “I’m convinced that the rapidity of…the extinction of so many large mammalia is actually due to man’s agency.”        

Expounding on that concept, University of Arizona paleontologist Paul Martin in 1967 dubbed the over-kill hypothesis the “Pleistocene over-kill.” He noted that the megafaunal extinction phenomenon coincided exactly with the arrival of prolific human hunters armed with new technology: the Clovis spear-points, along with the spear thrower or Atlatl, which (like the “Chuck-it,” a popular kind of tennis ball thrower used in playing fetch with dogs inclined to retrieve) greatly increases throwing distance and accuracy.

Martin calculated that during their southward advance, human numbers could have grown to 600,000 within the 350 years it took them to reach the Gulf of Mexico and to many millions by the time they reached the southern tip of South America, within 1,000 years.

UCLA physiology professor and author, Jared Diamond, concurs with the Pleistocene overkill theory in his book, The Third Chimpanzee: the Evolution and Future of the Human Animal, “…the interpretation that seems most plausible to me, the outcome was a ‘blitzkrieg’ in which the beast were quickly exterminated—possible within a mere 10 years at any given site. If this view is correct, it would have been the most concentrated extinction of big animals since an asteroid collision knocked off the dinosaurs sixty-five million years ago. It would also have been the first of a series of blitzkriegs that marred our supposed Golden Age of environmental innocence and that have remained a human hallmark ever since.”

But the theory is not without its detractors, most notably those who blame climate change alone (the Earth was entering into a post-glacial period) as the driving force of that extinction event, and those who date the arrival of Paleo-Indians in the Americas much earlier.

Leaky addresses the latter with: “It is possible to imagine a series of migrations into North America when glaciation lowered sea levels sufficiently to expose the Bering land bridge that joins Alaska with Siberia. Pre-Clovis entry may have been sparse; in any case, the archaeological imprint implies that significant population growth did not result from them. Only with the coming of the Clovis people does the evidence suggest rapid population expansion, in numbers and in territory occupied. Whatever the date of the first entry, it does not detract from the overkill hypothesis linked to the end-Pleistocene expansion of the Clovis people.”

Meanwhile, Paul Martin addresses the climate issue with: “If ice age climate changes were important in determining the extinction of American large mammals, it is not obvious why earlier glaciations and interglacial warm-ups were unaccompanied by faunal losses.” But the case of the North American wooly mammoth may be the most damning of all to the climate-change-alone theory. An ice-age adapted species that disappeared from most of its range at the end of the Pleistocene epoch 10,000 years ago, isolated populations of the wooly mammoth were able to go on living on St. Paul Island, Alaska, up until just a few thousand years ago, roughly 3750 BC, and on Wrangel Island until 1650 BC—again, coinciding with the arrival of the first humans to those locations.  

Contemporary researchers, such as John Guilday, suggest that the extinctions could be a result of a combination of the deadly impact of human hunting and a changing climate. As he put it, “In any event their combined effect was devastating, and the world is much the poorer.”

Like the global warming skeptic who isn’t comfortable placing blame on human activity for changing the Earth’s climate to the detriment all, the Pleistocene overkill denier has a hard time accepting that humans are responsible for diminishing biodiversity by hunting species to extinction. And some folks might wonder, ‘what’s the point of digging up the past, unearthing the dark side of primitive cultures that we’ve grown fond of thinking of as noble and beyond reproach?’ As Richard Leaky explains, “…human colonization of pristine lands is an extreme example of an invading species and the consequences of that invasion on existing [animal] communities. Mature, species-rich communities can often resist invasion attempts by most species. But Homo sapiens is no ordinary species, and its attempts at invasion are almost always successful and almost always devastating for the existing community. If we are to assess the impact that humans are having on the world today, we need a historical perspective.”

And Paul Martin adds, “The distinction between African and American Pleistocene extinctions is seen in the difference between gradually developing [humans] evolving for millions of years with large animals on one continent, compared with the onslaught of a highly advanced hunting society at the height of its power suddenly arriving on the other. Had America rather than the Old World been the center of human origins, the late Pleistocene record of extinction might well have been reversed.”

In other words, the overkill hypothesis is not meant to just pick on the Paleo-Indians, the Paleo-palefaces were cut of the same loin cloth. Unpopular as the subject may be, the only way to get to the root of the problem of human hunting is to cast off the Rousseauean fantasy that primitive hunting was somehow acceptable or harmonious. No other natural predator launched lethal projectiles from a distance or torched the landscape to drive entire herds of animals off cliffs. 


13 thoughts on “Homo sapiens is No Ordinary Species

  1. Thank you for another enlightening post. If we are ever going to achieve some kind of equitable relationship with the other animals that inhabit our planet we must be willing to critically examine the historical record sans rose-tinted glasses, give up on the myth that primitive indigenous peoples are somehow are more respectful of animal life, and recognize our species as the uniquely destructive, all-pervasive, superpredator that it has always been. Someone once described us as “the universal wolf”, which is a slanderous slur against Canis lupus!

    • You’re welcome, Pete, my pleasure. You’re right, the rose colored glasses must go and be replaced with a dose of reality, otherwise we’re just favoring one group of animal exploiters over another. Unpopular as it may be, if we really want to get to the root of the problem with human hunting, we can’t keep up the Rouseauian fantasy that primitive hunting was good. And no way should Homo sapien hunters be compared to wolves–wolves don’t launch lethal projectiles at their prey from a distance or set fires and drive whole herds off cliffs…

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  3. This is a wonderful expose’ of what Homo sapiens has done to other life and to The Earth since it came down from the forest. Humanism is our disease, as it permeates every institution, concept, philosophy and activity of our species. That is why The Earth is done with us. Here in New Mexico, no greater tragic example can be found than in the official dogma of the Game & Fish Department, which views native wild lives as “commodities” & “resources” to be “used” by stupid, thoughtless, greedy hunters, trappers and fishermen. Because of major forest fires & drought these past several years, wildlife are starving & thirsty. Efforts to discuss establishing Emergency Diversionary Feeding sites in remote areas (away from humans) has fallen on deaf Game Dept. ears. I contacted them in 2012 about setting up some feeding stations, with only robotic response from self-proclaimed wildlife “experts” who said, “we don’t do that kind of thing.” Now, there is public outrage over this agency’s lack of response in this crisis, but still no positive response, by the “Game people” or Susanna Martinez, the governor. But is this a surprise to some of us? No! These Game & Fish Agencies were set up long ago to manipulate, exploit, kill and trap wildlife. They have no redeeming quality. It is time to Abolish these agencies. I will be getting letters or op-eds out in local New Mexico papers, and a Care 2 petition on this issue, but it is clear that we need a massive movement now to get rid of these yahoos. Wildlife in general is on the decline due to Climate Disruption, more human encroachment and antiquated government agencies which control wildlife populations. Our website, foranimals.org is being updated with this info and more. Thank you, Jim, for all you do!

  4. Good News !!! All wolf wildlife and earth defenders around the country are invited…the National Rally to Protect America’s wolves to be held in Washington DC on Saturday Sept 7th 2013 from 9 a.m. To 4 p.m. For information and to register for the rally go on this website http://www.rallyforwolves.org

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  6. Reblogged this on Exposing the Big Game and commented:

    Like the global warming skeptic who isn’t comfortable placing blame on human activity for changing the Earth’s climate to the detriment all, the Pleistocene overkill denier has a hard time accepting that humans are responsible for diminishing biodiversity by hunting species to extinction. And some folks might wonder, ‘what’s the point of digging up the past, unearthing the dark side of primitive cultures that we’ve grown fond of thinking of as noble and beyond reproach?’ As Richard Leaky explains, “…human colonization of pristine lands is an extreme example of an invading species and the consequences of that invasion on existing [animal] communities.

  7. Some archeologists postulated that meat eating began among our hominid precursors by scavenging the kills made by big predators. But over a decade ago researchers working near Lake Victoria in Africa found thousands of stone tools associated with animal bones. The stone artifacts, named Kanjera, were approximately 2 million years old. Researchers deduced that the makers of the tools were living in the grassland rather than in the forest and were already hunting. Most scientists believe that H. sapiens was established about 200,000 years ago, and thus our killing spree started before we were distinct as a species.

    As tool technologies increased with the development of the species, we became more adept and deadly in our hunting, and we have been deemed the culprits in the extinction of the megafauna of this continent. As noted in the excellent article, there are multiple theories of how this occurred and to what extent H. sapiens was at fault.

    Jeffrey K. McKee mentions several factors that may also have influenced the rates of extinction of the megafauna, including not only the pace and degree of climate change and hunting but also the resistance and resiliency of the animals in facing that change. Resistant animals are more adaptable and can maintain their normal populations even as the climate fluctuates. Resilient animals may decrease their populations with change but can bounce back faster with return to natural habitats.

    But there is also the issue of reproductive rate. The large megafauna had long gestation periods and reproduced slowly. Thus reestablishing a normal population would be more difficult and losing animals to climate change, along with hunting, would be more damaging.

    McKee also raises another point about hunting huge animals. A hunting band would likely be limited in how much of the body they could carry to their homes. In the meantime the bodies would be subject to scavenging by the large predators of the time and to decomposition. This raises the question of just how far a mammoth would go in feeding the hunters. It suggests that hunters may have killed more than they actually needed but not because of greed.

    As for blaming H. sapiens for the extinction of whole species, we are certainly causing extinctions now at such a rate that whole species may be gone before we even knew they were here. As for destroying the fantasies of Rousseau, he was writing during the Enlightenment, which had its own theories and ideology of human nature. But it would not be until the beginning of the 20th century that ethnographers would travel the world actually doing field world with indigenous people. They discovered that the lives of the people they observed were not free of the violence and foibles that Rousseau attributed to civilization and industrialization. Human nature does not change with the climate or the culture.

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