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.