Tuesday, July 05, 2016

The Missing Megafauna.

Everyone is quite aware of the big animals that have gone extinct around us in historical times. And no one who is sane and reasonable would argue against the fact that it is humans who have destroyed so many creatures. Either through hunting or by habitat destruction, it is modern industrial-era humans who have wiped out a disturbing chunk of our own natural heritage. And, of course, we continue to do this at an alarming rate.

But what I often discover is that a lot of people I encounter refuse to acknowledge the fact that ancient cultures were also guilty of wiping out the large animals that once wandered across vast swathes of land in the paleolithic world. There are several reasons for this stubborn refusal to see the facts as they stand. One of these is a certain kind of inability to think of Stone Age people as being capable of wiping out large numbers of big mammals, reptiles, and birds.

But humans armed with stone tools, spears, darts, atlatls, and fire were quite capable of slaughtering tremendous numbers of big animals in a short period of time. And when you factor in that detail that people were spreading across the world and moving into areas where such animals had no experience with humans...it was a recipe for mass extinction. People with throwing sticks tipped with razor sharp spears were extremely efficient in slaughtering big animals.

The other reason I for resistance from people who won't seriously consider the facts is that they have a picture in their minds of ancient people being beatific, of living in some kind of perfect harmony with Mother Nature. The noble savage. The human who only takes as much from the Earth as it can provide, and who gives back as much as he takes.

This is bullshit.

Ancient humans were as rapacious as modern ones, albeit in a different way. If they were hungry and figured that they had to run an entire herd of horses or bison over a cliff to feed one hundred people, then they would gladly force a thousand prey animals over a precipice to their deaths, even if they were unable to consume but a tiny percentage of the tons of meat produced in such a slaughter. They thought only of their immediate needs, just as humans often do today. As Homo sapiens moved across the lands they discovered, they killed off many of the animals that they encountered.

People like to think that the Aboriginal people of Australia lived in harmony with the land. And this may have been the case of the tribes the Europeans found when they first arrived by ship to that huge island. It's quite possible that the Aborigine had learned after tens of thousands of years how to maintain something like a balance with the ecosystem that remained to them after killing off so much of it. But when you look at the fossil record you will see that the mass extinction of the megafauna of Australia coincided with the arrival of the native humans. As they sped across the land they killed off many of the big animals they found and cleared them out to the last individual. There were bellies to be filled.

Similarly in North America you see the arrival of the first people and then the demise of Mammoths and Mastodons and American lions, Saber-toothed tigers, Megatherium, Glyptodons, Castoroides, Camels, Horses, the Short-faced bear, and on and on. Humans had to eat. And eat they did. Only animals who could reproduce in sufficient numbers stood a chance.

Humans found New Zealand and moved across that island paradise that had been all but isolated from the rest of the world for millions of years. And as they settled it from east to west, north to south, sea level to mountains...they killed off all of the big animals that lived there, wiping out almost every type of giant bird that had lived there. Of this there is absolutely no doubt. There was no living in concert with the land and finding harmony with the natural processes. They found and killed and ate until all of the megafauna were dead.

And it's pretty much the same today. There's almost nothing that moves on the land or swims in the sea or flies through the skies that we aren't going to eat or kill out of a sense of competition or just plain old cruelty. Worse than that...almost no one cares.

Life-size statue of the extinct Moa of New Zealand.
The extinction of the Australian megafauna and the North American Pleistocene megafauna occurred just after humans arrived. This was not coincidence. Humans wiped out all of the big animals wherever they moved.

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