What Killed the Great Beasts of Prehistory?

From a recent study:

Scientists at the universities of Exeter and Cambridge claim their research settles a prolonged debate over whether humankind or climate change was the dominant cause of the demise of massive creatures in the time of the sabretooth tiger, the woolly mammoth, the woolly rhino and the giant armadillo.

“Known collectively as megafauna, most of the largest mammals ever to roam the earth were wiped out over the last 80,000 years, and were all extinct by 10,000 years ago.

“Lewis Bartlett, of the University of Exeter, led the research, which also involved the universities of Reading and Bristol and is published in the journal Ecography. He said cutting-edge statistical analysis had helped solve the mystery almost beyond dispute, concluding that man was the dominant force in wiping out the creatures, although climate change could also have played a lesser role.

“Lewis Bartlett, a researcher from the University of Exeter’s Centre for Ecology and Conservation, said: “As far as we are concerned, this research is the nail in the coffin of this 50-year debate — humans were the dominant cause of the extinction of megafauna. What we don’t know is what it was about these early settlers that caused this demise. Were they killing them for food, was it early use of fire or were they driven out of their habitats? Our analysis doesn’t differentiate, but we can say that it was caused by human activity more than by climate change. It debunks the myth of early humans living in harmony with nature.”

Paul S. Martin is the guy who formally proposed that it was people who caused these extinctions. As the article above illustrates, the subject has been hotly debated ever since.

My hypothesis:

In the past I often wondered how so many extinctions could have happened in a big, wild world with with lots of places for animals to run and only a fraction of the human population we have today. The only thing I can come up with, the only thing that makes sense, is that it must have been deliberate. In other words, there came a point in our distant past when people decided it was time to rid the world of the great beasts, those animals that competed with, sometimes preyed upon, and so terrified us. And so it became a mission, a millennias long crusade even, what Martin called the “blitzkrieg model”, effectuated with an almost religious fervor, to wipe these animals out. Thus they were demonized. Evil, people thought. Devils. Monsters. Beasts with fangs, claws and horns! (origin of our Devil, demon myths? Note also that most of our scary movies involve fanged, clawed or horned monsters).

I imagine that hunting the great beasts was the sole vocation for many, many generations of (“heroic”) men, who raised their sons, who then raised their own sons as well, and on and on, to do the same. Exterminate. Humanize the world. Make it safe for us. It would have been, I think, something like the popular Far Cry Primal video game, created just so that we can continue their hunt, if only in our fantasies now that they’re gone (notice that “objective complete” at the end of this snippet?).

Seeing as our numbers were small, most of the animals we encountered, at least initially, had rarely, if ever, seen us before, so they weren’t afraid and did not run when we came. They were sitting ducks.

The Epic of Gilgamesh

The Epic of Gilgamesh

Eventually those that remained learned to fear us and they became better at evading and hiding.

Now, on the edge of the Sixth Extinction we are still hunting them, those that are left, even though the threat has long since passed and their numbers are but a fraction of ours. And one by one they fall away. Strands in the great web of life. Not monsters, but fellow species, family actually, on this journey of life. Isn’t it time we grew up and stopped shaking in the dark? We’ve won. Isn’t it time to end the war?

How sad for the world if we don’t. I, for one, wouldn’t want to live on a planet with nothing but people.

We are all the poorer for every species that disappears because

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