Whacking Wooly

A rather profound bias running through much ecological thought holds that primitive people like hunter-gathers live in “harmony” with the environment and, unlike civilized people, seldom if ever cause significant ecological harm or extinctions. I think this study reported by National Geographic falls into this category. It purports to show that the extinction of macroform mammals like mammoths, camels and horses in North America at the end of the last ice age resulted from climate change and not human predation.

I don’t buy it for several reasons.

The major problem with all arguments about extinctions driven by the end of the ice age climate is that they don’t explain why so many species went extinct at the end of the last ice age (about 10,000 years ago) when they had survived numerous ice ages in the past.

The average mammalian species has a “lifespan” of around 10 million years. Most of the species and sub-species that the study concerns survived for at least 1 million years. Ice ages, however, occur in periods of tens of thousands of years. All the species that suddenly went extinct at the end of the last ice age had survived through at least four or five previous ice ages as well as the warmer intervals in between. The end of the last ice age also doesn’t seem to have been unusual in any way. So we see a pattern where many large species survived numerous cycles of extreme climate change, all to suddenly drop dead at the end of the last age, when modern humans (who evolved about 50,000 years ago in the middle of the last glacial period) suddenly spread into the formerly frozen lands.

You don’t have to be Agatha Christie to figure this one out.

Humans have a profound impact on many species because we hunt in a fundamentally different manner than any other predator. Size is a defense against predators that rely on fang and claw because such attacks have very little penetrating power. They rely on raking, pinning and suffocation to kill. Something as large as a mammoth is nearly immune to such attacks. Modern humans, however, kill or cripple by poking small but deep holes with tools. The pygmies of Africa used to routinely hunt elephants by sneaking up on them in the brush and poking them in the jugular with a sharp stick. They would then just follow the elephant around until it keeled over from blood loss. It is actually easier and more cost effective for humans to hunt large prey than it is for them to hunt small prey. It takes a whole lot of rabbits to add up to one mammoth.

The end of the last ice age saw a sudden drop off in the average size of mammalian species. The giants we see in museums are not just the outliers of millions of years but represent long-term norms. When humans appeared on the scene, especially modern humans with the language skills to coordinate attacks on large animals, size ceased to be a protection. Species shrank or died out. Even species like deer, elk and moose are smaller now than they were 10,000+ years ago. Species resisted human predation by becoming smaller individual targets. Only in sub-sahara Africa, where animals had lived with humans for millions of years, did macroform mammals survive and even those are smaller than their ancestors.

There is nothing mystical about the relationship between pre-civilization peoples and the environment. They show no more awareness of the multi-generational consequences of their actions than do civilized people. In fact, arguably they show less because they have little long term cultural memory. They can’t actually see the consequences of their actions repeated over the course of hundreds of years.

It’s really time for this overly romantic view of hunter-gatherers to go the way of the mammoths.

10 thoughts on “Whacking Wooly”

  1. The myth of the “Noble Savage” has been with us for a very long time. Problem is, it’s provably false based both on archeological evidence and on direct observation.

    Just to take one example: when the people who eventually became known as the Maori arrived in New Zealand, they hunted to extinction all of the ten species of large flightless birds on those islands which collectively we now know as “Moa“.

  2. To second what Steven said, there were also mass extinctions in Australia about 40,000 years ago. That is just about the time humans arrived, and there was not enough ice on the whole continent to chill a six-pack. Coincidence? I think not.

  3. Recently I watched a special on American archeology and the study of a special chipped spearpoint (dang the name escapes me,) which the special tracked across North America. The point was a wonder weapon of the day.

    Strangely enough, the researchers typically found the point next to be bones of large mammals.

    Hunters today are not any different, except they understand the effects of overhunting, overfishing, etc, and have set up organizations to prevent overhunting.

  4. A key difference between traditional societies and modern society is this: by definition, traditional societies tend to do things that have been done before, and hence have worked to some extent (at least, have not destroyed the society so far)..whereas modern societies do things with which they have no experience, based on (at best) purely logical and theoretical analysis.

    In an aviation publication somewhere, the author wrote: “If you do anything with your airplane that is not consistent with the Pilot’s Operating Handbook, then you are a test pilot.”

    Leaders of modern society must, to a great extent, be test pilots–it would be nice if they, and us, recognized that fact.

  5. During the last Ice Age, the climate at the La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles was like that of Monterey, California today. So, when it warmed up, why didn’t the woolly mammoths just walk north to Monterey?

  6. David Foster,

    A key difference between traditional societies and modern society is this: by definition, traditional societies tend to do things that have been done before,

    This is kind of true but doesn’t always apply when the traditional culture is presented by a new environment such as when people migrate to a new area. Traditional cultures also have a hard time identifying long-term multigenerational trends such as centuries long decrease in the population of certain animals due to over hunting.

    You can see this kind of forgetfulness in the history of the pre-columbian people’s of North America. Modern Archeology has found that very large proto-civilizations covered much of the American Midwest but they all collapsed in the 1500-1600 before the Europeans moved into the area due to disease. Most of the people who survived had forgotten what their ancestors had accomplished. Plains indians rapidly developed a culture centered around horses and many believed that horses had always been there even though they clearly were not.

    I think the real difference between contemporary and traditional cultures is that contemporary culture understands that change happens whereas traditional cultures often think it does not.

  7. Isn’t a culture’s ability to both keep traditions and accept changes influenced powerfully by whether its history is written or oral? If it is the former, records remain even when memories are wiped out. That makes dance such an ephemeral art. (e.g., Cambodia) Also, modern society has records broad enough to see more options, more models, more traditions.

    (I suspect this is tangential because you all are using specific definitions of “traditional societies” and “modern ones.” If I am right about my ignorance, would someone please give a short definition?)

  8. Ginny,

    I suspect this is tangential because you all are using specific definitions of “traditional societies” and “modern ones.”

    I would say that in this context, the difference is one between pre-literate/oral cultures and literate cultures. The former only has a “memory” slightly older than the oldest living member. The latter can remember for millennia.

    Literate cultures have memories over two thousand years old. We can identify multigenerational trends. Oral based cultures spend so much energy on fidelity to tradition precisely because their knowledge base is encoded into such a fragile medium. A plague, lost war or famine can erase much of what they know. This almost certainly happened to most of the cultures of the Americas after the Columbian contact.

    I have no doubt that the even smaller cultures of the period following the ice age had even more trouble understanding that, over the course of few centuries, their hunting practices were wiping out most of the macroform species.

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