Victim of a paleo-Indian’s blitzkrieg?
This week a study carried out by scientists at the University of Essex in England got picked up far and wide. It purported to prove once and for all that overhunting or some other excessive behavior by prehistoric man such as setting out-of-control fires led to the extinction of many large-scale mammals (megafauna) such as mammoths, woolly rhinos and sabertooth tigers. Their computer-generated data supposedly now ruled out climate change as the cause. The study is behind a paywall and probably too technical for the lay reader (including me) but the takeaway is conveyed by this graph, which indicates that there is a direct relationship between the rate of extinction and geography. They occur most frequently on islands and the smaller the island, the greater the risk. This should come as no surprise and it would likely rule out woolly mammoths becoming extinct on some South Pacific island.
I doubt that this study will have much effect on those who believe that climate change was responsible, especially since it is virtually impossible to nail down exactly what happened 15,000 years or so ago. However, the debate is of keen interest to me as someone who has written about American Indian history since I noticed long ago when I first began writing about it there was a tendency for academics I ran into on the Internet to draw analogies between the overhunting of megafauna with modern capitalist despoliation of wildlife and natural resources. They were anxious to label any ex post facto defense of primitive communism as an exercise in Rousseau’s “noble savage” idealization.
Paul Martin is the scholar most identified with the wasteful overhunting thesis. In a book titled “Twilight of the Mammoths: Ice Age Extinctions and the Rewilding of America”, he coined the term “blitzkrieg effect” that likens spear and club wielding tribes millennia ago to the Wehrmacht. His case is largely based on the coincidence of the Clovis spear with the beginnings of these extinctions as if it was the hydrogen bomb of its time.
I have also had some discussions about these matters with Guy Robinson Jr., the son of the British philosopher who I got to know fairly well through his time on Marxmail. Guy Jr.’s dissertation was on the overhunting of megafauna in New York State. Looking at mastodon bones from 13,000 years ago certainly has some value but I often wonder to what extent archaeologists project their own worldviews into the distant past. After all, in a world marked by senseless brutality, why not assume that the megafauna were killed wantonly?
While there have been many rebuttals of the overhunting thesis, with Dale Guthrie’s climate change hypothesis gaining the most attention, the most convincing for me is an article titled “A requiem for North American overkill” by Donald K. Grayson and David J. Meltzer that appeared in the Journal of Archaeological Science 30 (2003). They are also quite right in linking the popularity of the Paul Martin thesis with the sociobiological tendency to paint early man as a ruthless and scary savage:
It is easy to show that overkill’s continued popularity is closely related to the political uses to which it can be put. Take, for instance, Peter Ward’s recent discussion of the matter. Ward—a superb paleontologist whose scientific research focuses on fossils that are between about 300 million and 60 million years old—is convinced by Martin’s arguments, concluding that “the ravages of hungry people surely were involved in the destruction of many species now extinct” [88, p. 223]. In this conclusion, he finds “tragic validity for times approaching”: “the Snake River salmon is virtually extinct . king crab fishing in Alaska has been essentially terminated because the stocks are gone; the great shellfish fisheries of Puget Sound have been halted because the oysters and mussels are too poisoned by industrial wastes to eat” [88, p. 227]. For Ward, the overkill position is inextricably linked to modern times and to the homily of ecological ruin.
Ward is not alone in taking this approach. In The Third Chimpanzee, ecologist Jared Diamond enthuses over Martin’s argument and ends the chapter with a brief discussion of “the blitzkriegs by which modern European hunters nearly exterminated bison, whales, seals, and many other large animals”. The next chapter begins with a discussion of “the risk of a nuclear holocaust” [22, pp. 347–348].
For these discussions, and others like them, overkill provides powerful political capital. That we may agree with the political goals of these authors is immaterial. Our concern here is that both science and environmental concerns are being done a disservice by relying on claims that have virtually no empirical support. We are not suggesting that those who use overkill in this way do so in disregard of the facts against it. We do believe, however, that they are insufficiently familiar with the archaeological and paleontological records bearing on overkill, and so cannot properly judge Martin’s claims of its explanatory power.
In fact, Martin’s recent writings suggest to us that he is no longer trying to approach this issue within a scientific framework. As we have noted, he explicitly maintains that the North American overkill position does not require supporting evidence. He is unconcerned that archaeologists ‘wash their hands’ of his ideas. He criticizes the search for pre-Clovis sites in the New World as “something less than serious science, akin to the ever popular search for ‘Big Foot’ or the ‘Loch Ness Monster’” [58, p. 278]. As one of us has observed elsewhere, Martin’s position has become a faith-based policy statement rather than a scientific statement about the past, an overkill credo rather than an overkill hypothesis [36,37].
By emphasizing the nature of the problem and by focusing research on the latest Pleistocene archaeology and paleontology of North America, Martin’s arguments have led to a good deal of productive science. Now, however, it has become quite clear that things did not happen the way that Martin has envisaged. Martin’s arguments drawn from islands are not relevant to continental settings, especially given that in every known instance, island extinctions were accompanied by massive habitat disruption. Northern Hemisphere mammal communities saw substantial extinctions at the end of the Pleistocene, with or without Clovis and even with or without a human presence. There are no kill sites for 26 of the 28 genera of North American herbivores and only 14 sites for the remaining two. It remains fully possible that the North American extinctions were not confined to the very end of this period, but were scattered across thousands of years, as occurred in Europe. Unless we can somehow accept that the very absence of evidence demonstrates that overkill occurred, it is time to focus on understanding what really did happen. Unfortunately, what did happen is not at all clear. Although a number of climate-based hypotheses have been forwarded for North America [28,41], none have gained widespread acceptance, since none connect particular climate variables with particular organisms in powerful ways. Doing so is likely to be a daunting task, since it is very likely that an adequate explanation will have to be built by treating each organism on its own . Nonetheless, experience in other parts of the world shows that it can be done [18,40]. It is clearly time to begin the task in a North American context.
Finally, I would be remiss if I neglected to mention Vine DeLoria Jr.’s take on all this in a chapter titled “Mythical Pleistocene Hit Men” in his book “Red Earth, White Lies: Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact” that can be read in its entirety on Google Books.
His interest obviously is in revealing the racism that underlies the overhunting hypothesis. I found his write-up most useful when I first began looking at these matters. I am struck by his reference to bison being driven off the edge of cliffs since this exactly what I heard back in 1996 or so when I began making the case for the American Indian:
Since these events, if they did indeed occur, happened some 12,000 to 15,000 years ago, why should it matter? It matters immensely because the image which science has given American Indians is such that modem Indians are blamed for the extinction of these creatures. Conservative newspaper columnists, right-wing fanatics, sportsmen’s groups, and scholars in general tend to see the “overkill” hypothesis as symptomatic of a lack of moral fiber and ethical concern for the Earth among Indians. Some people are offended by the thought that many people believe that Indians were more concerned and thoughtful ecologists than modem industrial users. Advocating the extinction theory is a good way to support continued despoilation of the environment by suggest-ing that at no time were human beings careful of the lands upon which they lived.
I can speak here from firsthand personal knowledge. In 1990, I was invited to speak at Stanford University, trumpeted as the “Harvard of the West,” to celebrate its one hundredth anniversary. I was asked to speak on the Indian relationship with the land, and I tried as best I could to outline the philosophical principles I thought would be meaningful to the audience and the values I thought were involved in the Indian perspective on the natural world. The first question from the audience when I finished was a person asking whether I didn’t think running hundreds of buffalo over a cliff was wasteful. The tone of the question implied that the previous weekend other invited Indian speakers and myself had destroyed hundreds of bison somewhere in Wyoming. Since the only recent slaughter of buffalo that I could remember was the Super Bowl, I took offense and refused to answer any more questions. I did not think that political correctness, applied retroactively to 15,000 B.C., was appropriate.