This will be the second of what might become quite a few posts inspired by Alan Weisman’s book, The World Without Us. This time, I’ll be focusing on a discussion from the book of the extinction of the Pleistocene megafauna, i.e. mammoths, mastodons, giant sloths, monstrous marsupials, and other cool stuff.
Weisman interviewed Dr. Paul Martin, the first proponent of the hypothesis that the giant, hairy animals of the Pleistocene were driven extinct by human hunting. This is a controversial, hotly debated hypothesis, my understanding of the subject tells me it is probably correct, but that’s not the point of this post. Rather, I have a bone to pick with the author over the manner in which he depicted the hypothesis in his book.
Weisman refers to the hypothetical over-hunting more than once as a “slaughter,” and even as “genocide.” He depicts the first human settlers of the Americas as brainless, bloodthirsty killing machines, rather like the first Dutch sailors to arrive at Mauritia, who clubbed the dodo into extinction simply because it was easy. He imputes to these first hominid arrivals to the Western Hemisphere a slovenly disregard for life, a brutish fondness of killing whatever animals didn’t have the sense to fight back. This portrayal is absurd, as I hope to demonstrate.
Dr. Martin based his hypothesis partly on the revelation that the Pleistocene megafauna went extinct within 1000 years of the first humans’ arrival in the Americas. 1000 years is the briefest batting of an eyelash in geological terms, so the brief interval strongly suggests that humans had something to do with the extinctions.
To a human being, however, 1000 years is a barely imaginable length of time. Could a campaign of genocide, which, remember, is the deliberate extermination of a race or group, be sustained for 1000 years by a loose band of hunter-gatherers? No modern genocide attempt has lasted that long.
No genocide, then. What about wholesale slaughter? Of course not. It’s absurd to imagine that anyone would deliberately eliminate their own food source. A far more likely explanation, and one offered in the book, is that the megafauna of North and South America simply hadn’t evolved the wariness of humans that their cousins in Africa developed. They were easy prey, and simply couldn’t compete with a new, efficient predator.
It’s possible that I’ve read too much into this part of Weisman’s excellent book, but to my mind it adds to a trend that runs throughout. The premise of the book, after all, is an exploration of what the world might be like if all humans were to disappear; implicit in that is that humans have some intrinsic negative effect on the world, that will begin to “heal” once we’re gone. The depiction of the hypothetical over-hunting of the Pleistocene megafauna as a “slaughter” or a “genocide” is just a part of it.
I hope to explore this particular beef with the book more in a later post. I’ll reiterate that the book is otherwise excellent, and I highly recommend it.