American Megafauna Gone Extinct In the Last 20,000 Years. Arctodus Primus, Megatherium, Smilodon. For the scale, the whitish American Lion is 30% larger than today's African lions.

American Megafauna Gone Extinct In the Last 20,000 Years. Arctodus Primus, Megatherium, Smilodon. For the scale, the whitish American Lion is 30% larger than today’s African lions.

A characteristic of today’s biosphere is that most wild megafauna has gone extinct. The culprit is Homo Sapiens in general, and civilization made the situation worse. However, 40 years ago, if one suggested human beings had annihilated the megafauna, one was viewed as unbalanced, unscientific, a conspiracy theorist, grandiloquent, megalomaniac, etc.

Nowadays, though, detailed chronologies have shown that, indeed Homo Sapiens caused many extinctions. I hold that Homo Sapiens caused directly most extinctions of the last 100,000 years. And, indirectly, the rest.

Some have held out against this global extinction theory. They brandish the case of Africa, where the megafauna had survived until recently.

I will presently extinguish this effrontery. Africa is extremely hard to penetrate. The African tropical forest is much darker than the darkest cathedral. The sahelian and subsahelian zone are crisscrossed by “forest gallery”, along the countless streams. Forest gallery is extremely dark, thick, full of dangers, from nasty predators to tsetse flies. Thus, to go ten kilometers in Africa is extremely hard. The streams, when any, are dangerous to navigate, from mosquitoes, to crocodiles, to man-eating, blinding worms. Forest galleries provided shelter to predators, including lions.

(Once I walked next to a lion, 2 or 3 meters away in a very thick thicket, when approaching, precisely, a river, in a sandy, open area; because of the openness, we did not pay attention to the thicket. What was a lion, we guessed, because we did not really see it, jumped away to great sound and fury; the point is that nobody in my party suspect a lion was indulging in a siesta in such a place.)

Moreover, in Africa, animals were in contact with men, for millions of years. So they evolved their own cultures, transmitting it to their children. It’s not just a matter of fearing man and running away (because a fleeing animal could run into other animals, or other men). A culture to live alongside human beings required mutual respect.

Lions, hyenas and even leopards know very well who men and their children are. They act accordingly, in general, except in exceptional cases.

I have given sugar to enormous jumping wild African dogs; I would throw the sugar up in the air, and the dogs would catch it at an extravagant height, with an impressive metallic snapping of jaws. Any other animals, those dogs would take down. Wild hyenas have also accepted to be hand fed by human beings. Hyenas’ relations with other animals are extremely adverse. Their jaws are feared by lions and dogs alike. The same is true with cheetahs: they readily domesticate. I have sat, as a ten-year old, in the back of cars with cheetahs larger than me. Cheetahs can take down a huge impala in a second, but they don’t attack people.

So this is something I noticed in the wilds of Africa, again and again: the most ferocious representatives of the megafauna there , know very well who human beings are. They will not just think twice before attacking a human child: generally, they will not do it. One does not attack the gods, if one is a well-educated, normally behaved member of the African megafauna.

In the Americas, as human beings swept in, fast, lethally, and suddenly, mutual respect cultures could not evolve: archeology shows that it would take at most 300 years for human beings to kill the entire megafauna of a region. In Eurasia, there are giant killing grounds of horses, mammoths, etc: this means human beings killed animals there, for thousands of years. There are no such places in the Americas.

So human beings did it: they exterminated the megafauna. That’s not just a fact, it’s a warning. First the megafauna, now the rest of the biosphere?

Patrice Ayme’


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8 Responses to “Extinctions”

  1. Paul Handover Says:

    As I am prone to say, will the last person left on the planet please turn the lights off!

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      I wrote the essay while camping (!) and after a hard run, and conversation with a top paleontologist who is the one who told me about the African objection. I just added a number of personal details from experiences I had. I may add the baboon war thing…

  2. dominique deux Says:

    Do not forget the oceanic megafaune, hunted and harassed to near-extinction.

    However the megafauna is only part of the story and the worry; genuine ecologists (not the rabid ignorant-green variety) know that species which are neither big, nor cuddly, nor pretty are as much at risk, while being ignored by the public concern for the so-called “charismatic” fauna and flora. And their extinction is an even bigger threat to ecological balance and so-called “ecological services” (the valuable, necessary even, goods and services mankind gets, free of charge, from its natural surroundings). The vanishing of a top predator may even leave more breathing space for the lower echelons of the trophic chains; whereas the disappearance or erosion of middle level echelons can (and did) topple whole chains down.

    And it is not only a matter of hunting gone wild; most of the “extermination” stems from peaceful encroachment on the fauna abd flora’s habitats.

    Of course, extinctions are part and parcel of evolution (not its preferred tool, but common enough). The worry here is their extremely accelerated rate at the hands of the intelligent, technological megafauna, which gives them all the characteristics of catastrophic events: fast, irreversible, unbalancing. The mass extinction of dinosaurs really spread over millions of years, and was not thorough – they’re still among us and on our plates.

    It is necessary to understand and address this accelerating trend not only because we coddled suburbanites would (rightly) feel a bit sad if lions or great white sharks went over the edge; for humanity to exist at all in the long term, it has an absolute need of balanced, functional ecosystems all over the planet. Their survival cannot be left to chance or the markets any longer (no judgment here; the time scale of the markets is simply too short-term to be of any relevance to ecosystems, which have huge time inertia). Simple self-interest should warn us off fouling our nest… starting now.

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      As I said to Paul, the circumstances were special: a friend camping with me whose job is to be tops in that academic area rolled the challenge of Africa to me. This was a condensation of part of the conversation, and I have just added to it. I may add more.
      You are very right that the oceanic megafauna nearly got exterminated. A few weeks ago, I turned around an elephant seal, close enough to touch it (it was listening to my mellifluous discourse). Meanwhile, giant, bus sized humpback whales were fishing, 200 feet away. I know that giant beach well, and I never saw that much megafauna on it. Yes, sea lions were also jumping, on either side of the breakers…

  3. Gmax Says:

    You had lots of educative experiences in Africa. What is that baboon story? Are baboons man savvy too? I guess they would be

  4. EugenR Says:

    These Gods seem to have very limited God like skills. They infinitely propagate their spices, at first for millennia they create a political system its head is always a professional murderer or his descendents. When they finally change this habit then they create a system that considers only short term goals, viz the US elections at present.

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