Did Ancient Humans cause the mass extinctions of mega-fauna outside of Africa?

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Steve Sailer recently wrote an obituary for Henry Harpinding; a rare anthropologist who was open to the idea that genetics may play a role in racial differences. In the article he quoted the anthropologist and something caught my eye:

Probably most of our readers don’t have personal experience with old-fashioned, Pleistocene-style big game hunting. The only place in which it is still possible – not for much longer, at that – is Africa, where the big game had a chance to adapt as mankind gradually became formidable hunters and thus managed to survive until today. Without that experience, it’s hard to realize how remarkable Neanderthals were, how difficult hunting bison and elk with thrusting spears must have been. It’s not easy to appreciate the risks stone-age hunters had to take when they went after mammoths, rhinos, or Cape buffalo: it’s not exactly safe today, even with modern weapons. One of us, however (Henry Harpending) does have that experience, and the following note gives a flavor of what it’s like – particularly when you don’t have the faintest idea what you’re doing.

Encounter with a Buffalo

When I (HCH) was a graduate student in the 1960’s I spent a year and a half in the northern Kalahari desert doing fieldwork with !Kung Bushmen, foragers who lived by foraging wild foodstuffs and hunting game animals. With several other graduate students we had a base camp near the border with Southwest Africa (now Namibia) about 100 miles south of the Caprivi Strip on the northern border of Botswana. The nearest source of supplies was a two-day trip from their camp by four wheel drive truck.

Several weeks after the rainy season ended there were reports in the neighborhood of a cape buffalo that was harassing people and animals. Often older males lose rank and leave herd to wander by themselves, angry and uncomfortable. They are a threat to people and stock, especially horses.

We were out of meat in our camp, and so with the confidence and foolishness of youth we decided to hunt down the buffalo. We had visions of steaks and chops as well as many pounds of dried meat for travel rations and dog food. At that time permits for Buffalo were only a few dollars from the Botswana game department, and we had several. Although there were stories of Buffalo being aggressive and dangerous to hunt, to my eye they were simply large cattle. Bushmen never hunted them with their poison arrow and spear technology, but they too were naïve and had great faith in our high-powered rifle.

One morning we set off to where the animal had last been reported. The party was a colleague, several young Bushman males, and myself. We soon picked up its tracks and for several hours followed its wanderings through the low thorny scrub. To me the tracks looked exactly like those of a cow but the Bushmen never hesitated. When it was apparent at one point that there were no tracks at all in view I asked, and the Bushmen told me that there was no point in following the tracks since they knew exactly where it was going. We often saw this hunting with Bushmen­–they used actual tracks as a guide but knew the habits of animals so well that they often proceeded on their own to pick up actual tracks later on.

This went on for hours until, suddenly, a young man grabbed my shoulder and said “there it is.” I looked long and hard until I saw it, well camouflaged behind several yards of thick brush, sideways, staring hard at us with its bright pig eyes. It was about forty yards away.

As I brought the rifle up I was dismayed to realize that it still had a powerful telescopic sight. I should have removed it and use open iron sights in thick bush but I had forgotten. With the magnification of the scope I saw a black mass surrounded by brush. It took a moment to locate the front legs, then the chest. Oriented, I aimed and fired. “Bang-whump”, the bang from the rifle and the whump as the bullet struck the buffalo. He jerked a little, then simply stood there staring at me. “Bang-whump, bang-whump” as I fired two more rounds.

Now he tossed his head and snorted, then started running toward us. Buffalo charge with their nose high, only lowering their head to use their horns on contact. I fired one more round at the charging animal, head on, simply pointing at him because he was so close, then turned and ran. We discovered later that the bullet had struck his shoulder, ricocheted off his scapula, and exited through the skin on his side. It certainly didn’t slow him down at all: I might as well have been shooting at a railroad locomotive.

There were three of us running away now from the charging animal: my colleague, our camp dog, and myself.

The most obvious take away from this quote is that hunting large animals is incredibly difficult, even with modern high-powered rifles. Hunting them with wooden spears seems almost impossible, especially given Harpending’s impression that the bushmen wouldn’t hunt buffalo because they were too dangerous (let alone elephants). I find this quite believable. The second more subtle thing to notice about the quote is the assumption that despite the difficulty of stone age hunting, anatomically modern humans were able to completely wipe out 100s of species all over the world, including more than fifty in North America as it was slowly populated by the earliest Native Americans. This immediately brings up the question, if Native Americans really were so good at genociding animal species, why do modern anthropologists get so judgmental on European conquest of America? Surely the genocide of 50 species of animals is no worse than the genocide of one human race by another? How many extinct animal species does it take before a group of humans no longer gets special-snowflake victim status? Apparently more than 50. Of course, that logic only works if native Americans ACTUALLY wrought that level of devastation on animals.

Unlike Anthropologists, however, I am not quite ready to accept that small numbers of hunter-gatherer Native Americans, armed only with spears and/or bows, were able to ruthlessly exterminate huge species like the saber-tooth cat, woolly mammoth, and North American rhinoceros down to the last individual. Fortunately, a (relatively) new hypothesis for the cause of the most recent mass extinction event has been proposed. Specifically, the younger-dryas comet impact event which occurred around 12800 years ago. The idea is that a comet split into fragments and impacted at multiple points across the North American ice sheet, mostly over modern day Canada. Many of these fragments may have burst in the air like the Tunguska event and even any that may have hit ground would have encountered a mile or more thick ice sheet. Ice this thick makes finding residual craters unlikely after the ice melted. [The evidence for this theory is discussed extensively by Randall Carlson]

Each comet fragment was estimated to be 1 – 2 km in size. A vast amount of energy could be expected to be released by the impact of the fragments, on the same order as large nuclear explosions. The energy released by these explosions would have lead to a very sudden melting of vast amounts of ice, biblical scale flooding across North America and potentially catastrophic sea level rise everywhere else. (Perhaps the flood in the bible isn’t quite as mythical as is generally believed.) One possible geological feature that could be accounted for by this is the channeled scablands in eastern Washington state.  I know the previously linked article states that this was caused by periodic large floods from the defunct lake Missoula, however Bretz, the geologist who proposed the idea of the scablands being formed in a massive flood, originally thought it was caused by a once-only almost unimaginable flooding event, and it was from constant bickering with his peers that the periodic flooding narrative was eventually accepted. The idea of and evidence for a comet impact around the time of the formation of the scablands has only been around since 2007 so the jury is still out on whether or not it constitutes a better explanation for the scablands than lake Missoula. It very well might.

Evidence for the impact includes things like carbon/rare metal layers, small spherical glass structures requiring high heat to form spread across much of the northern hemisphere, and enrichment of helium-3; a light gas which quickly escapes into space when not sequestered underground. You can see in the picture below the locations where geoscientists have unearthed evidence for this impact:


Beyond the material evidence for a cosmic impact (and the known extinctions you would expect such an impact to cause), the younger dryas was a period of exceptional cooling suddenly following a period of warming. This pattern is consistent with a planetary scale impact event; one which would throw a lot of light blocking dust into the atmosphere. The sudden deep freeze could be expected to heavily tax the survivors of the impact event itself and basically finish them off.

Earth temperatures

Which seems more likely to kill off hundreds of species all across the planet at around the same time: Cave men with wooden spears or an impact like that which probably killed off the dinosaurs albeit at a smaller scale? If you hadn’t guessed, I am going to put my money on an impact event. That isn’t to say ancient humans never caused the occasional extinction of isolated species, say native only to a small island, but the idea that stone-age humans could cause extinctions on this scale, this widely dispersed geographically, and in that short amount of time is and always has been preposterous. I can only speculate on how Anthropologists came to widely believe in the idea of ancient-human caused mass extinctions. It perhaps is the result of a mixture of environmentalist activism portraying humans as evil killers, made popular in the 20th century when this mass extinction became known and needed explaining, and a general conceit by humans to see themselves as the ultimate evolutionary product capable of profound alterations of the environment even with the most primitive tools. Regardless, an impact event seems a far more likely cause of mass extinctions than hunter-gatherers.

Moving on to something a lot more speculative and quite likely bullshit (but the kind of bullshit that is fun to think about). It is worth remembering Plato in light of the new evidence of a catastrophic impact 12800 years ago. In his critias and Timaeus Plato wrote descriptions of the lost civilization of Atlantis:

For it is related in our records how once upon a time your State stayed the course of a mighty host, which, starting from a distant point in the Atlantic ocean, was insolently advancing to attack the whole of Europe, and Asia to boot. For the ocean there was at that time navigable; for in front of the mouth which you Greeks call, as you say, ‘the pillars of Heracles,’ there lay an island which was larger than Libya and Asia together; and it was possible for the travelers of that time to cross from it to the other islands, and from the islands to the whole of the continent over against them which encompasses that veritable ocean. For all that we have here, lying within the mouth of which we speak, is evidently a haven having a narrow entrance; but that yonder is a real ocean, and the land surrounding it may most rightly be called, in the fullest and truest sense, a continent. Now in this island of Atlantis there existed a confederation of kings, of great and marvelous power, which held sway over all the island, and over many other islands also and parts of the continent.

Plato’s account was very forth-rightly not a primary source. If he didn’t make it up outright, it was a story passed down by multiple generations of Greeks and the Greeks originally learned of it from the Egyptians, who also would have had to pass it down many generations. Therefore, any specifics he mentions probably can’t be all that reliable. Although, the continent mentioned in the passage above does remind the modern reader of America fairly easily. In particular, Plato was thought to have written his accounts of Atlantis around 360 BC and in them he mentions that Atlantis sank 9000 years before the time of Solon, who was multiple generations senior to Plato. This works out to roughly 9600 years before 360BC. Doing the math, that is about 11,976 years before the present day. Now, that doesn’t exactly match the time of the comet impact, but when you take into account the date of the impact itself has a margin of error of 200 or so years around 12800, the fact that Plato was relating a story that had essentially undergone a very long game of “telephone,” and no one really knows exactly when he wrote it or when Solon lived, the time frame is actually not that unreasonably off given the expected high degree of error all around. Certainly Plato’s description of the fall of Atlantis puts it close to when a planetary scale catastrophic event, one expected to cause massive flooding (and probably earthquakes and other geological upheavals), actually took place.

Still, just because there was a civilization destroying event doesn’t mean there was an actual civilization to destroy at the time. Is there any reason to think such a civilization could have existed? Rune soup took a big stab at this before, and I won’t repeat that massive effort, but I will mention some things I find relevant. Homo sapiens as a species have existed in their modern form for about 200,000 years. Presumably these humans have had a level of intelligence comparable to our own for most of that time, so it is kind of odd, when you think about it, that it took our ancestors so long to develop basic innovations such as agriculture, larger organized groups, and stone architecture. Physiologically they should have been able to do it far earlier than the 5,200 years ago conventionally accepted. What was going on for the other 195,000 years?

We don’t see too much evidence of large megalithic structures characteristic of a civilization before Mesopotamia, however there are some hints. The oldest known megalithic structure, as far as I know, only goes back to about 10,000 years ago (which puts the normal claim of the start of civilization 5,200 years ago in a hard spot by itself, but I won’t get into that). If civilization did exist before that, where did they leave all their temples and palaces? Please take a look at the following map:


This is a best guess map of dry land during the ice age when sea levels were considerably lower. The map looks a lot like today, but if you pay attention there is quite a bit more land. Of special note is in Indonesia where instead of a series of islands there is a very large and presumably fertile plain. When sea levels rose, an area larger than the size of modern day India was inundated in that area alone. In addition, you will also notice that England in this map is not an island but attached to Europe and none of the north sea is visible. During the ice age the English channel would have all been above the surface. Though these two are notable examples, there is a very large amount of land all over the globe which was above sea level then and is below sea level now. Scientists estimate that sea level rose about 120 meters globally after the end of the ice age. Also of critical importance is the fact that today 44% of the worlds population lives within 150 kilometers of a coast line. Most big cities are on coasts as well, if this pattern has always been true or even more pronounced in the past then you would expect most historical civilizations to build close to the sea. And if they built close to the sea during the last ice age everything they built is probably under water today.

Does this mean Atlantis definitely existed? Not really. Considering the journey the story of Atlantis took before Plato wrote about it, his account is, by and large, unreliable. Even if Atlantis did exist in reality, I can’t help but think Plato’s account is unlikely to be an accurate description (through no fault of his own). But perhaps the question just needs to be rephrased. Is it possible that ancient civilizations existed earlier than is currently accepted in academia, even before the end of the last ice age? I would say yes if you loosely define civilization to be a society large and organized enough to engage in big architectural works with stone. Humans have been physiologically capable of such work for around 200,000 years; more than enough time and long enough before the end of the ice age to get the ball rolling. If they had engaged in big architectural projects, they almost certainly would have built their structures on land that is now under the sea and thus very difficult to find. Any such civilization that existed during the younger dryas comet almost certainly would have been destroyed. Even if they weren’t close to the impact site, their coastal cities would have flooded a short time after the impact and any agriculture not stopped due to the flooding would have had to contend with much lower temperatures and reduced sunlight. It is hard to imagine any civilization surviving that.

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