Why did the big mammals suddenly die out in America? Was it climate change or slaughter by native Americans? An event of more than 11,000 years ago is refracted through the lens of modern politicsby Matt Ridley / June 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Halfway along wilshire Boulevard, between Beverly Hills and the Wilshire country club, there is a tiny park called Hancock park with a little pond in it. The pond looks quaint enough, until you notice the sheen on the surface and the viscous bubbles that occasionally break that sheen. It is a natural seepage of oil, known as the La Brea Tar pit. A museum stands in the park and in it are the bones of all the animals that have been dredged from the swamps that once surrounded the site. There are wild camels, wild horses, mastodons, sabre-toothed tigers, wolves, lions and many more such skeletons. The animals came year after year, attracted by the “water” and became mired in the tar.
All the creatures that died in the La Brea Tar pits are now extinct. Even if there were no Los Angeles, they would not come back. Yet once upon a time the area was as rich in big mammals as the Serengeti plain. What happened to those animals? This might seem like an innocent empirical question for objective scientists. But it is in fact an increasingly fraught question-one that has highly political overtones.
First, the facts. Archaeologists agree that there occurred-between 12,000 and 8,000 years ago-a holocaust known as the Pleistocene overkill, which killed almost all the large mammals on the two American continents. Familiar creatures-wild camels, wild horses, giant beavers, giant capybaras, several kinds of deer, antelope, bear and llama-disappeared. So did the beasts that caught our imaginations in school: sabre-toothed and scimitar-toothed tigers, short-faced bears, mammoths, giant sloths. So did things we hardly know how to pronounce, and which left not even distant relatives for us to see: glyptodonts, gomphotheres, toxodonts, litopterns. In all, about 75 per cent of all the large mammals of North and South America disappeared.
The long established scientific consensus is that it was all our ancestors’ fault, or rather, and this is where things start to get political, the fault of the ancestors of native Americans. They arrived in Alaska across the Bering land bridge tens of thousands of years ago, but were initially prevented from moving farther south by an ice cap stretching from the Yukon to the Rockies. Not until 12,000 years ago did the ice retreat enough to let through a tribe known by the unlikely, Saki-like name of the Clovis people (from one of their sites…