Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 15, 2009

The Woolly Mammoth and the Noble Savage

Filed under: evolutionary psychology,indigenous — louisproyect @ 8:15 pm

Back in the mid-1990s when I first began writing about American Indians and ecology, I was surprised to see how eager some progressives, and even some Marxists, were to characterize the Indians as just as wasteful as a modern corporation. Talking points included bison being driven off cliffs, as well as the earliest ancestors of modern Indians being responsible for killing off the woolly mammoth and a number of other Pleistocene megafauna.

The extremely distinguished Marxist David Harvey wrote an extremely undistinguished book called “Justice, Nature, and the Geography of Difference” (nobody is perfect) that included these talking points, including the following:

Archaeological evidence likewise suggests that late ice-age hunting groups hunted many of their prey to extinction while fire must surely rate as one of the most far-reaching agents of ecological transformation ever acquired, allowing very small groups to exercise immense ecosystemic influence.

Harvey’s citation for this is a 1956 article by Carl Sauer, a geographer who has the distinction of being the first to put forward the overkill hypothesis but it is really Paul S. Martin who has become the most prominent defender. Martin, a U. of Arizona geosciences professor emeritus, began writing about Pleistocene extinctions and Clovis people’s sole responsibility for the “blitzkrieg” in 1967.  (The Clovis were “paleo-Indians” named after the archaeological site in New Mexico where a characteristic spear point was discovered.)

Clovis spear head

Unfortunately, very few of Martin’s articles are available online except for those who have access to a research library, as I do. If you want to read a fairly typical example, I would refer you to the March 9, 1973 Science Magazine article titled “The Discovery of America” in which he makes the case that overkill of large herbivore mammals like the mammoth was made possible by the beast’s failure to recognize man as a predator. Once the herbivores became extinct, it was only a matter of time before the carnivores—including the saber-tooth tiger—became extinct as well.

Unlike in the delightfully wacky movie “10,000 B.C.”, which depicted mammoth-hunting as an extremely dangerous rite of passage, Martin’s version of history has Clovis man enjoying carte blanche with his prey:

We need only assume that a relatively innocent prey was suddenly exposed to a new and thoroughly superior predator, a hunter who preferred killing and persisted in killing animals as long as they were available.

In other words, Clovis hunters were the Wehrmacht of their day.

It was clear that Martin viewed the Pleistocene extinctions as the moral equivalent of 20th century warfare. In “Ice Age Behavior” (Journal of the Arizona Academy of Science, Oct. 1970) another article also unfortunately not available online, Martin makes an amalgam of the “rape, torture, assassination of Vietnamese” and the overkill that supposedly took place over 10 centuries earlier:

Placed in the perspective of the last million years, it would appear that man’s normal, natural urge to hunt and his prehistoric worship of weapons led via stone age technological innovations to fauna overkill. In our time modern weapons and an ice age temperament remain no less menacing a combination.

Well, this would make for a compelling remake of “Encino Man” directed by Sam Raimi, wouldn’t it? Instead of Brendan Fraser waking up from a block of ice 10,000 years later and being passed off as an Estonian exchange student in high school, Fraser instead becomes a serial killer mutilating kittens and toddlers alike.

For reasons I will explore momentarily, evolutionary psychologists have a strong affinity for this primitive man as psychopathic killer version of history. For example, Howard Bloom’s “The Lucifer Principle” argues that “evil” is genetically implanted and explains just about every bad thing that happens in history starting with the depredations of primitive man. The book, which can be read on Google has an opening chapter titled “Mother Nature, the bloody bitch” that recoils at the idea of a “noble savage”.  He maintains that homo sapiens has the same bloodthirsty nature as his closest relative the chimpanzee that was revealed by researcher Jane Goodall to be capable of unbelievable and wanton cruelty to rival bands, just like the Bosnian and Serbs presumably. For movie buffs, the famous scene in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001” when the ape-man discovers that a bone can be used as a club should spring to mind.

But perhaps no other evolutionary psychologist has embraced the Pleistocene overkill scenario with more relish than Jared Diamond who wrote an entire book—The Third Chimpanzee—making the case that we are nothing much different than these marauding apes.

In chapter 17, “The Golden Age that Never Was”, Diamond begins by scoffing at Rousseau’s noble savage and proceeds to demonstrate that the Maori “exterminated” the moa, a flightless bird that like the mammoth did not understand that man was their enemy. Diamond writes, “Like the naïve animals of the Galapagos Islands today, moas were probably tame enough for a hunter to walk up to one and club it.” It should be pointed out that probably is a word evolutionary psychologists often use when trying to describe events that took place centuries ago. In the absence of hard evidence (how else can it be otherwise), speculation reigns supreme.

In the next chapter Diamond turns his attention to the New World:

Among the startling discoveries about Clovis people is the speed of their spread. All Clovis sites in the U.S. dated by the most advanced radiocarbon techniques were occupied for only a few centuries, in the period just before 11,000 years ago. A human site even at the southern tip of Patagonia is dated at about 10,500 years. Thus, within about a millennium of emerging from the ice-free corridor at Edmonton, humans had spread from coast to coast and over the entire length of the New World.

Equally startling is the rapid transformation of Clovis culture. Around 11,000 years ago Clovis points are abruptly replaced by a smaller, more finely made model now known as Folsom points (after a site near Folsom, New Mexico, where they were first identified). The Folsom points are often found associated with bones of an extinct wide-horned bison, never with the mammoths preferred by Clovis hunters…

It was Paul Martin, a geoscientist at the University of Arizona, who  described  the  dramatic outcome  of hunter-meets-elephant as a “blitzkrieg”. According to his view, the first hunters to emerge from the ice-free corridor at Edmonton thrived and multiplied, because they found an abundance of tame, easy-to-hunt big mammals. As the mammals were killed off in one area, the hunters and their offspring kept fanning out into new areas that still had abundant mammals, and kept exterminating the mammal populations at the front of their advance. By the time the hunters’ front finally reached the south tip of South America, most of the big mammal species of the New World had been exterminated.

Despite Diamond’s characteristically triumphalist tone, scientists are by no means unanimous in accepting Paul Martin’s thesis. A couple of weeks ago, PBS aired a show that put forward a new theory, namely that a comet was responsible for the Pleistocene extinctions–not Clovis hunter. You can watch the show at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/clovis/ as well as review some different points of view in the debate, including those that directly challenge Martin:

But skeptics have asked, Where’s the evidence? Grayson and Meltzer (overchill) have noted that late-Ice Age sites bearing megafaunal remains that show unequivocal sign of slaughter by humans number just 14. Moreover, they stress, only two types of giants were killed at those 14 sites, mammoth and mastodon. There’s no sign that early hunters preyed on giant ground sloths, short-faced bears, or the massive, armadillo-like glyptodonts, for instance. (Forensic studies of a cache of Clovis tools found in 2008 suggest the Clovis people did hunt now-extinct camels and horses.) That’s hardly enough evidence, Grayson and Meltzer argue, to lay blame for a continent’s worth of lost megafauna at the foot of the first Americans.

But for me at least, some of the most compelling political rebuttal to Martin and his followers, including Jared Diamond, comes from Vine Deloria Jr., the American Indian scholar who died in 2005. His “Red Earth, White Lies” is a scholarly and polemical rebuttal of the “overkill” hypothesis that poses questions such as this:

Since most American anthropologists accepted the Neanderthal to Cro-Magnon evolution, the late entrance of man into North America was a given. Clovis-point locations, which incidentally are scattered all over the western United States on the surface as much as buried, and which by the common agreement of scholars date to around 12,000 years ago, then enabled Martin to argue that “the Indians did it” by linking a few sites which had bones of extinct megafauna and were also dated at that time.

The thesis is really applicable only to the herbivores, however, because almost every advocate of the idea cites those locations where mammoth bones are associated with evidence of human activity. From the list above we never hear about the giant rhinoceros, giant beaver, or giant armadillo, nor do the scholars refer to carnivore extinction except by indirection, assuming that the extinction of herbivores doomed meat-eating predators. Can we imagine hungry saber-toothed tigers and other carnivores unable to feed upon the smaller species of deer, moose, and bison when they discovered that the mega-animals had been destroyed?

When the Europeans came to North America the land was filled to overflowing with all manner of edible grazing game. The bison are conservatively estimated at a population of nearly 60 million creatures at the time of discovery. Since no species could evolve in 12,000 years, we must assume that the game animals we see today were here in their present form at the time when Martin suggests the Paleo-Indians were ruthlessly slaughtering the mammoth and mastodon.

So we have actually two questions. Why did the megacarnivores not pounce upon the smaller, weaker herbivores and maintain themselves in grand style? Why did the Paleo-Indian hunters not begin with smaller-sized animals, which would have been easier to kill, less dangerous to be around, and which themselves might be relegated to the fringes of the good grazing places by the larger and certainly more dangerous megaherbivores? Martin made a feeble effort to answer the second question by admitting that “we must beg the question of just how and why prehistoric man obliterated his prey. We may speculate but we cannot determine how moose, elk, and caribou managed to survive while horse, ground sloth, and mastodon did not.” He begged people not to ask him for specifics about the second question and was not even aware of the complexity of the first question.

As is so often the case with indigenous peoples and the scientific community, no matter the best of intentions of the latter, differences over Pleistocene extinctions, Kennewick Man, supposed Anasazi cannibalism, etc. become a political battleground. It does not have to be this way. Around five years ago, I had dinner with Guy Robinson Jr., the son of a radical philosophy professor who was on Marxmail briefly. Both of them had been to Nicaragua on solidarity brigades and both were decidedly anti-capitalist. Guy Jr. was working on a dissertation that tried to prove the Paul Martin hypothesis using fossil evidence in New York State. You can read an article on the Fordham University website about his research. It states:

Choosing his sites carefully, Robinson was able to pump and excavate layers of alluvial mud and examine concentrations of fungal spores called “Sporormiella”  from the dung of the megafauna. He compared these chronologically with the tiny carbon traces left behind from frequent landscape-level fires (signs of encroaching human activity), thus yielding a time frame of human settlement. A tree pollen analysis helped to determine the dates of large-scale climactic changes. His conclusion: human beings were on the move in the continent about 1,000 years before the most dramatic climate swings.

“In North America,” Robinson notes, “it was probably [there’s that probably again!] a combination of the hunting and landscape-level transformation” that did in the megafauna. “But it’s probably not for millennia that we see real agricultural alterations. I think it’s hard to accept that people of Paleolithic times — old stone age people, without metal tools — could have instigated an ecological crisis. It’s a lesson for where we stand now. Although eco-systems can be quite resilient, once they’re put into a state of collapse it’s hard to resist that direction.

In my good-natured (I swear it) discussion with Guy Jr., I raised the American Indian objections to Paul Martin’s research and his use of the term “blitzkrieg” specifically. There was no doubt in my mind that Guy Jr. had zero interest in impugning the reputation of native peoples.

Jared Diamond is another story altogether. Unlike Guy Robinson Jr., his interest in these matters is highly ideological and this is the way to understand it. Like many of his co-thinkers, there is a need to establish primitive man as primitive in the sense of brutal. When Engels referred to hunting and gathering societies as “primitive”, it was in the technical sense only. Of course, this word and “savage” and “barbarian” had unfortunate connotations no matter the intentions of people such as Engels.

In seeking to destroy the myth of Rousseau’s “noble savage”, they resort to the teachings of a philosopher who predated him by about a century. This is what he wrote:

It may seem strange to some man, that has not well weighed these things; that Nature should thus dissociate, and render men apt to invade, and destroy one another: and he may therefore, not trusting to this Inference, made from the Passions, desire perhaps to have the same confirmed by Experience.  Let him therefore consider with himselfe, when taking a journey, he armes himselfe, and seeks to go well accompanied; when going to sleep, he locks his dores; when even in his house he locks his chests; and this when he knows there bee Lawes, and publike Officers, armed, to revenge all injuries shall bee done him; what opinion he has of his fellow subjects, when he rides armed; of his fellow Citizens, when he locks his dores; and of his children, and servants, when he locks his chests.  Does he not there as much accuse mankind by his actions, as I do by my words?  But neither of us accuse mans nature in it.  The Desires, and other Passions of man, are in themselves no Sin.  No more are the Actions, that proceed from those Passions, till they know a Law that forbids them; which till Lawes be made they cannot know: nor can any Law be made, till they have agreed upon the Person that shall make it.

You might have guessed that these are the words of Thomas Hobbes in “Leviathan”. The world of the evolutionary psychologist is dark, evil, and grubby both in the earliest stages of history and in the contemporary world. Indeed, the best thing that can be said about our evolution is that we have drawn on the power of the state to control our worst instincts. As Jared Diamond says in his New Yorker article, the Papuan New Guineans practically got down on their hands and knees to thank the colonizers who finally were able to bring peace and stability to the highlands where tribal wars had left so many dead. So bad was the fighting that Diamond was led to conclude that primitive peoples were more genocidal than the Nazis, if not by absolute numbers killed then by percentage. Of course, given his tendency to make things up, we have no confidence in his assertions.

While I am not qualified to speak with any kind of authority on Pleistocene extinctions, I do want to conclude with some thoughts on how to transcend the noble savage versus Hobbesian jungle dichotomy. Fundamentally, it is a mistake to assume that American Indians developed ecological insights and then went out and acted on those beliefs. This is an idealistic conception that is not very helpful in understanding our past.

A much better approach is to look at things from the angle of modes of production. Put simply, a hunting and gathering society had little need to kill animals except to satisfy such needs as food, clothing and shelter—all of which a bison could supply. Even in cases where there was “overkill”, like driving animals over a cliff, the main goal was to satisfy an immediate need. Once that was accomplished, the community could devote its time to singing, dancing and other forms of recreation that Marshall Sahlins described in terms of Stone Age affluence.

On the other hand, capitalism sees all flora and fauna as input to the commodity production process.  Bison were killed initially in order to supply hides for the European clothing market and later on they were exterminated in order to free up land for cattle ranching. Today vast trawlers scour the ocean to turn the last bluefin tuna into the last sushi special. Meanwhile, American Indians struggle to defend their right to fish for Salmon and whales as part of their traditional way of life. Some ecologists can’t distinguish between the trawler and the Makah motorboat, but that would not be the first time in history that an Indian gets a raw deal.

As socialists, our goal should be to create a world in which the production of what Marx called use values prevails. This means adopting the communal structures of Clovis peoples and their successors but combining it with modern technology. This finally is the only way in which the remaining megafauna can survive, including homo sapiens


  1. Brilliant discussion, as usual Louis!

    Comment by Brian McKenna — June 15, 2009 @ 8:38 pm

  2. I thought the “hunting mammoth to extinction” theory had been discredited for quite a while, with paleontologists going rather for environmental/climate change as the reason behind the extinction of mammoth.

    Comment by Antonis — June 15, 2009 @ 10:11 pm

  3. Like most Universities in the US today, those departments whose research helps the Pentagon thrive, while the least funded departments are almost always History, since the Pentagon has little use for it beyond knowing the victors will write it.

    Marxism, after all, is first & foremost the history of the working class that would never be recorded if bourgeois society were left unmolested.

    As for the paucity of many ideas that come out of Arizona’s University system I recall in 1987 at the UofA in Tucson I enrolled in a course called “Plants & Society” taught by a Biolgy Prof in his 60s whose name escapes me now. There were at least 80 students. Lectures were held in a large hall. He always started the lectures with the curious line: “All I know is what I read…”

    The best lectures were those which demonstrated how utterly dependent human civilization is on plants. Such a simple truism is easily taken for granted. The worst lecture was where where he asked the class if we knew what the oldest living animal was? Students raised their hands and provided the expected answers like sea turtles and elephants but he said no, the answer was Methuselah at 969 years!

    Shocked I jutted my arm up and asked if that was a conclusion he’d ever presented at any major Biology conference as I expressed my doubts that the plenum would allow him even a minute at the podium. He replied that: “All I know is what I read.”

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — June 16, 2009 @ 2:24 pm

  4. Regarding the quote from David Harvey, I think you went overboard. The point of him even saying this is to deflate the noble savage myth. Part of this myth is that the original Americans left their environment in pristine form and therefore had no significant environmental impacts. In his _1491_, Charles Mann refutes this myth. He specifically discusses fire as a tool for managing livestock (Bison), which is what Harvey says. Since the bison were far from extinct when the Europeans arrived, the fact that Harvey & Mann mention it hardly equates the use of fire as a means of production with extinction of species. William Cronin’s _Changes in the Land_ also describes the deliberate environmental modifications that New England’s natives used.

    Of course, none of these observations go so far as to lay blame for the destruction of species. Still, the point that native Americans had considerable impact on their natural environments has to be well taken.

    Comment by Gnosos — June 16, 2009 @ 8:33 pm

  5. Gnosos, have you actually read Harvey’s book? He asserts that the Nazis were environmentalists. This book is garbage and he even tried to disassociate himself from many of its findings a year or so after it was published. Cronin, btw, is also misguided. In his discussion of Chicago’s “ecology”, he includes the stockyards! This use of the word is practically Orwellian. All it boils down to is the idea that man shapes his environment. From that angle, the oil pipelines in Alaska are ecological.

    Comment by louisproyect — June 16, 2009 @ 9:45 pm

  6. Like Louis, I claim no expertise on the subject of the extinction of the Pleistocene megafauna. What I do know a little about is the extinction of the moa, briefly mentioned by Louis when he quotes Diamond. In the case of moa there is no possibility of an external cause such as a meteor strike to explain the extinction; they became extinct only about 500 years ago. There is a lot of evidence that they were relatively fearless, docile easy prey; it seems they were easily attacked on their nests and that they were quite wastefully consumed, with only the breast meat being eaten in many cases. It also seems logical in the New Zealand case that their main predator, the Haast eagle, probably (there’s that word again!) died out because of the loss of the moa. In the New Zealand case there were no mammals of note (other than seals, which would fight back!), so no really viable alternative prey for such a bird, which was the largest ever existing flighted raptor with claws similar to those of a tiger. (Actually I’m quite pleased I don’t have to deal with being ambushed by one of those when I go into the bush!!!) A combination of hunting of the moa and bush clearance by burning is the only plausible explanation of the loss of the moa and subsequently the pouakai (Haasts Eagle) that I am aware of.

    However this need not be seen as evidence for the odious Jared Diamond’s thesis of human savagery and blood lust. The reality is that when Maori arrived in New Zealand they had no understanding of the fragility of their new environment. After all, they were now living in a country unimaginably larger than anything they had known before. As Louis notes, hunting was for subsistence only. However, in the absence of a plan to protect the environment, subsistence hunting proved to be more than the moa population could stand. Over time, Maori developed more sophisticated cultural controls on hunting which acted to manage otherwise vulnerable prey populations but the fact is that when they arrived, they arrived as the peak predator in a land where no such predator had existed before.

    In no way would I support a claim that Maori came to New Zealand as bloodthirsty hunters for hunting’s sake, but I do think the evidence does point to their unintended responsibility for the extinction of the moa.

    I think there is a tendency on the left to romanticise preindustrial populations – hardly surprising given the devastation capitalism has unleashed on both them and people and the planet generally. Diamond and his ilk are clearly wrong, and as Louis notes in the case of Diamond, willing to be quite dishonest in the pursuit of his agenda, but I think we need to guard against the tendency to swing too far back in the other direction, and deny the damage that humans have done in our ancient past.

    Of course it should go without saying, but humans have done infinitely more damage to the New Zealand environment and ecosystem since the arrival of capitalism in the form of European “discovery” through large scale forest clearance and habitat destruction, introduction of exotic animal (and plant) species etc.

    Comment by John Edmundson — June 16, 2009 @ 11:43 pm

  7. You might also want to look at Adovasio, J. M.; Soffer, Olga; Page, Jake. The invisible sex: uncovering the true roles of women in prehistory (New York: Smithsonian Books / Collins, 2007). It contains a lot of interesting information, including the following, page 179:

    Ethnographic studies of modern people have turned up practically no instances of deliberate elephant hunting before the advent of the ivory trade in modern times. There is no evidence of Upper Paleolithic assemblages of enough hunters (maybe 40 or so) to take down a mammoth, much less the number needed to wipe out a herd. It is dangerous enough, in fact, to go after any animal the size of a horse or a bison if one is armed with a spear. Only the foolhardiest would attempt to kill an animal that stands 14 feet high and has a notoriously bad temper when annoyed. A statement that has been assigned to multiple originators suggests that it is more likely that every so often a Paleolithic hunter brought down an already wounded mammoth (or one slowed down a bit in the mud of a swamp) and then talked about it for the rest of his life. The picture of Man the Mighty Hunter is now fading out of the annals of prehistory.

    Comment by Duncan — June 17, 2009 @ 12:09 am

  8. In all probability, those evolutionary psychologists manufactured their views on art and psychopath savage with the material that they barbarously looted from Freudian psychoanalysis by ideological-freestyle interpretation of the concepts like Sublimation and Das Ding respectively.

    Comment by Mehmet Çagatay — June 17, 2009 @ 1:57 pm

  9. I actually first started reading reading your page, Louis, after I found Jim Blaut’s demolition of ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ that you hosted, and your latest series merely confirms his total loss of credibility (to me, at least, because he’s still taught in universities and his books sell very well.) It’s all the more frustrating, though, because pre-‘Third Chimpanzee’ Diamond seemed to hold a position very similar to Marshall Sahlins, and wrote a rather famous essay about “The Worst Mistake
    in the History of the Human Race,” originally published in the May 1987 issue of ‘Discover.’ (http://www.awok.org/worst-mistake/) What happened in the interim is an interesting question.

    Diamond or Martin are very far from the worst offenders in this regard. That dubious honour goes to John Gray, a philosopher, who wrote ‘Black Mass,’ a book that posits all leftism as a variation of Christian millenarianism. In his ‘Straw Dogs’ he rather tasteless coins a new name for mankind, homo rapicus, and argues that we are unchanging animals with a predilection for massive carnage, murder and destruction, and that corporations and industry has nothing to do with our current predicament; instead, it is man himself who is intrinsically flawed and savage. I’d liken this to an extreme case of attacking the ‘noble savage’ myth, but Gray also manages to orientalise Chinese culture, and the fundamental non-linearity and timelessness of its intellectual Daoism, positing it as a counter to our linear Christ dominated Western thought (an absurdity: the ‘linearity’ of classical Christianity is lapsadarian and non-temporal, that is, aside from Christ’s death, nothing separates Alexander the Great from Alfred the Great ten centuries later). And sure enough, Gray praises Diamond for all his ‘revelations.’

    As for the ‘megafauna genocide’ and mammoth extinction, Antonis is quite right: some combination of climate change and human agency is usually offered as the explanation. This paper “Climate Change, Humans, and the Extinction of the Woolly Mammoth” (http://www.plosbiology.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pbio.0060079) makes a sound case for humanity delivering the death blow to a population of animals already under extreme stress due to the sudden climatic change caused by the retreat of the glaciers, a condition that paradoxically allowed mankind to spread so quickly. A fragmented population clinging to the last environments suited to its survival is hardly going to be able to endure any intense predation, from humans or otherwise. Better, this explanation is consistent with what we know about low-level extinctions (and no matter the language of blitzkrieg and genocide, the disappearance of megafauna from the Americas and Australasia was low-level: the food chain was not seriously disrupted, and nothing near the system-wise cascade failures typical of mass extinctions and seen in microcosm, for instance, in the Great Lakes with the rise in agricultural runoff from factory farms and the arrival of the zebra mussel that has wiped out much of the ecosystem): large animals and specialists, with the mammoths being both, suffer disproportionately compared to generalists, who can adapt more quickly to changes and prosper in adversity; this is no doubt why sabertoothed cats, specialists at killing large, slow game, suffered and died out, compared to wolves who are very flexible in terms of prey.

    Egh. That was a lot longer than expected. Apologies. Excellent series, look forward to more.

    Comment by Cameron Willis — June 17, 2009 @ 4:15 pm

  10. Louis, very elegantly argued about the mode of production–as usual, an illuminating alternative to prematurely ethical arguments (Noble Savage/Bad Injun).

    Another great admirer of Thomas Hobbes’s theory of human nature and the state was Carl Schmitt, the great favorite of Heideggerean theorists eager to find an even more odious Nazi than Herr Rektorfuhrer Martin.

    John Edmundson’s post is also illuminating for the detailed, empirical reflection on megafauna extinction in New Zealand–the attempt to roll back “the realm of necessity” (as Marx called it) by killing large, helpless birds is not necessarily in accordance with the long-term flourishing of “the realm of freedom.” It’s amazing to discover that New Zealand was probably unpeopled so recently.

    I would give a dollar and a dime to see a Haasts Eagle.

    Comment by Jim Holstun — June 17, 2009 @ 11:58 pm

  11. Here’s a worthy CG video of a Haasts Eagle preying on an ususpecting human:

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — June 18, 2009 @ 1:13 am

  12. I’m not an expert on Pleistocene extinctions, either, but I do have some acquaintance with the effects of Pleistocene glaciations, particularly the Last Glacial Maxima (LGM), on flora and fauna in North America, as I looked at the historic biogeography of N. American fauna for my dissertation research. I agree strongly with John Edmundson’s comment. One need not subscribe to sociobiology or evolutionary psychology and their narrative of “biology as our destiny” (studies such as Hoppe (2009) tend to refute the argument that humans egaged in mass slaughter)* to understand that earlier inhabitants of this continent, even hunter-gatherers, had profound effects on their environment. This is merely a restatement of Lewontin’s description of the dialectical interaction between organisms and their environments: living things *transform* their environments: it is absolutely wrong to consider that organisms simply “fit into” pre-existing niche.

    An anthropogenic cause for the Pleistocene extinctions of large mammals is plausible. But, the extinctions probably can’t be reduced to the interactions between humans and large mammals. In fact, Shapiro, et al. (2004)** attribute the extinctions to environmental changes that took place during the LGM. During the LGM, which ended between 20-10,000 years ago, glaciers extended down through the midwest and northeast as far as New York City (today!) and the Missouri River. Much of the temperate flora and fauna was forced south and/or survived in pockets (or refugia). We know this by looking at genetic diversity within and among populations, and the distribution of haplotypes. Boreal organisms like woolly mammoths, would presumably not be affected in the same way as temperate mammals, but, nevertheless, they depended on vegetation for food, which they simply wouldn’t find in the expanded glaciated regions during the LGM. They fed in the tundra and boreal forests that bordered the glaciated regions. It was in these relatively restricted environments that they would have encountered human hunters, and in fact, these are the areas that contain evidence of interactions between humans and large boreal mammals. Other large, temperate mammals, among both (food) plants and animals suffered range contractions, as did humans. So, humans and their food supply would have occupied a smaller area than they currently do. In addition, the LGM is associated with overall colder average temperatures throughout North America (I’m just focusing on this continent) and a reduced growing season. To put it simply, humans lived under harsh conditions and had to work their butts off to find enough to eat during the LGM. Another factor that must be taken into account is that the megafauna consisted of huge mammals, that ate a *lot* and were probably not very abundant to begin with during the LGM. Finally, to state the obvious, humans are extremely effective predators, when they have to be. Taken together, it is entirely plausible that Homo sapiens pushed the Pleistocene megafauna off the edge.

    Really, all we need to do is point out — as Louis does — that the rate of extinction of species, the plunder of natural resources and the degradation of the environment is qualitatively different and quantitatively greater under capitalism than in societies that produced use-values. After all, Diamond and other apologists for our social order simply want us to believe that “There Is No Alternative.”

    *Hoppe K. 2009. Late Pleistocene mammoth herd structure, migration patterns, and Clovis hunting strategies inferred from isotopic analyses of multiple death assemblages. Paleobiology 30(1):129-145.
    **Shapiro B., et al. 2004. Rise and Fall of the Beringian Steppe Bison. Science 306 (5701): 1561 – 1565

    Comment by Mike — June 18, 2009 @ 6:25 am

  13. Interesting stuff – thanks.

    A relevant paper for these matters would be this:

    Click to access 98-10-088.pdf

    It’s a review of the evidence for prehistoric warfare, and it finds that while there is certainly evidence of warfare at some points and in some places in prehistory, there is little or no evidence to support the view that humanity was engaged in an unending nightmare of brutal conflict from the day we first stood upright. And it does so without introducing any romantic and naive notions of ‘noble savagery’ either.

    Comment by Dr. X — June 18, 2009 @ 10:13 am

  14. […] The Woolly Mammoth and the Noble Savage …evolutionary psychologists have a strong affinity for this primitive man as psychopathic killer version of history. For example, Howard Bloom’s “The Lucifer Principle” argues that “evil” is genetically implanted and explains just about every bad thing that happens in history starting with the depredations of primitive man. The book, which can be read on Google has an opening chapter titled “Mother Nature, the bloody bitch” that recoils at the idea of a “noble savage”. He maintains that homo sapiens has the same bloodthirsty nature as his closest relative the chimpanzee that was revealed by researcher Jane Goodall to be capable of unbelievable and wanton cruelty to rival bands, just like the Bosnian and Serbs presumably. For movie buffs, the famous scene in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001” when the ape-man discovers that a bone can be used as a club should spring to mind. […]

    Pingback by Darwiniana » Noble savages, evolutionary psychologists — June 18, 2009 @ 8:22 pm

  15. I thought the “hunting mammoth to extinction” theory had been discredited for quite a while, with paleontologists going rather for environmental/climate change as the reason behind the extinction of mammoth.

    No. Climate change has never been enough to explain the extinction of Pleistocene megafauna, considering that the extinction of ground sloths in the Caribbean didn’t occur until after humans had reached the islands. Had climate been the cause, one would expect megafauna to die off on islands at the same time they died off on the mainland – instead the pattern of extinction follows that of human expansion and settlement.

    Comment by stras jones — June 18, 2009 @ 9:20 pm

  16. instead the pattern of extinction follows that of human expansion and settlement.

    Then what explains the extinction of a host of Pleistocene era birds (flight-capable, I should add)? Did Clovis hunters have helicopters?

    Comment by louisproyect — June 18, 2009 @ 9:26 pm

  17. We have exactly the same debate here in Australia about megafauna extinction and the role of “aboriginal” hunters. Again the waters are muddied by well meaning people who try to romanticise the indigenous Australians into environmental saints who roamed imapct free and harmlessly through an edenic wilderness. What these people forget is that nature and culture are both products of human activity, ie. work, not pristine inseperable eternal dichotomies. People lived in hunter / gatherer modes of production for millenia, and in the process they reshaped the land, in Australia mainly by the use of fire (archaeologists call it ‘fire-stick farming’). Acknowledging this however is not the same as buying the homocidal myth of savage mass killers that so many evolutionary psychologists and others try to perpetuate. You can shape the landscape without mass killing. Certainly mass killings seemed to occur – the moa are a case in point – but I suspect the real reason is not bloodlist and homicidal mania but simply that the New Zealand environment was actually very short of protein foods in terms of other animals and even plants, and the limited range of animals and plants brought by the ancestral Maori didn’t provide enough protein. Hence as moa were big, had lots of meat and were easy to hunt, logically they would become the main target. All of this reminds me of reading Robert Ardrey’s “African Genesis” back in the 1970s. It was such apparent ideological crap. I put it down to a fear of feminism – the book provided a wonderful fantasy escape for suburban accountants in gray cardigans to read on the bus going home at night, saying to themselves “yeah, deep down, I am a sexual predator, violent killer, hard man, yeah”. Pure escapist fantasy.

    Louis, on this theme have you read “War and Human Civilisation” by the Israeli scholar (now that is in itself a telling point) Azar Gat? Over many hundreds of pages he seeks to prove how warfare and fighting are endemic in ‘human nature’, evolutionary products and triggers for most of human advances. Yeah, great, war is good!

    Comment by Cedric — July 16, 2009 @ 8:34 am

  18. The Woolly Savage and the Noble Mammoth
    Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his early writing contended that man is essentially good, a “noble savage” when in the “state of nature” (the state of all the other animals, and the condition man was in before the creation of civilization and society), and that good people are made unhappy and corrupted by their experiences in society. He viewed society as “artificial” and “corrupt” and that the furthering of society results in the continuing unhappiness of man.
    Put another way, in the beginning civilized humans were hunters and gatherers, when we started wearing clothes made out of cotton, using deodorant, living in houses and using toilet paper we became savages.
    The only difference between civilized “savages” and 20th century man is we used our opposing dumb to conquer Mother Earth.
    The indigenous populations knew Nature was not ‘wild’ and hostile but was a benevolent friend. Then, by a twist of organized religious dogma, many began to think humans are the greatest and most important part of creation and they saw Nature as ‘fallen’ and sinful. Since the end of the “dark age” man has attempted to divorce himself from Nature to the detriment of all creation.

    read the rest at rumormillnews:

    Comment by Robert Singer — November 19, 2009 @ 3:29 am

  19. Love your writing. Recent digs have proven humans did drive mammoths to extinction. If anything it is a distant mirror. Also, new findings that they did scorch a lot of earth and decimated forests all over the planet while them migrated. Humans, as they are today, were destructive then, and now.

    Comment by macronet — July 4, 2021 @ 6:23 am

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