Skip to comments.What killed the mammoths and other behemoths?
Posted on 06/05/2002 3:34:28 PM PDT by vannrox
Interview with Ross MacPhee
What killed the mammoths and other behemoths that once roamed the Americas?
Around 11,000 years ago, at the end of the Pleistocene epoch, North America witnessed an extinction that claimed its mammoths, giant ground sloths, camels and numerous other large-bodied animals. Exactly what happened to these megafauna is unknown. Indeed, researchers have puzzled over their disappearance for decades. Traditional explanations hold that either dramatic climate shifts, or human hunting (overkill) extinguished these species. But in recent years a new hypothesis has emerged. According to Ross D. E. MacPhee, curator of mammalogy at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, extremely lethal disease, brought over by humans unwittingly when they arrived in the New World, may have wiped out those Ice Age giants.
Scientific American writer Kate Wong discussed this hyperdisease hypothesis with MacPhee last year. The edited transcript that follows falls into four sections. In the first part MacPhee talks about the shortcomings of the climate and overkill models. In the second part he provides examples of recent extinctions caused by disease and describes how the first Americans might have introduced hyperdisease when they came to North America. Megafaunal extinctions followed human arrival in Australia, New Guinea, the West Indies and Madagascar, too. The same pattern does not apply to Africa and southern Eurasia, however. MacPhee explains how his model accounts for these exceptions and ponders the surprising survival of certain North American megafauna in part three. So far MacPhee does not have empirical evidence for his hypothesis, but he and his colleagues hope to find it in mammoth remains. In part four he describes their search for signs of lethal microbes in ancient tissue and DNA.
SA: I'd like to start by asking you to explain how, in your opinion, the climate and overkill models are flawed.
RM: The climate has changed radically at times when there was no extinction, and extinctions have occurred when the climate, at least roughly speaking, should have been benign. There is no question that there were catastrophic changes in temperature and probably in precipitation on many occasions in the past 100,000 years. We know that, for entirely natural reasons, temperature excursions of seven to 12 degrees Celsius occurred within that time period in the space of a century or less, which is basically 12 times the maximum rate of change in the last century of "global warming." If changes like that are meaningful for extinction, then you would expect to see a correlation-how could it be otherwise? If climate change of that radical a caliber has occurred in the past there should have been losses. And the point is that there are no correlations. So all of that, as far as I'm concerned, puts climate, insofar as it's understood what we mean by climate change, out of the picture.
There is a strong correlation between arrivals of people in places where people haven't lived before and sudden spikes in the extinction rate so that you get sudden disappearances--particularly of large-bodied animals--in a period within decades or centuries of first human arrival. So it's easy to see why people would assume that these losses had something to do with the arrival of humans, and since we think of humans as being red in tooth and claw, that they must have provoked these extinctions by doing something nasty like hunting at a rate that they shouldn't have. The trouble with that particular argument is that the archaeological record does not support it in any of the places where these extinctions occurred. Of course there are cases where projectile points have been found embedded in mammoth bones. But when you take a look at the number of instances, you can barely come up with a dozen for the relevant time period in North America--between 11, 000 and 12,000 years ago. In other words, although people were clearly hunting, it is not a demonstration by that evidence alone that they were hunting on a scale that would have made any difference to the survival of species.
COLLECTING TUSKS. MacPhee lugs a mammoth tusk he found in a creek bed on Wrangel Island, north of Siberia.
SA: So, in your opinion, even if the first Americans were highly skilled hunters, could their population sizes and the population sizes of these animals have been such that overkill would even be plausible?
RM: The answer is no, by any scenario. I don't care how early you want people to get into the New World, thereís absolutely no evidence of a positive sort that they were there in huge numbers. In fact, it has to be the opposite, whereas the animals, in some cases, had distributions that were continent wide. Some of the ground sloths, for example, are known from as far south as Mexico and from as far north as the Yukon. The notion that people in whatever numbers and with whatever intent could have come in and slaughtered enough sloths in every possible habitat where they lived in numbers sufficient to cause their extinction--this is unbelievable to me.
Archaeologists say in looking at Clovis sites and similar ones in Monte Verde in South America that thereís nothing at these sites that suggests anything other than band-level organization. What we know from modern ethnographic examples is that the individual family groups that compose a band tend to cooperate only for very specific objectives. As soon as that economic objective is met, it's over--they don't keep a high level of organization once there's no need. So if we're talking about Clovis people being at essentially the band level economically, how can it be that they would stay together for common purposes at the level necessary to cause these extinctions? Youíd have to be killing things all the time, and you'd have to be doing it for some purpose, even if the purpose was just to kill. And it's just unimaginable to me that the people concerned would be interested merely in killing, especially large, dangerous animals like mammoths. You take out the one or two a year that you need, and then you go off gathering roots and tubers, which is in fact how most of these outfits keep goingóitís not by direct hunting. You can't look at the first Americans as being basically people like us who didn't wear suits--that their objectives would be similar, that their worldview would be similar, and all the rest of it. In fact, most assuredly they were not, if ethnographic comparisons mean anything.
SA: Enter hyperdisease.
RM: Hyperdisease has its own extremely large explanatory defects. But the notions that you canít get cross-species infections, or that you can't get huge mortalities that might lead to extinction, are not among them. In fact, there are such examples. There is a group of birds native to Hawaii called the Hawaiian honeycreepers, several species of which have gone extinct probably within the last 100 years. Whereas when Europeans were first going to Hawaii at the beginning of the 19th century, honeycreepers were known at lower elevations. Nowadays, however, the surviving populations all live at high altitude. Why should this be? Researchers figured out in the 1960s that the distribution of the surviving birds is mediated by how far up in altitude avian malaria-carrying mosquitoes can go. The mosquitoes that we're talking about, representing a species of Culex, were introduced from tropical North America probably in the 1850s or 1860s. And in all probability what happened was that some boat going from San Francisco or Mexico over to Honolulu had freshwater in its bilge and female mosquitoes were laying eggs there. Some of the larvae survived after the bilge was dumped, they started biting the native birds, and some of the larvae had the [malaria-causing] protozoan Plasmodium in their system, so they inoculated the birds, and the birds died in droves. To repeat the experiment and thereby document what happened, what the researchers did was take some of these individuals from surviving populations up on the high mountains, bring them down to the lab at sea level, and then introduce them to Culex individuals that were known to be carrying avian malaria. The exposed birds died without exception--100 percent mortality.
What I make of this is obvious: the distribution of the surviving birds is disease-controlled. I also think that the populations or species that could not survive at high altitude--the birds that have gone extinct--became extinct because there was nowhere for them to go. Everywhere they went they were greeted by buzzing mosquitoes who were carrying the disease, and the birds dropped out. I think that is a pretty convincing case. And all of the leading list-makers--like IUCN, Nature Conservancy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife--when they attribute cause of extinction to those particular birds use the word disease, as opposed to habitat clearance, as opposed to introduced species, persecution, all of these other things that are believed to cause endangerment and extinction. So at least in some quarters it is accepted that those bird extinctions are due to disease per se.
DRILLING FOR DNA. MacPhee uses a specially adapted drill bit to remove cores of marrow from this mammoth bone.
The other great example is golden toad extinction in Panama and apparently huge declines in certain frog species in places like Queensland [Australia], all due to a fungal infection, chytridiomycosis. Up until the mid '90s in Panama the census numbers were consistently high. Then something happened to the golden toad. Within the space of a year or two the numbers of sightings and sound recordings and so on dropped from the average level established over many decades to zero, essentially overnight. For the past five years there have been no sightings of that particular frog in Panama and Costa Rica, which were the places where it lived. It looks like the populations have just sunk to nothing.
Peter Daszak, a parasitologist at the University of Georgia, and several other investigators got interested in this problem because they were given some autopsy specimens of golden toads to examine. What they found was that a particular chytrid was consistently present in autopsy specimens from areas in which the populations were known to have sunk to zero in the manner that I described. And what they found on further investigation was that the specific cause of death seems to have been that this fungus, which is an epidermal infection, caused local thickening of the skin--especially over an area known as the drink patch down in the pelvis, which is what these frogs use for osmoregulation, for balancing out their water. With any problem with that area of skin, the frog in effect suffocates or drowns. Interestingly, tadpoles had no epidermal infection, but they did have the chytrid present in their mouthparts. Presumably, as they metamorphosed, the chytrid infection became general on the epidermis and they died out as well. So what you've got, it seems to me, is the worst of all possible cases, which is a universal infection--that every individual either has it or could potentially have it. It's something that is obviously very easily passed on or distributed within the environment. There would seem to be no escape for the populations that suffered from the chytrid infection: it wasn't like the chytrid would pass through the adult group and the next generation would be okay.
A similar chytrid--perhaps even the same chytrid--has appeared in Queensland, Australia. It is not known that it has been responsible for any complete extinctions, but it has certainly been responsible for massive depressions in population in the frog groups that it affects. It has also turned up in the southern part of South America. Why this particular chytrid at this particular time? Who knows? Perhaps it's because of people. Because you can get anywhere on the planet's surface nowadays within about 48 hours, the chances for pathogen pollution--in other words, bringing pathogens from one area to another where they might be able to take off--is incredibly enhanced over what it was even a few decades ago. From that point of view it's perhaps not even all that remarkable that we'd start to see diseases that are essentially pan-global. Not because they're getting distributed better by winds or currents, or whatever, but by people moving around.
DRILLED SAMPLES of mammoth bone are sent back to the U.S. for labwork.
To me these are startling examples of what diseases can do, and the only reason people havenít heard about it is because theyíre affecting species that are not all that visible, living in obscure places. It's the scientists who are ringing the Klaxon right now. What I think would focus people's attention would be if one of these diseases that are now emerging in African wildlife right now caused an outright extinction. African wild dogs in the Serengeti have been essentially wiped out by canine distemper transferred from domestic dogs. The wild dogs still exist in small numbers elsewhere in central Africa, but for a very large part of their original range they're bye-bye. Itís a clear and present danger, and when you start putting these individual examples together, they in fact amount to something.
What relevance does this have for the Pleistocene? If diseases are emerging at a greater rate now, thanks to translocation due to people, then doesn't it make sense that when you have people beginning to translocate from Africa and south Asia, where Homo sapiens is ancient, that theyíd be carrying new things with them, in the form of their biological baggage? All kinds of organismsóincluding pathogens that they may or may not have known aboutócould have been brought to places where humans had never been previously resident. If these examples Iíve been talking about are meaningful, when immunologically naïve species are faced with the sudden introduction of pathogens that they have had no experience with whatsoever, a very typical outcome seems to be very high levels of mortality--even to the level of complete extinction. Generalize outward from that and there is nothing else in nature that we know about, short of a cometary impact, that could take out the number and kind and distribution of species in North and South America 11,000 years ago that weíve been talking about.
If the North American end-Pleistocene extinction was a focal extinction, if it happened only along the western seaboard of North America where people came in first, I could accept that people were completely responsible--I wouldn't see the need to have an alternative explanation. If the extinction event affected single groups--like all the elephants all over the planet dying out--I'd think, Well, that's kind of peculiar, but maybe people, for one reason or another, are elephant mad and decided they didn't want any more elephants around. But when you look at the continental extinctions in the New World you have upward of 130 species disappearing in a time period of maybe half a millennium or less, all the way from north slope of Alaska down to Tierra del Fuego and in every kind of environment in between. Is there anything on Earth that we know about that could provoke losses on the scale necessary in such a limited time period, to affect populations wherever they existed? Disease is the only thing I know of that is part of the natural landscape that could possibly do it.
In imagining such diseases, ones that can spread very widely and are very host tolerant, I'm going to the edge of what we know is possible. But we do know from the recent past that there are such diseases. The rinderpest epidemic in East Africa at the beginning of the 20th century took out millions of individual African bovids--this would include wildebeest, hartebeest, bongos, the whole range. Ecologists have been looking at this and have decided that there were certain kinds of ecological change that were induced by the catastrophic loss of bovids around 1900 from which the forests and other landscapes of East Africa have still not recovered--which is amazing when you think what that means in terms of the loss of individuals, and the slowness with which the species have bounced back. A number of other diseases show much the same tolerance of hosts; rinderpest is not unique.
SA: North America is one of many places where megafaunal extinctions coincided with human arrivals. Yet this did not occur in Africa and southern Eurasia. Do you think the animals in these places were somehow resistant to these diseases?
RM: Yeah, the answer involves borrowing another page from Paul Martin's book [editor's note: Martin developed the overkill model]. The reason that overkill did not occur in Africa and south Asia, he would argue, is because the hominids and the local mammals evolved together. For every improvement in the hominid toolkit, the local animals came up with appropriate behavioral responses. So they were not naïve, in a behavioral sense, and were able to deal with human predation on an ongoing basis. In the New World you have the opposite state of affairs, obviously. But I would argue that the naïvete was immunologic and genetic, rather than behavioral--which I actually think is extremely plausible. Just on first principles, Iíve never really been able to get past the argument that animals are so persistently naïve they just stand around and let themselves be butchered, especially in continental settings. But with disease you can imagine a situation, especially for herding animals, where the pathogen could be passed through a population in a matter of days, and they wouldn't be any the wiser. They would just be falling all over the place, without any clear threat on hand.
SA: A certain number of these big animals did survive. Are there any that you might have expected to perish if disease were as rampant as you think it must have been?
RM: I have wondered, as everybody has wondered, why elk, moose, musk ox, bison, among very few others, have managed to survive in a place like North America, or llamas down in South America, when all of them have close relatives that turned up their toes at the end of the Pleistocene during these big die-offs. From the disease scenario perspective, all I can imagine is something like the following: perhaps nearly every kind of mammal species was susceptible, but there would be groups that were affected but not devastated by the die-off, or individuals with the right genotypes to make it through. And then it just becomes a straight Darwinian selection problem. In some cases, enough immune individuals might be left to continue the species. In other cases, the die-off was so rapid that there was no possibility of coming back. This would be a good argument if there were a common feature that surviving megafauna sharedóthat they all lived in one place or that they had a particular kind of birth spacing. Iíve tried to check this out and thereís nothing that I find very convincing. That's just the way it is. Which is not a very good argument, I know. But that is certainly one explanationóthat what weíre seeing are survivors.
It is interesting, however, from a slightly different perspective, that at least half of the surviving megafauna of North America have Old World populations. This would apply to wolves, elk; this would originally have applied to musk oxen although they later became extinct in Asia; it would apply to moose also. My point here is that as catastrophic as these New World extinctions appear to have been, they may have been even worse. For example, the North American populations of something like moose could have completely disappeared at the end of the Pleistocene. The reason we have moose today, so this argument might go, is because North America was repopulated by Asian moose, who did not die out because they were much less susceptible to the pathogens. Possibly they'd had earlier hits and survived, or what have you. You can go crazy with all of these permutations, but it is interesting to me that a significant number of the megafaunal survivors have basically a holarctic distribution, which means a distribution across all the high latitudes. It's not just open and shut that you had significant survival of megafauna here in North America. We don't really know that. We know that some megafauna survived, but if you cut out the guys with holarctic distributions, then what remains is very, very limited indeed--pronghorns, llamas, tapirs, mountain goats and a couple of others, none very big.
SA: So far there is no empirical evidence to support the hyperdisease hypothesis. What are the chances that youíre going to find a smoking gun--a microbe--in ancient megafaunal remains?
RM: I do not expect to be successful in the short term. There are both practical and theoretical reasons for that. The very practical one is that we're working with ancient DNA, which has a very poor reputation scientifically because of the enormous claims that were once made for retrieving DNA from dinosaurs and from inclusions in amber early in the '90s. None of these results could be replicated independently, and there's therefore a prevalent belief that most work in ancient DNA is so riddled with error and the possibility of contamination that it's not worth doing. Unfortunately it's one of the few approaches we can take in respect to trying to find evidence of pathogens, so weíre going to continue doing it. But what that means is that every experiment we do has to be cleaner than clean. We have to be able to stand behind every result that we think is good, which means endlessly redoing experiments and sending samples to independent labs to see whether they can replicate our results. As a result it's a slow operation, but thereís no other way of doing it--we want to be right.
IN THE LAB. Alex Greenwood prepares extractions from the mammoth bone tissue for ancient DNA studies.
In principle (and here's the theoretical part) there is no reason, if pathogenic material is present in a well-preserved bone, that we shouldn't be able to visualize what's there by PCR [the polymerase chain reaction]. Because the technique is so sensitive, anything that is in your sample will be replicated. If you have the right fishing tools, in terms of primers, you should be able to get a good length of sequence and determine whether itís one that youíre interested in dealing with, which in our case would be a sequence from an existing virus, for example. The troubling detail is copy number. People have an easy time doing mitochondrial DNA, from the point of view of getting results, because whereas in the average cell you have only one nucleus and therefore only one copy of the complete nuclear genome, in any such cell you might have a thousand mitochondria. So just from a statistical point of view, the chances are that if anything gets replicated it'll be mitochondrial DNA. For a long time people didnít think it would be possible to get nuclear DNA from fossil material, but my colleague Alex Greenwood [at the American Museum of Natural History], who works with me on the disease hypothesis, was able to do exactly that with mammoth material a couple of years ago, and we have now consistently done it with mammoth specimens that weíre working on for the hyperdisease work. This means that our techniques are at least good enough to go out and get material of infectious organisms that might be there in very low copy number. In principle we think we should be able to do it. The techniques exist, at least primitively, and we have expectations that there will be great improvements in what we can do with ancient DNA in the next decade or so.
One of the difficulties we've had with PCR work is that in order to be successful you've got to know what you're after before you do it, because it's all in the primer design. And we don't know for a verifiable fact what kinds of pathogens weíre even dealing with, so it's a real needle in a haystack kind of problem. To deal with this situation we are trying some other approaches that would help us prior to the actual PCR-ing. One of these would be to use immunological approaches, which are used diagnostically all the time in the case of human diseases. If you want to know whether someone has sleeping sickness, or syphilis, for example, there are immunological tests that you can utilize that will give you a very clear yes/no answer because of the specificity of what's known as antibody/antigen reactions. If you get a positive result, it is meaningful because of the specificity of these reactions. Or if you get nothing, that is also meaningful--it means that the antigen [and therefore probably the microbe] you are probing for is simply not there.
Our idea here is to develop appropriate tests for identifying whether or not, say, a highly specific protein known to be present in the capsular covering of certain pathogenic viruses is in a given fossil specimen. That's the antigen we will then probe for using custom-designed antibodies. If we come up with a positive, that the protein is there, then we have narrowed our search enormously, down to that set of viruses known to manufacture the protein of interest. That gives us a clue as to what genes we should then look for in primer design for use in PCR experiments. If we get corroboration back, in the form of an expected sequence, then we know that this particular pathogen or kind of pathogen was present in that mammoth at whatever time it lived. That's not a demonstration of hyperdisease, clearly. That's only saying that you can in fact retrieve genetic information on "fossil" exogenous viruses. But that would be an astounding breakthrough for our work, because once we know how to conduct the proper experiment in the first case, the procedure can be generalized to all cases.
Another possible approach is using electron microscopy. This seems very primitive, sort of harkening back to a different age. But for us, identification is everything. If we could get an initial impression of what kinds of pathogens are present in a fossil, then we could go to more sensitive modern techniques to learn a lot more about them. In the particular case of mammoths, our idea is that if we could get vascular tissues, which occur on the inside of well-preserved bones, we could search for organized particles by a process of filtration. A number of viruses have organized capsules that are morphologically distinctive and diagnostic. If we can identify such viruses in filtrates examined microscopically, then weíve got something else we can use to establish whether this or that particular pathogen is present. The test then becomes to see whether we can complete the hat trick by fishing out a sequence for it using PCR.
SA: Are you looking at samples from mammoths from a particular area?
CENTRAL TAIMYR PENINSULA, viewed from a helicopter, has yielded the youngest mammoth remains from continental Asia.
RM: We're in all of these cases trying to find individuals that were possibly parts of one or more "terminal populations." This is another one of the very hard things that we have to do. The logic of our argument is such that it has to be accepted that the killer pathogens were not present in the population until they were introduced. Once introduced, their effect was so massive that the population and thereafter the species died out in its entirety. If we're talking about extremely lethal, acute infections, then once the panzootic gets started species will presumably have to disappear very quicklyóperhaps in a few tens to a few hundreds of years. The difficulty paleontologically is to find those specimens from terminal populations. It's really very difficult to do because you have no idea necessarily where to look. So we're doing the best that we can, and what that means in the case of mammoths is going to northern Asia and radiocarbon-dating as many young-looking specimens as we can--and we have had some success in this already. One of the places we've worked in, for example, is Wrangel Island, which is where mammoths survived up until about 4,000 years ago. Thatís clearly a terminal population case. Another is the Taimyr Peninsula, which is where the youngest radiocarbon dates for continental Asia have come from. It looks like that was some kind of refugium for mammothsóthey survived there up until about 10,000 years ago.
SA: Are you envisioning a single disease or a suite of diseases wreaking all this havoc?
RM: It could be either. It would be simplest, of course, if it were one disease. But it strikes me that while it might have been one disease in North America, it was almost sure to have been quite another that took down the giant lemurs of Madagascar less than 2,000 years ago. This would scarcely be remarkable. The picture that I get just from what we know about human disease and the introduction of new diseases into human populations is that literally anything can take you down. You may know that there's a huge controversy right now about disease being purposely introduced into Yanomamö country in Amazonia. There was a major epidemic of measles there in the '60s, and people died of it. Yet for European-derived populations, dying from measles is extremely rare. So there's no reason at all to think that even garden-variety diseases that are prevalent today could not have that killer impact on naïve populations. Alternatively, it is also plausible to think that slight genetic changes in relatively benign microbes might render them lethal. For a good example we need go no further than the type A flu that went global in 1918 at the end of the First World War. This was a true killer plague--the worst in recent times--and it caused the death of between 20 and 40 million people in about a year and a half. Yet this novel flu evidently gained its lethality through a couple of substitutions in a couple of its genes. The point is these things are going on in the disease pool we all share in all the time. I suggest that you should be very, very frightened by these facts.
I know it's difficult to think about such a complex process as a multi-species epidemic, but it happens. The best studied system involves human beings, pigs and birds, all living in China. They pass influenza back and forth, species to species, and every now and then create killer flu.
Yes, this is the perfect example which does not apply to the theory in question. Humans in China live in very densely populated areas, close together with their domesticated animals, and this fact allows them to pass diseases to each other. This does not apply to animals living in the wild, animals who also are too spread apart and thinly populated to quickly pass a disease, and thus create a contagion within their own species, assuming they are even capable of being infected by the cross-species disease in question. It's a very weak theory. And again, where is the species made extinct by a disease?
Occam's Razor applies. The simplist answer is human predation. And it's been proved; there is an example. Think Dodo.
Of course when it comes to the human mind, in practice, Occam's Razor is often powerless against the combined forces of human self-interest and self-deception. Both the politically correct leftists and some "conservatives" have strong political motivations for denying that ancient mankind could have exterminated entire species.
Only from the belt down. ;)
A good for-instance is the American Indians. They had no immunity to pox diseases and died in droves, even if they were far from the white men who carried the diseases to the New World.
I don't have a problem with the disease scenario per se, I just don't see how a very sparse human population could spread it all around North America, from tropics to ice floes, from east to west, in such a short time. Also left to the imagination is some idea of how all of these very different animals were somehow vulnerable to a virus that had probably never seen their RNA before.
Scientists have gone to lengths to explain how mammoths might have lived, commissioning artwork showing mammoths trooping through snow-covered tundras, their massive fur coats much in evidence. What these pictures don't show is silos or grocery stores in those tundras; the mammoths would need them.
The problem is that the bulk of mammoth remains are found in the far reaches of Canada and Alaska, and in Island groups to the North of Siberia in the Arctic circle.
The question is, how given anything like the standard version of Earth history, did vast herds of such large creaturesever find food when the entire territory is covered by ice ten months of the year? Elephants are gluttonous; they spend most of their waking hours eating, in fact, McGowan has stated that he does not understand how anything ever ate enough to get bigger than elephants since there would not appear to be time in the day for it.
You could literally take the healthiest elephant on Earth, fit him with the best fur coat and the best pair of jogging shoes in the world, start him off from any point on Earth habitable to elephants, and build for him a highway to the Liakhovs, and he would never get there. Winter would arrive and he would starve before he got there.
This conundrum has scientists flamboozled to so great an extent that their pronouncements on the subject often don't even sound coherent. Typical would be the mammoth article in the Talk.origins/Ediacara/Toromanura "FAQ" system which, aside from an irrelevant discourse on whether the occasional specimen found in the ice was quick-frozen or mummified, discusses every adaptation which the mammoth supposedly had for life in cold climes other than the vital one, i.e. what adaptation did they have for living without eating? Typically, the article notes that Arctic climes must have been significantly warmer than they are now to allow for mammoth herds, without telling us how that might have been given any possible history of our Earth which could be projected backwards to those times starting from present conditions and known processes, i.e. without using the dread non-word "catastrophe".
Velikovsky claimed that these vast herds, the remnants of which are seen in those arctic circle island groups, were peacefully grazing on vast fields which were in temperal zones, when the entire surface of the Earth shifted due to one of the catastrophes hediscusses, that they very quickly thus ended up in arctic regions along with their fields,and froze to death or otherwise died due to effects of the catastrophe itself.
Again, the real problems are:
1. how did vast herds of mammoths ever inhabit regions which a mammoth today could not even get to much less live in?
2. how do the vast bulk of their remains come to be found in obvious scenes of vast destruction?
Vine DeLoria is a past president of the National Council of American Indians and the best known American Indian author of the last 50 years or so. His "Custer Died for Your Sins" is the standard text on Indian affairs in universities.
The Native American section of any Barnes/Noble or Borders store will have ten or twenty of Vine's books, including one, "Red Earth, White Lies", which is a book about catastrophism, and about the megafauna dieouts. Deloria utterly destroys the "overkill" and "blitzkrieg overkill" theories, as well as the general Bering Strait hypothesis concerning how Indian Ancestors got here.
In even the most prejudiced murder trial there is one essential element: there has to have been a killing. Fancy legal terminology generally requires a body the corpus delictus as the TV detec- tive shows are fond of telling us. It would seem reasonable, if one was to promulgate a theory of blitzkrieg slaughter as have Martin and Diamond, to identiiy where the bodies are buried and then take the reader on a gut-wrenching tour through a graveyard of waste and butchery. We are deprived of this vicarious thrill because the evidence of the destruction of the megafiuna suggests a scenario well outside the orthodox interpretation of benign natural processes. Therefore mere mention of the reality of the situation is anathema to most scholars. So let us see what the actual situation is.
The first explorers of the northern shores of Siberia and its offshore northern islands and of the interior of Alaska, and some of its northern islands, were stunned to discover an astro- nomical number of bones of prehistoric animals piled indis- criminately in hills and buried in the ground. The graveyards of these animals were classified as "antediluvian" (prior to Noah's flood) by the majority of scientists and laypeople alike who still believed the stories of the Old Testament. Near these grave- yards, incidentally, but located in riverbanks on the northern shore of Siberia, are found the famous Siberian mammoths whose flesh was supposedly edible when thawed.
Reading an extensive set of quotations is always tedious to readers but I hope you will bear with me in this chapter be- cause it is only in the repetition of the reports of the discoveries of these areas that the entire picture of the demise of the mam- moths and other creatures really becomes clear. These Siberian remains are not the thousands of mammoth bones which Jared Diamond thinks are searched frantically by archaeologists seek- ing signs of human butchering. It is doubtful that any archaeol- ogists or paleontologists have made extensive studies of the skeletons in these locations or we would certainly have a far different view of megafauna extinction than is presently ac- ceptable to orthodox scholars.
Russian expeditions to Siberia and the northern islands of the Arctic Ocean began in the latter half of the eighteenth cen- tury, and with the discovery of these large mounds of animal bones, most prominently the tusks of mammoths and other herbivores, franchises were given to enterprising people who could harvest the ivory for the world market. Liakoff seems to have been the first iniportant ivory trader and explorer in the late eighteenth century. After his death the Russian govern- ment gave a monopo~ to a businessman in Yakutsk who sent his agent, Sannikofi, to explore the islands and locate additional sources of ivory. Sannikoff's discoveries of more islands and his reports on the animal remains found there are the best firsthand accounts of the Siberian animal graveyards.
Hedenstrom explored the area in 1809 and reported back on the richness of the ivory tusks. Sannikoff discovered the island of Kotelnoi, which is apparently the richest single location, in 1811. Finally, the czar decided to send an official expedition and from 1820 to 1823, Admiral Ferdinand Wrangell, then a young naval lieutenant, did a reasonably complete survey of the area. Since these expeditions and explorations were inspired by commercial interests and not scientific curiosity; the reports are entirely objective with no ideological or doctrinal bias to slant the interpretation of the finds.
Around the turn of the century interest in the Siberian is- lands seems to have increased, whether as a result of the few Christian fundamentalists who were not reconciled to evolu- tion frantically searching for tangible proof of Noah's flood, or as part of the leisure activities of the English gendemen of the time, we can't be sure. The definitive article on the Siberian prehistoric animal remains was written by the Reverend D. Gath Whitley and published by the Philosophical Society of Great Britain under the title "The Ivory Islands in the Arctic Ocean." It drew on older sources, primarily reports of expedi- tions of the ivory traders, and captured the spectacular nature of the discoveries well.
Liakoff discovered, on an island that now bears his name, rather substantial cliffs composed primarily of frozen sand and hundreds of elephant tusks. Later, when the Russian govern- ment sent a surveyor, Chwoinoff, to the island he reported that, with the exception of son~e high mountains, the island seemed to be composed of ice and sand and bones and tusks of ele- phants (or mammoths) which were simply cemented together by the cold.Whitley reported:Sannikoff explored Kotelnoi, and found that this large island was full of the bones and teeth of elephants, rhi- noceroses, and musk-oxen. Having explored the coasts, Sannikoff determined, as there was nothing but bar- renness along the shore, to cross the island. He drove in reindeer sledges up the Czarina River, over the hills, and down the Sannikoff River, and completed the cir- cuit of the island.All over the hills in the interior of the island Sannikoff found the bones and tusks of ele- phants, rhinoceroses, buffaloes, and horses in such vast numbers, that he concluded that these animals must have lived in the island in enormous herds, when the climate was milder.5
Hedenstrom explored Liakoff's island in 1809 and discov- ered that". .. the quantity of fossil ivory . . . was so enormous, that, although the ivory diggers had been engaged in collecting ivory from it for forty years, the supply seemed to be quite undiminished. On an expanse of sand little more than half a mile in extent, Hedenstrom saw ten tusks of mammoths stick- ing up, and as the ivory hunters had left these tusks because there were still other places where the remains of mammoths were still more abundant, the enormous quantities of elephants' tusks and bones in the island may be imagined?' Indeed, a number of explorers reported that after each ocean storm the beaches were littered with bones and tusks which had been ly- ing on the sea bottom and brought to shore by wave action.
The elephant or mammoth bones and tusks were the most spectacular finds primarily because they were so plentiful and consequently they attracted public attention the most. The is- lands contained an incredible mixture of bones of many extinct and some living species of mammals. Mixed with the animal bones were trees in all kinds of conditions. Whitley quoted some of the Russian explorers as reporting "it is only in the lower strata of the New Siberian wood-hills that the trunks have that position which they would assume in swimming or sinking undisturbed. On the summit of the hills they lie flung upon another in the wildest disorder, forced upright in spite of gravitation, and with their tops broken off or crushed, as if they had been thrown with great violence from the south on a bank, and there heaped up?'7
A few conclusions can be drawn from the reports of the Russian ivory traders. First, it appeared that several reasonably large islands were built primarily of animal bones, heaped in massive hills and held together by frozen sand. To indicate the scope of the debris, we should note that all of these islands are found on modern maps of the area, indicating that we are not talking about little tracts of land of limited area. Second, the sea floor north of Siberia and surrounding the islands was covered with so many additional bones that it was worthwhile for the ivory traders to check the beaches after every storm to gather up tusks and other bones.
Third, and very important for estimating the scope of the disaster, the ivory was of outstanding quality, so much so that the area provided most of the world's ivory for over a century. Estimates of the number of tusks taken from the islands range in the neighborhood of 100,000 pairs taken between the 1770s and the 1900s. Whitley noted that Sannikoff himself had brought away 10,000 pounds of fossil ivory from New Siberia Island alone in 1809.9- In reality; however, only about a quarter of the ivory was of commercial grade, so the true figure must approach half a million pairs of tusks.
Fourth, an amazing variety of animals, many extinct, were mixed with the mammoth and rhinoceros bones, although these two animals have become symbolic of the whole menagerie. Fifth, trees, plants, and other floral materials were in- discriminately mixed with the animal remains, sometimes lead- ing the Russians to suppose that the islands represented a sunken isthmus or broad stretch of land where these animals and the companion plants lived in a warmer climate. The chaotic na- ture of stratification of the remains soon abused that notion.
Finally, it is important to note that none of the bones of any of the species had carving or butchering marks made by human beings. N. K.Vereshchagin wrote: "The accumulations of mam- moth bones and carcasses of mammoth, rhinoceros, and bison found in frozen ground in Indigirka, Kolyma, and Novosibirsk lands bear no trace of hunting or activity of primitive man. Here large herbivorous animals perished and became extinct because of climatic and geomorphic changes, especially changes in the regime of winter snow and increase in depth of snow cover."9 The "climatic and geomorphic changes" must have been very sudden indeed and exceedingly violent, consid- ering the fact that these bones are always described as "heaps" of material deposited as if they had been thrown into a pile by an incredibly strong force.
The testimony regarding the richness of the animal remains in the Arctic north of the continental masses is not restricted to Russian sources. Stephen Taber, writing in his report "Perenni- ally Frozen Ground in Alaska: Its Origins and History," had this to say about the Siberian islands:
Pfizenmayer [citation omittedj states that in the New Siberia island collectors have "found inexhaustible sup- plies of mammoth bones and tusks as well as bones and horns of rhinoceros and other diluvial mammals"; and Dr. Bunge, during expeditions in the summers of 1882-1884, "gathered almost two thousand five hun- dred first class mammoth tusks on the new Siberian is- lands of Lyakhov; Kotelnyi, and Fadeyev;" although many collectors had previously obtained ivory from the islands since their discovery in 1770 by Lyakhov.~~
It would seem obvious to anyone seriously pursuing the question of the demise of the mammoth and the other mega- herbivores that a good place to locate the bodies to determine the cause of their demise would be the islands north of the Siberian peninsula. Yet we hear not a word about them in sci- entific articles and books concerning the overkill hypothesis.
When we inquire if the Alaskan area has similar deposits, we learn that the situation is the same. Early gold miners in Alaska discovered that in many cases they had to strip off a strange de- posit popularly called "muck" in order to get to the gold-bearing gravels.The muck was simply a frozen conglomerate of trees and plants, sand and gravels, some volcanic ash, and thousands if not milhons of bits of broken bones representing a wide variety of late Pleistocene and modern animals and plants.
Two scholars describe the scenes of destruction and chaos which the muck represents. Frank Hibben, in an article survey- ing the evidence of early man in Alaska, said that while the for- mation of muck was not clear,". . . there is ample evidence that at least portions of this material were deposited under cata- strophic conditions. Mammal remains are for the most part dis- membered and disarticulated, even though some fragments yet retain in this frozen state, portions of llgaments, skin, hair, and flesh. Twisted and torn trees are piled in splintered masses con- centrated in what must be regarded as ephemeral canyons or arroyo cuts."'1
Stephen Taber's report echoes the same conditions. He says: "Fossil bones are astonishingly abundant in frozen ground of Alaska, but articulated bones are scarce, and complete skeletons, except for rodents that died in their burrows, are almost un- known."'2 Many laypeople will be confused by this technical language and fail to grasp what Taber is saying, allowing him to imply a benign orthodox interpretation when the situation re- quires that a clearer picture be drawn.
When a scholar says "articulation" of bones he means an arrangement of bones that a person observing them would identify as a complete skeleton and from which an experienced observer could identify the species.To say that articulated bones are scarce, then, means that the bones are scattered and mixed so badly that expert examination is needed to idemify even the bone itself, let alone the species from which it comes. Remem- ber this problem of articulation, for we shall meet it again in another context. Taber concludes with the observation that "the dispersal of the bones is as striking as their abundance and indicates general destruction of soft parts prior to burial."13 In other words,Alaskan muck is a gigantic pile of bones represent- ing a bewildering number of species, a good number of them the megafauna I have been discussing.
We find the missing megafauna of the late Pleistocene in the Siberian islands, in the islands north ofAlaska, and in the muck in the Alaskan interior. Obviously we have here victims of an immense catastrophe which swept continents and left the de- bris in the far northern latitudes piled in jumbled masses that now form decent-sized islands. Most anthropologists and ar- chaeologists avoid discussing these deposits because the ortho- dox uniformitarian interpretation of the natural processes precludes sudden unpredictable actions.
Paul Martin, in private correspondence with me in June 1993, stated flatly that the mammoths could not have been de- stroyed by any such force or event.14 The sole basis he gave for that conclusion was radiocarbon dating of mammoth remains in the Siberian and Alaskan muck. I will have more to say about the reliability of radiocarbon dating below but if we were to accept his argument, then we would have to create a scenario where Paleo-Indians kill all these animals without leaving a trace of a spear point or hatchet blade, drag the carcasses out to sea some 150 miles north ofAlaska, and dispose of the evidence of their misdeeds. Here friendly wolves would not be much help.
Although Martin maintains that his thesis explains the disap- pearance of the megafauna, his argument really centers on the loss of three species: mammoths, mastodons, and ground sloths, with an occasional reference to horses and camels that makes it appear as if the important species have been covered. But overkill avoids asking about the possibly half-million mammoth skeletons lying frozen in the Arctic regions because that would completely negate the theory. <>
There are a couple of cases in which gold being discovered in a region led within a short space of time to the construction of a number of new churches in the region, as well as to new whorehouses. People like yourself who didn't know how to look past first-level correlations naturally assumed that religion was the root cause of immorality.
Other than that, the first time in the history of the world that humans ever had the combination of firepower and mobility to even think about exterminating animal species off entire continents was the advent of Chengis Khan's army. To try to picture American Indian ancestors doing anything like that is a sick joke.
Seems like he gave pretty good examples of the honeycreeper (at least in lower altitudes), the Golden Toad (sightings have dropped to zero in 5 years), and the African Wild Dogs (from canine distemper)
Also, remember the findings about the pygmy mammoths living on an isolated island until about 5,000 years ago.
Weren't there some frozen carcasses found in Siberia fresh enough to cook a steak and eat it?
The last mammoth died about 4000 years ago in Alaska, although some say that was a baby pigmy mammoth, which means nothing to me. Also there were stories of mammoths in Canada just 400 years ago.
In 1811 David Thompson reported seeing mammoth tracks near the Athabasca river.
I take a look before stepping outdoors, mainly because sometimes the way is blocked by the furry side of a moose, but you never know, a mammoth in the yard would be interesting for talk around the water cooler. Mammoths would probably eat my vegetable garden even quicker than moose do. Fence? What fence? Tromp! Trample! Stamp! Slurp! Mmmmm, fresh cabbages.
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