Humans hunted most giant mammals into extinction more than 10,000 years ago. Now researchers want to recreate that lost world in enormous Ice Age nature parks.
Were the Native Americans to blame? Only after the last wooly mammoth crashed to the ground, the last hippopotamus met its end and the last giant sloth fell did they apparently realize that instead of going after the largest prey on the prairie, they should have been eating more rabbits and birds.
Scientists have discovered that the Stone Age ancestors of the Sioux, Apache and Cherokee were by no means the children of nature living in deep harmony with heaven and earth that they are often made out to be. Long before the wasteful white man showed up, the ancient indians were among the world’s first true environmental enemies. More than 10,000 years ago they hunted the giant mammals of the age so relentlessly that many were made extinct. It was likely the biggest mass slaughter of mammals in history.
The majority of four-legged furry giants disappeared from the face of the earth in the period between 50,000 and 10,000 years ago. But America wasn’t the only place where massive creatures were doomed. By the end of the Pleistocene era, not much of anything that could be called a giant mammal was left in Europe, Asia and Australia. Only a few large mammals survived, including northern Europe’s moose and brown bears. The mammoth even managed to continue stomping through the tundra a little while longer on remote Wrangel Island in the East Siberian Sea.
The area that is now Central Europe was a frigid steppe during the last Ice Age, home to such creatures as the giant deer, or the Megaloceros. The animal’s antlers covered a span of 3.60 meters (11.8 feet) from tip to tip — the length of a subcompact car. Herds of wild horses galloped across the plains, pursued by saber-toothed tigers, bears the size of grizzlies and a cave lion that was as tall as a man at the shoulder. Huge prehistoric proto-elephants known as Deinotheria, whose 1.3-meter-long tusks curved downward from their lower jaws, ranged through marshy forests. And on the far eastern end of the continent there was the rhinoceros-like Elasmotherium, a creature six meters long and two meters tall, with a two-meter horn jutting from its massive skull. Nowadays all that’s left of these bizarre Ice Age creatures are the few skeletons on display in natural history museums.
End of the megafauna
The large-scale extinction of the so-called megafauna is still one of the greatest mysteries of science today. Some scientists believe that a radical shift in climate killed the animals. The onset of a warmer period changed all the conditions of life — all biotopes. Especially the vegetation, which served as the source of food for the large plant-eating mammals of the day, changed.
Were the giant mammals unable to adjust quickly enough to the change from the cold, dry steppes, to which they were accustomed, to warmer forests and a more humid tundra? If so, why were they able to successfully survive hundreds of thousands of years of similar climate cycles between cold and warm periods?
There are many indications to suggest that man, the biggest predator of them all, killed off the last of the giant mammals. Fifty thousand years ago, Homo sapiens was in the process of spreading out from Africa across the entire globe, first in the direction of Europe and Asia, and later from there to the Americas. And whenever man appeared, the giant mammals eventually disappeared.
American paleontologist and biologist Paul Martin was one of the first scientists to postulate that early man wiped out the giant mammals — a sort of “Blitzkrieg” hypothesis. Now Martin has compiled his latest research findings on the great die-off of the earth’s megafauna in a new book. “Practically every extinction of wild animals in the last 50,000 years was caused by humans,” Martin concludes.
In the end, it’s difficult to decide whether mankind or the climate was to blame, especially with nothing but the bones, hair and teeth of the giant mammals to provide clues. And the remains yield precious little information about the causes of this large-scale extinction.
But a Russian ecologist has now embarked on a massive field experiment in an attempt to prove the Blitzkrieg theory and save the frosty north’s last few surviving large mammals. Sergey Simov of the Russian Academy of Sciences and director of the Northeastern Scientific Station, is in the process of developing an Ice Age park in one of the far corners of the earth — a Siberian Serengeti of sorts. Surrounded by the meadows, forests and wild pastures of the Republic of Sakha, formerly known as Yakutia, the last surviving large mammals will demonstrate that climate change was not what deprived their extinct ancestors of the elements they needed to stay alive.
The proponents of the climate change theory believe that the giant mammals died off when the earth became warmer and the grasslands they needed for food became overgrown with forests. But Simov thinks that things took an entirely different course: Man eliminated the plant-eaters, leaving behind a barren “mammoth steppe,” Simov’s term for the lost wilderness of the past. Left alone and no longer serving as a huge pasture, the grasslands eventually became covered with the bushes, moss and trees that remain there today.
In his Ice Age park, Simov plans to reconstruct history the way it would have occurred without the arrival of man, but in a warmer climate. To test his theory, he plans to allow giant herds of the animals to roam undisturbed, trampling and fertilizing the open grasslands in the process — just as their ancestors did in primeval times. His hypothesis is that the large vegetarians will preserve the steppe as a steppe, simply by being there, and will thereby secure their own survival, irrespective of the climate.
A few elk and thick-coated Yakutian wild horses are already roaming through Simov’s lonely Ice Age ark. He readily admits that their current territory of 50 fenced-in hectares (123 acres) “can hardly be called an ecosystem.” But he and his staff plan to have 1,600 hectares (3,936 acres, or about six square miles) fenced off by spring.
The area could accommodate about 300 to 400 grazers and plant eaters, including horses, elk, reindeer and musk ox — the only surviving member of a group of horned species. Simov also plans to import a few wild bison — an endangered species from Canada.
Eventually, Simov plans to expand his Siberian park to an area of 75,000 hectares (184,500 acres, or about 289 square miles), the size of the Pacific island Kingdom of Tonga. Someday, when the herds of wild beasts galloping through the steppes become substantial enough to shake the permafrost, wolves, bears, lynxes and wolverines will be allowed to hunt. There are even plans to introduce the Siberian tiger, the closest relative of the now extinct cave lion, into the park.
Simov isn’t the only scientist studying the ecological benefits of large mammals. The Dutch Ministry of Agriculture and Environmental Protection has turned over Oostvaardesplassen, a marshy region northeast of Amsterdam, to wild grazing animals. Hundreds of small Konik horses, together with red deer and a type of cow, have turned the land behind the dikes into a species-rich biotope of small patches of woods and open green space.
“What we need,” says paleontologist Martin, “are places where we can attempt to recreate a part of nature the way it was before it was touched by man.” He and a group of US researchers are attempting to convert areas in the vast prairies of the American Midwest into ersatz Ice Age environments. Martin calls the concept “resurrection ecology.”
The scientist wants to import African black and white rhinoceroses, and he’d also like to see camels, large antelopes and, of course, plenty of horses and donkeys grazing the Great Plains. Most importantly, however, the recreated environment would need those animals that Martin says can influence ecosystems “as powerfully as fire” — elephants, the earth’s last trunked creatures. Ultimately, Martin could see lions and leopards roaming the Great Plains in such Pleistocene parks, Martin says excitedly, revealing a touch of romanticism in the soul of a scientist.
But when he campaigns on behalf of his mega-mammals, Martin also displays a typically American entrepreneurial knack: “If there’s anybody here who happens to have a lot of money — get in touch with me before the end of the day and we’ll talk about putting some elephants on your ranch.”
Translated from German by Christopher Sultan Der Spiegel