Who or what killed the mammoth?

Archeologists, ecologists, geologists and others have frequently debated the massive extinction of many large mammal species such as the mammoth, mastodon, sabretooth cat, and others in N. Am. at the end of the last ice age. It has always been difficult to avoid the coincidence of the so-called arrival of the Clovis hunters and their unique and lethal stone hunting technology just at the overlap of these massive large animal disappearances.


Many archeologists (notably Paul Martin and his adherents) have long held a central role for these first American ice age hunters in the disappearance of the mammoth and other species.  Others such as Michael Collins and more recently Dennis Stanford have de-emphasized the potential impact of the Clovis people in particular for their impact on these disappearances.  There has always been a debate about the population levels of the Clovis hunters in any one region and the short time period during which their unique technology survived as being sufficient to bring about such large and wide-scale extinctions.  Now, Stanford and others are putting forth a logical but controversial newer model for the arrival of a small population of ice age Europeans of Solutrean descent as the progenitors of the Clovis technology. This model of Clovis culture's widespread and rapid distribution across nearly two continents is being viewed now by many as more likely the spreading of a superior technological idea across an established population base--one that had arrived perhaps several thousands of years earlier and one that was not so dependent on large animal hunting to the near exclusion of everything else (see Albert Goodyear's info. on the Topper site  in S. Carolina for timeframes) and established its own regional variations. It can be effectively debated, based upon artifact distribution, radiocarbon dates, etc. that perhaps the original Clovis technology did spread from east to west and not the other direction, as most had assumed. (This debate is resolved in this writer's view in the first book of the People of the Stone series, THE STONE BREAKERS, from the point of view of both the archeologist and the novelist with a license to create actual stone age characters to resolve this debate for themselves.)

Regardless of from where or even when these Clovis hunters "exploded" on the N. Am. scene at the end of the last ice age, it is highly unlikely that they would have been able to do as much killing in such a short time as some would like to give them credit for.   (This writer deliberately chose to start his six novel series on prehistoric Am. with the workings of a small 'band' of mammoth facing both their own declining numbers and these new human predators.  The first chapter  of THE STONE BREAKERS, which begins the saga of the People of the Stone series, is told from the perspective of these great herd animals in their changed environmental and the many other new non-human threats they must have faced, not the least of which were generally warming environments and species specific, slow breeding patterns.)


More recently, a new theory for the mass disappearances at the end of the ice age in N. Am. has begun to come to the fore.  Growing evidence of a significant celestial event leading to gross environmental alterations during this critical time are gaining support among archeologists and others.  Evidence of pitting has been found in fossil mammoth and mastodon tusks from the Southeastern U.S. indicating some form of bombardment of particles from the sky that could only have been the result of some type of explosive event in the atmosphere. This event is believed to have occurred in the millenium between twelve and thirteen thousands years ago--or about the same time as many Clovis dates seem to cluster in the same region.  Geologists have also recorded widespread evidence in the twelve thousand year before the present time frame across much of N. Am. and elsewhere that such a catastrophic event may have occurred. If so, were the great animals on their way out already, and the gradually warming environments at the end of the ice age were simply the final and rapid change beyond their slower adaptation capabilities?  After all, many of these larger Pleistocene mammals disappeared around the globe as well and not just here where the Clovis hunters would have targeted them.  Were they on their way out and the final shove then came at the end of a sharp-tipped fluted Clovis spearpoint? If so, was much of a shove even needed? And what of these unique hunters?  Their technology 'seems' to vanish at about the same time--or did it?


Many archeologists have long noted the important environmental changes of this time period and the return of a brief interglacial period called the Younger Dryas.  In the eastern U.S. particularly there has been much speculation that the extreme and rapid climate shifts of this thousand year episode may have not only contributed to the destruction of numerous large mammal species, but may also have doomed the Clovis culture itself (see subsequent blog entry in this series for more info. on Clovis speculation).  That so many other species disappeared in a relatively short period of time has often been overshadowed by the extinction of more exotic and well-known forms such as mammoth and saber-toothed cat.  If plant regimes and other major, but lesser emphasized, components of the biosphere also disappeared or changed in a relatively short time span, the effect on slow-breeding species could have been catastrophic.  Whether or not these changes, particularly in North America were brought on by an atmospheric comet explosion on the order of the Tunguska Event of the early Twentieth Century, or by some other celestial impact event would seem to be less important than the overriding fact that some major change affecting the entire food chain--including Ice Age hunters--must have occurred in a very rapid sequence of events.


In many places, such as the Midwest, the Clovis types seem to 'morph' gradually into other, more varied forms.  There seems to be no disappearance of humans during this critical time. In fact, the immediate post Clovis cultures seem to be both widespread and extremely varied and vibrant.  (This debate of man vs. the environment and change at the end of the ice age is the subject of VOICES UPON THE WIND, the author's second installment in the People of the Stone saga).  If these people pushed the great herd animals into extinction, they may have done it unwittingly and were already largely in the process of pursuing a more varied and universal subsistence strategy, well before the ice itself had melted and left them and the smaller mammal descendants in search of new ways to cope with the changed environment they all faced--whether it was brought about by unique celestial events or more gradual, earthly processes.  The debates now must look more closely at the mechanisms and specifics of that rapid change, including the possibilities of celestial as well as human events.  Now, we are the large "herd" animal, and the environment may be changing before our eyes--even more rapidly than the one that faced the also supremely well-adapted mammoth. If the equally well-adapted Clovis hunters failed, or were forced to adapt to new lifestyles, should we not also look to the environmental changes facing us as well with a view toward preparing for our own uncertain future, while at the same time seriously planning for the changes that many in the scientific community tell us are inevitably staring back at us?  True, while we may be more technologically capable of executing some such "about face" in our own lives, we may also have far less time to accomplish such a dramatic and fundamental change than did those Ice Age peoples.

To add your own comment or question click on Comment and log on to our easy to access and secure website.  Your ideas are welcomed and important.

Leave a Comment

Leave a Comment With Your Facebook Account!