Native Americans and the Land
Wilderness and American Identity
The Use of the Land
Native Americans and the Land Essays
Paleoindians and the Great Pleistocene Die-Off
Nature Transformed is made possible by grants from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.
Bill Reid (Haida artist),
Today, in contrast, many American Indians agree with the consensus among scientists (regardless of their ethnicity) over the origin of American Indians. Today’s consensus, like all scenarios based in science, changes with new data from new sites or with re-interpretations of sites or artifacts long known, in both instances offering fresh insight on the arrival, spread, and behavior of man in the New World. From new data flow new hypotheses, subsequent testing to falsify or confirm them, and adjustments, if necessary, in theories and the conclusions drawn reasonably from them. For over one hundred years—and after a long period of discussion—almost all scientists have agreed that the ancestors of today’s indigenous people came to North America from Asia. And in recent decades they have been in general agreement that these ancient Indians, or Paleoindians (which means “old” Indians), as they are known, arrived some 13,000–14,000 years ago at the end of the period known as the Pleistocene.
Beringia (light brown—area above
The extinctions were remarkable. Animals familiar and unfamiliar, widespread and local, and large and small disappeared. How many species disappeared will never be known, but at least thirty-five mammalian genera (the genus is the next most inclusive category to the species) vanished. Some animals were well-known creatures like lemmings, salamanders, and various birds. Others were very unfamiliar, including many mammals over 100 pounds in weight—so called megafauna.
They included exotic hulking tusked mammoths and mastodons, which towered elephant-like over almost all else on prairies and in boggy woodlands. Several types of slow-moving giant ground sloths as large as mammoths also vanished. So did a kind of giant armadillo, armored 2000-pound six-foot-long glyptodonts resembling nothing known today, single-hump camels, stocky six-foot-long capybaras, 500-pound tapirs, 300-pound giant beavers, four-horned antelopes, horses, bison-sized shrub oxen, stag-moose with fantastic multiple-palmated and -tined antlers, dire wolves whose large heads and powerful jaws made them resemble hyenas, huge fearsome and agile 1500-pound short-faced bears, scimitar-toothed cats which fed on mammoth young, and great saber-toothed cats that could gape, sharklike, opening their jaws to a one-hundred-degree angle before stabbing or ripping open their prey with their enormous canines.
They all vanished, some at indeterminate times but many between 11,000 and 10,000 years ago, or at the moment or shortly after the moment that Paleoindians arrived. That coincidence has spawned debate as fierce as that over the question of human arrival and dispersal in the New World.
Remains of seven mammoths killed by
In his search for proof, Martin and his co-workers simulated, on the basis of assumptions about when Paleoindians arrived and the rates of reproduction, movement, and killing, the blitzkrieg. In one scenario, one hundred Paleoindians arrived on the Alberta prairies some 12,000 years ago, each year moved southward twenty miles and killed one dozen animals per person, and their population doubled every twenty years—all fairly modest assumptions except for the last. In only 300 years they numbered 100,000, spread two thousand miles south, and killed over ninety million 1000-pound animals. In more conservative scenarios it still took relatively few centuries to reach Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America, and to hunt megafauna to their doom.
Archaeological site in Alberta, Canada,
One problem is that there are fewer than one hundred archaeological sites with associated extinct megafauna—mastodons, mammoths, camels, horses, four-horned antelopes, tapirs, and a couple of other extinct species. For Martin, a negative proves a positive—the sites are few because the onslaught was against fearless animals and as fast as lightning.
In Martin’s reasoning, animals had no time to develop fear. Some like slow-moving, sluggish ground sloths must have been especially vulnerable to human predation. Yet buffaloes, pronghorn antelopes, and other animals survived into the modern era alongside humans despite a reputation—especially in the case of bison—of being so bold or curious that hunters rather easily killed them. It is as reasonable to suggest that Paleoindians played a greater role in the extinctions the longer they were in North America, and today’s belief that man arrived in the New World some 1000–3000 years earlier than when Martin wrote, if buttressed and confirmed by future finds, does not really weaken his case.
Clovis fluted spear points, ca. 11,600 B.P.,
But Paleoindian technology was far more varied and cannot be reduced to Clovis points. Collectively, Paleoindians probably hunted not just now-extinct megafauna but caribou, deer, beaver, tortoises, birds, and other small animals. Moreover, they were not just hunters but (perhaps even more) collectors of seeds, roots, shellfish, and fish. In the last several centuries, people who gathered and hunted for their livelihood (and provide one way to think about long-ago Paleoindians) tended not to restrict hunting to single classes of animals but instead focused their attentions on animals and plants that minimize the cost of their effort relative to their gain. There is no reason to assume that Paleoindians were any different.
In this light it is interesting that small animals also vanished. Some might well have been relevant in a foraging diet but others seem completely irrelevant. Relatively little is known about insects and plants, but at least ten genera (and many more species) of birds disappeared, from jays and ducks to flamingos and raptors. Some no doubt were tasty. Others were scavengers. Curiously, approximately the same percentage of birds as megafauna disappeared.
Preserved spruce forest discovered buried
The examples could be multiplied, but at present there is much we do not know about the consequences of presumed climatic and vegetational changes on specific species—for some, less food; for others, grasses more difficult to metabolize, or even toxic. If extinctions are considered on a case-by-case basis, then factors like biomass, reproductive biology, overspecialization, feeding strategies, dependencies, and competition need investigation for their role in a particular species’ vulnerability.
If climate fatally complicates the simplistic idea that man alone was to blame for the Pleistocene extinctions, there is still too much we fail to understand about climate to ascribe responsibility to it alone. Thus we should not go to the other extreme and rule out altogether a role for Paleoindians. After all, they and their distinctive hunting technology were widespread and associated with animal remains, which at least shows a taste for species now extinct. Perhaps climatic changes overwhelmed certain animals and plants and left them and others susceptible to a Paleoindian coup de grace.
Left: Moa leg bones assembled by
Because North America is a large continent, not a small island, the very large island of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean might provide a better model for what happened at the end of the North American Pleistocene. Here also animals and birds became extinct: large flightless birds, giant tortoises, hippos, more than fifteen species of lemurs, and other animals. They vanished in the wake of the Indonesian-East African ancestors of the Malagasy, who apparently arrived during a period of drought in a longterm climatic cycle oscillating from wet to dry, a coincidence that doomed more species than either humans, desiccation, or vegetation changes alone could have.
Three-foot mammoth tusk discovered
Guiding Student Discussion
Coverage on Kennewick Man,
In The Ecological Indian (1999), I explore in one chapter the data and arguments for the arrival of humans in the New World and for the Pleistocene extinctions. The chapter contains many references to articles and books by the principal researchers, and to many pieces readily available in the popular press (see Works Cited). My conclusions there (and here) can be updated by a stream of materials that find their way into the national press. An Internet search will turn up the latest sites, dates, interpretations, and controversies pertaining to the New World prior to the arrival of Europeans (see Links to Online Resources).
These are the hot topics. There are matters to discuss and debate in all these topics. They are covered with some regularity in journals and magazines like Science, Science News, Nature, and National Geographic, and in the national press—newspapers like the New York Times, major newswires, and weeklies like U.S. News & World Report.
Another topic that could be plumbed is epistemological. Narrowly, this unit concerns a debate over the role of human hunters in late-Pleistocene extinctions. But embedded in it is a debate over the utility of a western scientific viewpoint versus a non-western, non-scientific indigenous perspective. It came to the fore in the passages contrasting how Vine Deloria accounted for Pleistocene extinctions (see Red Earth, White Lies, 1995), and how any western-trained scientist would approach the question. N. Scott Momaday, a Kiowa Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, discusses the problems in an op-ed (“Disturbing the Spirits,” New York Times, 2 November 1996). The contrast is also evident in the sharp disagreements over Kennewick Man between scientists and certain American Indians, who argue that the former can tell them nothing they do not already know from their elders concerning their own history—see Roger Downey, Riddle of the Bones (2000) and David Hurst Thomas, Skull Wars (2000). (See Works Cited.)
Depressions in bed of Paluxy River,
These musings on the Pleistocene lead, as can be seen, in different directions, each of which could consume an entire class period (or longer!). To come firmly back to ground and the topic at hand, visit the nearest museum of natural history or anthropology with Pleistocene fauna and/or artifacts on New World and American Indians. Comprehensive museums like the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, and other major urban museums of natural history offer vast opportunity—for their exhibitions, collections, education programs, and tours. And you can always take a virtual tour on the Internet. For example, see online exhibits on the Pleistocene extinctions at the American Museum of Natural History, on the Midwest 16,000 years ago during the Ice Age at the Illinois State Museum, on the La Brea tar pits at the Page Museum in Los Angeles, and on Kennewick Man at the Burke Museum of Natural History at the University of Washington (see Links to Online Resources for more online museum exhibitions).
Because it is set at the time of the arrival of American Indians in the New World, this narrative about the relationship between Paleoindians and animals at the end of the Pleistocene also, and finally, provides an provides opportunity for discussion of the names used by and for Indian people—the indigenous or aboriginal people of the Americas. Today, North American Indians use “Indians,” “American Indians,” “Native Americans,” and “First Nations” to refer to themselves even if they most often think of themselves as belonging to a particular nation or tribe like Inuit, Sioux, Cherokee, Anishinaabe, Mi’kmaq, or Gwich’in. (Many of these more specific names are also of great interest as lessons in the role of outsiders [other Indians and Europeans] and politics in ethnonymy—see William C. Sturtevant, general editor, Handbook of North American Indians, 20 vols. Washington D.C., 1978– ). Of equal importance is that there was no such thing as the “American Indian,” except in the European imagination. Rather, there have always been many different Indian people, many separate sovereign communities or nations, and many dissimilar languages, cultures, and histories. It then follows that Indian people were not of a single voice on the arrival of humans in the New World or of their origins as distinctive societies.