National Humanities Center logo TeacherServe® logo

Native Americans and the Land

Wilderness and American Identity

The Use of the Land

Native Americans and the Land Essays

Nature Transformed is made possible by grants from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations

Nature Transformed Advisors and Staff

Paleoindians and the Great Pleistocene Die-Off

Shepard Krech III
Professor of Anthropology and
Director, Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology at Brown University
©National Humanities Center

Bill Reid (Haida artist),
The Raven and the First Men,
wood carving depicting the Haida
origin myth (British Columbia)
Asked in former days where they came from, American Indians answered in as many voices as there were different cultures. Given the hundreds of sovereign societies in North America in the early sixteenth century, this means hundreds of different voices in former times. Each nation or tribe had its own theory in which the ancestors either came from elsewhere—a world beneath the current one, lands in the east or west, near a salty sea, and so on—or had always been where they were at the time the question was posed.

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
sea level during the late Pleistocene;
dark brown—area above sea level today)

Beringia, 21,000 B.P.
to the present (NOAA)
The Paleoindians almost surely came to the New World on foot, walking across land exposed when sea levels were much lower. The colder climate from 65,000 to 10,000 years ago locked water up in continental ice sheets and other ice masses, exposing where the Bering Strait is today a land mass known as Beringia. The corridor from Old to New World has often been called a “bridge,” but the image is unfortunate: the area left high and dry measured some one thousand miles north to south at its widest and offered opportunity in a cold tundra-steppe environment for generations of animals and humans. In Alaska, new arrivals had two options to move south, one eastward along rivers and through passes to the east flanks of the Rocky Mountains, the other southward along the coast. Which route was most important is debatable, but both led through tundra, boreal forest, deciduous forest, prairie, and desert and other environments like today’s but for their location farther south. And everywhere people encountered animals—grazers, browsers, and predators—that would soon be extinct.

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.

Scholars Debate

Remains of seven mammoths killed by
Paleoindian Clovis hunters approximately
14,000 years ago,
Colby Mammoth Kill Site, Wyoming, ca. 1975

Martin’s blitzkrieg hypothesis:
“Man, and man alone, was responsible”
More than any other person, Paul Martin, a palynologist and geochronologist, spurred discussion when he proclaimed in 1967 that “man, and man alone, was responsible” for the extinctions. He branded the Paleoindians as Superpredators, and likened their assault on Pleistocene animals to a blitzkrieg, evoking the aggressive, assaulting imagery of a decidedly twentieth-century event—the unrelenting lightning strike of the Nazi war machine in Poland.

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,
dated to 11,000–13,000 B.P., with bones
of an extinct horse that reveal marks of
human butchering, 2001

“there are fewer than one hundred
archaeological sites with associated
extinct megafauna”
In some quarters, Martin’s ideas have become part of received wisdom, a set of ideas taken for granted. They have been popular in the public arena. But can we accept them?

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.,
found in association with Columbian
mammoth remains at kill sites in the
Upper San Pedro River Valley,
Cochise County, Arizona
A more serious problem is that in Martin’s scheme, Paleoindians were everywhere required to focus energy and time on megafauna. This does not fit our most sensible speculations today about what people like Paleoindians did. Paleoindians are best known for a marvelous technology called Clovis (after the site in New Mexico where it was first found), whose archetypal artifacts are three- to six-inch-long spear points supremely adapted to wounding or delivering the coup de grace to large animals.

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
in sand in northern Michigan in 1999,
10,000 years after late-Pleistocene warming
caused spruce forests in the region to be
replaced with pine forests; core samples
taken to study tree-ring data
This coincidence alone suggests that we look elsewhere for causes before we conclude that man alone was responsible for Pleistocene extinctions, which brings us to climate. At the end of the Pleistocene, the climate became drier and warmer. Most important, temperatures warmed by some thirteen degrees Fahrenheit and seasonal extremes spiked as winters became colder and summers hotter. In these new conditions, grasses and other plants and insects flourished or died, as did invertebrate and vertebrate organisms in turn. Entire habitats changed rapidly; upper Midwest spruce forests became pine forests almost overnight. For animals with firm boreal forest associations, such as mastodons, the consequences might have been dire. And once large herbivores, which in sufficient numbers can transform the environment, are extinct, the floral composition of habitats can change to affect smaller grazing animals to the point of extinction.

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.

Ocean drilling project, 2003, which provided evidence to support the hypothesis that a massive release of methane from the ocean 55 million years ago caused extreme global warming and the extinction of many plankton organisms

“climate is linked … to extinctions that occurred long before human beings arrived on the scene”
Much remains conjectural, but climate is linked both to the rapid evolution of mammalian forms and to extinctions that occurred long before human beings arrived on the scene. In the last ten million years in North America there were six other periods when many species became extinct. Causation in these episodes is far from clear, but temperature and other climatic and sea level fluctuations are correlated with them. The most recent to the Pleistocene extinctions are those that took place at the end of the preceding era, the Pliocene, and there are marked similarities in climatic deterioration in these two eras. In the long view, extinction seems normal in the history of life. Indeed, most species that ever lived are extinct.

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
paleontologists, New Zealand, 1940s
Canterbury Museum, NZ

Right: Skeleton and egg of an extinct
elephant bird, Madagascar, 1913

Paleoindians might have been like preindustrial humans elsewhere. In the Pacific, for example, native people exterminated numerous species of birds before Europeans arrived. In Hawaii, they cleared land with fire, introduced animals, diverted streams for irrigation, and transformed forested coastal areas into farms and grasslands, and mudflats into fishponds. The result: over one-half of all endemic bird species became extinct. The Hawaiians ate some and killed others for their feathers to ornament clothing. Some birds vanished with their habitats. In New Zealand, early Polynesian colonizers hunted thirteen species of moas—ostrich-like flightless birds, one of which towered over men and women—to extinction and turned their attention to what remained—shellfish, fish, seals, and small birds.

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
on Wrangel Island off the coast of
Siberia (the last known site of
mammoth habitation) during a 1998
expedition to research the
hyperdisease hypothesis

“The Pleistocene extinctions
continue to resist sound-bite
Martin’s theory that “man, and man alone” was the culprit does not make sense. Vine Deloria, Jr., a Lakota lawyer and author, agrees, but for very different reasons than the ones I have given here. Deloria dismissed “mythical Pleistocene hit men” and favored instead earthquakes, volcanoes, and floods of Indian legend, which, he speculated, had catastrophic continental reach. But he is silent on the evidence for the continental reach of legendary events, and undermines his case by vilifying science. I argue here that Martin does not make sense, not because of Deloria’s catastrophes, but because he excludes fundamental and potentially far-reaching changes in climate. Yet because there is still much we fail to understand about the precise mechanisms in climate or the precise responses in animal reproduction and behavior, and because man has played a role in the demise of animals elsewhere, it seems unwise to rule out a role for man altogether. The Pleistocene extinctions continue to resist sound-bite explanations.

Guiding Student Discussion

Coverage on Kennewick Man,

“The interest in human origins
in the New World is intense.”
The interest in human origins in the New World is intense, and each new discovery that has some bearing on human behavior at this early time is often front-page news. Few other areas of research on American Indians attract such media attention as their first arrival in the New World, or the matter of the Pleistocene extinctions.

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).

From 1995–2003, the most visible discussions have been on

  • extinctions in North America and elsewhere (especially New Zealand, where the large flightless moas were eradicated) in the late Pleistocene and at other times
  • the possibility of a very early European migration to North America—a highly controversial idea
  • the dating of the earliest sites, some from the southern tip of South America
  • how to think about and what to do with Kennewick Man, the most famous early American whose remains were discovered in 1996 in Kennewick, Washington, who has been claimed by American Indians and others as an ancient ancestor, and whose remains are highly desired in the scientific world
  • evidence for the earliest domestication of plants and urbanism in the New World, and for cannibalism among the Anasazi.

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.

“What kinds of conservation
lessons, if any,
can be drawn from
This discussion of the Pleistocene extinctions provides opportunity to talk about a number of other issues, including extinctions as a general phenomenon in earth history, the specter of mass extinction in the 21st century, and programs to reintroduce predators to areas where, because they have been absent, their prey no longer fear them. What kinds of conservation lessons, if any, can be drawn from late-Pleistocene extinctions? The late-Pleistocene events also can be used to reflect on the signs for, and the consequences of, global warming as the most significant current climate change.

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,
Glen Rose, Texas; held by creationists
as evidence that dinosaurs and humans
co-existed, a theory rejected by
evolutionary scientists who conclude that
only dinosaur tracks exist at the site
With adequate preparation, and under the right circumstances, one could discuss and debate the methodology of science and the differences between scientific truth and revealed truth. What evidence in support of Martin’s or Deloria’s (or anyone else’s) theory is sufficient, necessary, or convincing? What evidence damages these theories? The connection here with the debate between evolutionary scientists and creationists is obvious if one wants to go there. This has also been a lively field in recent years, both on the practical level of state curriculums where efforts have been made to eliminate evolution altogether or to teach creation as science, and on the level of ideas where scientists not just debate the implications of postmodernism for objectivity in science, but seek rapprochement between science and religion (see Chet Raymo, Skeptics and True Believers, 1998).

American Museum of Natural History Web SiteThese 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 tribal sealsin 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.

Shepard Krech III is Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology at Brown University. He was a National Humanities Center Fellow in 1993–94 and 2000–01 and serves on the advisory team for Nature Transformed. His recent publications include The Ecological Indian: Myth and History (1999), Collecting Native America, 1870–1960, co-edited with Barbara Hail (1999), and “Ecology, Conservation, and the Buffalo Jump,” in Stars Above, Earth Below: American Indians and Nature, ed. M. Bol (1998). He is an editor of the forthcoming International Encyclopedia of Environmental History (Routledge, 2003).

Address comments or questions to Professor Krech through TeacherServe “Comments and Questions.”

Links to online resources

Illustration credits

Works cited

To cite this essay:
Krech III, Shepard. “Paleoindians and the Great Pleistocene Die-Off.” Nature Transformed, TeacherServe®. National Humanities Center. DATE YOU ACCESSED ESSAY. <>


NHC Home  |  TeacherServe  |  Divining America  |  Nature Transformed  |  Freedom’s Story
About Us  |  Site Guide  |  Contact  |  Search