TeacherServe Essays

Paleoindians and the Great Pleistocene Die-Off

Author: Krech, Shepard, III (Trustee; NHC Fellow, 1993–94; 2000–01)

The Paleoindians almost surely came to the New World on foot, walking across land exposed when sea levels were much lower. 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. 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. How many species disappeared will never be known, but at least thirty-five mammalian genera 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 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.

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History / Environment and Nature / Education Studies / American History / Indigenous Peoples of the Americas / Indigenous Americans / Migration / Animals / Extinction /