|The View from Wilshire Blvd.: tragic baby mammoth|
THE UNITED STATES DEVOTES TWO NATIONAL HOLIDAYS, COLUMBUS Day and Thanksgiving Day, to celebrating dramatic moments in the European "discovery" of the New World. No holidays commemorate the much earlier discovery by Indians. Yet archaeological excavations suggest that, in drama, that earlier discovery dwarfs the adventures of Christopher Columbus and of the Plymouth Pilgrims. Within perhaps as little as a thousand years of finding a way through an Arctic ice sheet to cross the present Canada-U.S. border, Indians had swept down to the tip of Patagonia and populated two productive and unexplored continents. The Indians' march southward was the greatest range expansion in the history of Homo sapiens. Nothing remotely like it can ever happen again on our planet.
The sweep southward was marked by another drama. When Indian hunters arrived, they found the Americas teeming with big mammals that are now extinct: elephantlike mammoths and mastodonts, ground sloths weighing up to three tons, armadillolike glypt-odonts weighing up to one ton, bear-sized beavers, and sabertooth cats, plus American lions, cheetahs, camels, horses, and many others. Had those beasts survived, today's tourists in Yellowstone National Park would be watching mammoths and lions along with the bears and bison. The question of what happened at that moment of hunters-meet-beasts is still highly controversial among archaeologists and paleontologists. According to the interpretation that seems most plausible to me, the outcome was a "blitzkrieg" in which the beasts were quickly exterminated — possibly within a mere ten years at any given site. ...
We are all too familiar with the blitzkriegs by which modern European hunters nearly exterminated bison, whales, seals, and many other large animals. Recent archaeological discoveries on many oceanic islands have shown that such blitzkriegs were an outcome whenever earlier hunters reached a land with animals naive to humans. Since the collision between humans and large naïve animals has always ended in an extermination spasm, how could it have been otherwise when Clovis hunters entered a naive New World?
THIS END, though, would hardly have been foreseen by the first hunters to arrive at Edmonton. It must have been a dramatic moment when, after entering the ice-free corridor from an overpopulated, overhunted Alaska, they emerged to see herds of tame mammoths, camels, and other beasts. In front of them stretched the Great Plains to the horizon. As they began to explore, they must soon have realized (unlike Christopher Columbus and the Plymouth Pilgrims) that there were no people at all in front of them, and that they had truly arrived first in a fertile land. Those Edmonton Pilgrims, too, had cause to celebrate a Thanksgiving Day.
Or I could imagine that the Indians brought diseases with them, or another species like dogs or rats, maybe with some kind of plague fleas. Or maybe they set giant fires.
Instead, Dalen and the rest of the team believes some drastic change must have occurred on Wrangel Island to kill off the mammoths, and there are two likely culprits: humans and climate. Archaeological evidence suggests that humans reached Wrangel Island at roughly the same time the last mammoths vanished, but there's no evidence yet to indicate that they ever hunted the mammoths. The more likely answer is climate change, which as a side effect might well have made it easier for humans to reach the island to serve as witnesses to the mammoths' final days.
If the human newcomers in North America and Wrangel Island had been white men, would there be much controversy over whether or not they were responsible for the extinctions?