Mammoths and Mankind

Coevolution with Homo sapiens proved adaptive for large hoofed mammals. As humans spread out and populated the earth, megafauna outside of Africa rapidly went extinct. Some twenty species of mammoths lived for about 4 million years. They thrived in Eurasia and North America until a sudden global extinction event occurred, approximately 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, overlapping with human migration into North America. In the Americas, the Ice Age ungulates—megafauna including mastodons, woolly mammoths, and giant bison—died out shortly after the first humans moved into the hemisphere from northern Asia. This fact suggests that they were possibly hunted to extinction. The New World megafauna's extreme vulnerability to human predation may have been partly the result of their having evolved, like the dodo in Mauritius, in the absence of any natural predator species. Thus they never learned to fear man: "They did not have that aversion to our two-legged profile that seems to be part and parcel of every single large African mammal's take on life" (Eldredge, 1998, pp. 35).

American Museum of Natural History paleo-mammalogist Ross MacPhee, postulating that the mammoths were as well adapted to survival as are modern elephants, hypothesizes that a "hyperdisease" could have been the real agent responsible for their sudden dying off. Mammal extinctions as a whole were distributed unevenly, with far greater losses occurring outside of Africa and Eurasia. MacPhee reasons that neither the brief period of human predation nor massive climate change alone can fully account for the sudden, simultaneous, widespread, and thorough mammoth extinction event. Since even small numbers of surviving mammals can rebound from sharp population decreases within a few generations, he theorizes that megaher-bivores like the mammoth could have been the victims of a deadly, highly contagious disease, perhaps something like the recent outbreak of Ebola virus, with humans or human-associated hosts acting as vectors bearing the lethal pathogens into new environments. This model, which might explain the rapidity and ubiquity of the mammoth extinction, has yet to be fully tested against competing hypotheses.

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