Throughout history there seem to have been two basic situations with regards to humans and megafauna: either humans existed as hunter-gatherers or primitive (non-plow using) farmers alongside plentiful wildlife; or else agriculture and herding displaced almost all megafauna larger than foxes or badgers. But I can think of two major exceptions:
The first is India, where until British colonial times tigers, elephants and rhinos existed on the same subcontinent as large cities, royal palaces and a subsistance-class of peasants. The second is medieval/renaissance eastern Europe, where substantial forested areas supporting deer, elk, boar, bears, wolves and originally even aurochs and bison continued until the Industrial Revolution.
What I’d like to understand is why these areas held out for so long, given the ecosystem-destroying potential of agriculture. Or put another way, obviously where forests are farms aren’t; so what was holding back deforestation? I can make a plausible case for India, but Eastern Europe is less understandable.
Jared Diamond argues in Gins, Germs and Steel that the reason humans killed off megafauna in Australia and the Americas and not in Africa, Asia and Europe is that the animals in those places had “grown up” with humans, whereas the megafauna in other places didn’t know any better and let you walk right up to it and brain it with a rock.
Places like islands did devour all the forests (look at the British Isles, for example) but medieval and Renaissance Europe didn’t have enough people to knock out all the great forests. There was still a very great lot of “nowhere” in the medieval world.
ETA - whoops, but I love the idea of a book about gins, germs and steel. We like New Amsterdam gin ourselves.
Similarly, South East Asia and Indochina still supports rhinos, hippos, bears, tigers, banteng etc. And the North Africa/Mediterranean/Middle East region supported lions, elephants, hippos, wolves, bears etc well into the common era.
I guess the real question Lumpy is, why do you think that Europe or India are unusual?
Humans certainly exterminated large numbers of megafaunal species in most places, but only in Australia, New Zealand and Madagacar did we manage to kill *all *of them. In other places we killed off a lot of species, but many managed to survive. And that is just as true of Europe and India as it is of North America or Sumatra. For example,there are no longer hippos in India or Europe, and lions are near enough extinct in both locales.
But no native horses, camels, etc - there was a major megafauna dieoff when humans hit North America. (No coincidence, I’m sure, that the moose, grizzly, etc., have much more difficult hunting habitats than some nice meaty camels on the plains.)
All the Australian, New Zealandish, etc. megafauna are gone.
ETA - the funny thing is that the Asiatic lion lived until quite well into recorded history - took the Romans to do them in. In other words, only animals that had been separated from humans for a very, very long time were extremely vulnerable to a quick die-off.
More important is that those are all Eurasian species that managed to migrate into North America. IOW their ancestors had evolved alongside predatory hominids. In contrast the indigenous American bear, large deer, bison and so forth vanished rather rapidly.
There is a theory, with some genetic support, that the current North American brown bears, bison, elk etc. are all descendants of, or extensively hybridised with, Eurasian animals that migrated into North America alongside humans. As the native animals were thinned out the immigrants displaced them. So it may be that almost no true North American megafauna survives.
There are still Asiatic lions in the wild here in India. Not very many, but they still manage to cling on.
edit: And IIRC, the last Barbrary lion in the Mediterranean was shot just prior to WWI, by a Frenchman. So it wasn’t the Romans who wiped them out locally either.
But the bison survived well, and so did the moose. Now it’s true that the current American Bison is a slightly different critter than the Bison latifrons aka long-horned bison, however, there’s argument whether *Bison bison
is a descendant or a replacement species. And, it’s likely they could interbreed, even (Bison can interbreed with most members of the Genus Bos, let alone other Bison spp). Although Blake may well be correct in that Bison bison is a hybridised Eurasian species, Bison bison seems to have great skeletal difference between it and Bison bonasus than Bison latifrons. However, in any case, there were millions of Bison living alongside the Natives for thousands of years.
And, although there is some evidence humans had a hand in the megafauna extinction, we’re not sure exactly when the NA megafauna went extinct, or exactly when humans arrived in NA. Many large species apparently survived the original arrival, and others seems to have gone extinct before. There were major climate changes going on then, too.
Note that llamas, alpacas, vicuñas, and guanacos are camelids. So there are still ‘camels’ in America, even with thousands of years of co-existence. There was one HUGE camelid in NA (along with quite a few other species), *Titanotylopus *, but that went extinct about 300,000 years ago, so humans aren’t to blame there.
We forget there were hundreds of megafauna species that went extinct in America long before any humans arrived. *Aepycamelus & Oxydactylus
were another two fascinating camelids, extinct long before the first human set foot in America. Of course, there were still a few camelids that mysteriously went extinct just about when Clovis man showed up with his very sharp spears so, humans are likely not without some guilt.
As for horses, the NA *Equus * was seemingly extinct before man arrived. However, it’s hard to tell of course.
As far as the NZ megafauna, that was a handful of species of flightless birds. Flightless birds have always had extinction issues when new species come onto their island, witness the Dodo. Here, no doubt the humans had a major effect, however.
Darwin mentioned the birds on the Galapagos were so ignorant of humans, they would land on the arm and hat of a person pouring a pitcher into a glass in order to get a drink of water. A tourist a few years later said they stayed about 3 feet away from humans, and a few decades later, the story of a boy sitting still near a watering hole with a 6-foot cane could still manage to whack a few ever so often. They slowly learned to be afraid.
There’s several factors at work. Compared to N. America, somewhere like Australia has pretty small ecosystems for its large animals. The islands are even smaller. In NZ, for example, part of the problem is introduced species - cats killing the birds, etc.
Farley Mowat in “Sea of Slaughter” (if you want to read about white man and wholesale death) mentions “bird islands” in the Gulf of St Lawrence, rocky crags where there are nothing but bird nests (and guano). Sailors would put ashore one year and steal all the eggs, and come back a year later to find either stowaway rats or the ship’s cats had stayed behind and cleaned off the island.
Rats are also blamed by Jared Diamond for some of the deforestation in Easter Island - they arrived with the first polynesians and ate so many nuts the forest failed to regrow.
The actual story says that the boy was sat at a well, he had a switch (ie a flexible stick 12-18 inches long) and had killed all that he wanted for dinner in a very short period of time. So it appears that they weren’t learning at all. They were still coming to drink within a foot of a human being and were still not in the least perturbed by seeing other birds being killed.
I can’t see that being true no matter how I interpret it. So do you have reference for the claim?
For example the area occupied by the common wallaroo is comparable to that occupied by the north mule deer. It s much larger than the area occupied by the mountain goat.
We’re talking about continent sized landmasses here. While it’s true that Australia is smaller than North America it’s not enough to make any difference to the ecosystems available for large mammals. And that is simply because large mammals don’t generally occupy the entire continental area.
If anything I suspect that Australia offers much larger ecosystems for its large mammals, simply because Australia is geographically and climatically much more uniform than North America. An animal like the wallaroo that can occupy dry savannas can occupy most of the continent, whereas the same s not true for North America.
The large mamals in Australia, other than kangaroos, would occupy the thin strip up and down the east coast and the area at the south. First, it’s the areas where humans wanted to settle too, especially the white man. So any grazers would be competing with their herds. Second, most large mammals (mountain goats excepted, maybe) don’t do well in complicated, closed-in and rugged terrain. You typically find large mammals grazing on plains. So mastadons would be easy to spot. Deer survive well into the present day in very settled areas of the USA, but really they’r about the size of big dogs but with longer legs; they DO hide in forests. I suppose if you accept the legends of buffalo herd size, the thing that let them survive until they learned to fear man was their huge numbers.
The moose is an interesting exception; it’s actually semi-aquatic, so you would have trouble chasing it through the bog and then into the open water, unless you were lugging your canoe along.
So you have to consider not just the size or the terrain, but the range of the animals and the difficulty of finding them in their natural habitat.
Just curious - which large mammals are believed to have gone extinct in Autstralia when the aborigines arrived about 40,000BC? The mastadon is the cited example for the North American invasion, at about 12,000BC.
One of the culture shocks of moving from the USSR to the US was the birds! The pigeons are so lazy, they let you walk within feet of them. Sometimes I wonder how they don’t get run over by cars. Not to suggest that people in the USSR hunted pigeons, but apparently they were a lot more fond of messing with them. You wouldn’t see such bird behavior there.
Not all the bird species wiped out were flightless: the giant Haast’s Eagle died out when its habitat was depleted by humans. A pity, they must have been an awesome sight:
“It attacked at speeds up to 80 km/h (50 mph), often seizing its prey’s pelvis with the talons of one foot and killing with a blow to the head or neck with the other. Its size and weight indicate a bodily striking force equivalent to a cinder block landing on a target from a height of 25 m (82 ft).”
No one seems much interested in the OP’s question about deforestation in Europe, but I think it’s worth some thought. Europe has had agriculture for thousands of years, so why didn’t those farmers multiply and spread until every stand of forest was cut down and turned into farmland.
Here are a few WAGs:
(1) Frequent plagues kept the population low.
(2) They did cut down and farm all the forest land. But after a while the land would lose fertility, the farmers would move on, and the forest would grow back.
(3) When farmers in an area cut down too much forest they would not have enough firewood to survive the harsh winters and they would die off.
(4) The surviving forests were actually not farmable because they were too rocky or didn’t get rainfall at the right times of year.
No, that simply isn’t true. The largest mammal sin Australia are the large kangaroos and euros. I’ve provided the distribution map for the euro, and you can find the maps for the grey and red kangaroo online with no effort. None of them is restricted to the east coastal strip.
If we extend this to large feral animals we find that is even less true. Buffalo, camels and goats are overwhelmingly found well away form the east coast. Pigs and horses are found along the east coast, but they are by no means restricted to that area, occupying an area comparable to the euro.
Yes, and? The highest densities of grazing animals in Australia are indeed found in grazing lands. They have benfitted immensely from the provision of watering points.
Again, what is your point? There is effectively no such terrain in Australia. It;s the flattest continent on the planet.
Once again I ask you, do you have any evidence at all for your claim that Australia has pretty small ecosystems for its large animals? Because common sense tells me this can’t be true, and your reasoning is based on provably untrue assumptions.
If you can’t provide references to support the claim then we can discount the claim as being the result of you completely misunderstanding the nature of Australia.
Diprotodons, horned turtles, giant monitors, marsupial lions, giant killer ducks, a marsupial equivalent of the ground sloths. terrestrial crocodiles, giant koalas and many, many others. Quite literally the entire megafauna assemblage was eliminated.