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THE PLEISTOCENE EXTINCTIONS: A Bedtime Story / Sharman Apt Russell VIOLENCE WAS ON MY mind when I went to see palaeoecologist Paul Martin at the University of Arizona's Desert Lab in Tucson. The night before, my first night in town, I had stopped at a convenience store to make a phone call. A teenage boy grabbed my purse. We scuffled, he ran, and I was on the ground, my wallet still gripped under my arm, my legs waving feebly. I felt like an overturned potato bug. For minutes afterward, my throat hurt from the shock of my screams. That is what impressed me most—my own primitive sound, an instant familiarity with adrenaline. Back in the car, my hands were clenched with power. Crime is on the rise in Tucson. Drive-by shootings. Gang graffiti. Theft. Paul's wife has been attacked in her own kitchen. All this, suddenly, absurdly, seemed like a big surprise. Dr. Paul Martin is a well-respected scientist with three degrees in zoology and over forty years of teaching and research experience. A large man, he uses a cane when he walks, sometimes two, having been stricken by polio in the 1950s. His perspective on social violence is unique. Sheltered in his office, we talk of nineteenthcentury Masai warriors who at the age of fifteen were "unstoppable, with the ancient need to prove to themselves and their families that they could risk and be challenged." We discuss the long evolutionary history of human beings, the crucible of hunting and gathering, the utter wildness of children—and Paul's vision in which children killed off the slow-moving, bear-sized Shasta ground sloth, a creature that once lived where Tucson gangs battle now. Possibly these children speared the sloth for sport and target practice. Possibly they helped cause its extinction 10-12,000 years ago, at the close of the Pleistocene. Like Paul Martin, I have come to believe that we Americans have not made our peace with this grand chunk of time which lasted nearly two million years and included over twenty distinct ice ages when glaciers advanced and retreated. Ten thousand years ago, the last Pleistocene ice age was over and seventy-three percent of the large mammal genera in this country were gone. We know that eight genera died with the Shasta ground sloth: the mammoth, mastodon, giant short-faced bear, camel, horse, tapir, short-legged 30 - The Missouri Review llama and saber-tooth tiger. Presumably another twenty-six went extinct at the same time. To fully understand the loss of twothirds of our large terrestrial mammals, you must first imagine a world where cheetahs, lions, capybaras, four-horned antelope, giant peccaries and brush oxen existed beside the species we know today. Life was measured on a different scale. Beavers weighed three hundred pounds. The Florida sloth lumbered about, as big as an elephant. Glyptodonts with armored tails and turtlish carapaces cruised slowly by, like early versions of the Volkswagen Beetle. The disappearance of these mammals is unexplained and may always be so. Because the end of the last Pleistocene ice age meant that most of North America became hotter, the extinctions are most reasonably linked to climate change. But in the 1960s, Paul Martin looked at the fossil record and had a revelation. Many more big mammals, especially those over one hundred pounds, had died off than small ones. Also, although extinctions are natural phenomena, these were unusually large in number and seemed to occur very rapidly. None of this matched the pattern of extinctions before, during, or after earlier ice ages in the Pleistocene. Animals like the horse, camel, mammoth and mastodon had survived here for millions of years through any number of climate changes. Why would they succumb 11,000 years ago and not previously? Strikingly, the oldest accepted evidence of human beings in North America dates to this time. The Clovis people, named for a site in New Mexico, were big-game hunters who appeared on the scene at the same time America's big game started to go extinct. (Reports of earlier humans in the New World are still being evaluated. Claims for pre-Clovis settlement have been...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 30-39
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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