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Megafaunal extinction in the late quaternary and the global overkill hypothesis

Journal Article


Abstract


  • The global blitzkrieg hypothesis explains differential rates of megafaunal extinction between the world's landmasses in the late Quaternary based on a proposed leap in predation efficiency enjoyed by colonising societies. It is characterised by appealing simplicity. Selective over hunting, facilitated by naiveté to human predation, produced rapid mass extinctions of large animals wherever subsistence societies colonised new landmasses. Taken at face value the circumstantial case for blitzkrieg is compelling and despite a paucity of direct evidence it has gained considerable support. Our review of the model suggests that it overlooks much contradictory data and rests on simplistic interpretations of complex biogeographicat and anthropological phenomena. These interpretations and assumptions do not account for major differences between the biotas, ecologies and human cultures of the landmasses involved. The assertion that responses of remote island species to human predation provide realistic models for those of continental taxa is poorly founded, exaggerating the likely predation efficiency of humans colonising continents. An absence of terrestrial predators over evolutionarily significant periods, together with restricted ranges and small populations, renders island faunas uniquely vulnerable to invaders. The argument, that climate cannot explain these phenomena because previous Glacial Maxima did not cause comparable extinctions, presupposes that their local effects were at least as severe as those of the Last Glacial Maximum. This has yet to be demonstrated and at most it would indirectly support a role for anthropogenic influence, not overkill per se. Overlooked or underplayed are the influences of translocated and other invading species. Similarly, differences in the origins, technologies and traditions of colonising human societies are rarely considered. These factors strongly impact on the predation efficiency, density and range of human populations, critically affecting the outcomes of predator-prey modeling. When a fuller constellation of influences and constraints is considered it is reasonable to posit that rapid mass extinction through selective human predation may largely describe megafaunal extinctions on remote islands, but the argument is not convincing for continents. This is especially so regarding Australia. Because even the largest Australian species were prey to endemic carnivores, their responses to human predation would not have been comparable to those of oceanic island species. No kill-sites or specialized big-game hunting/butchering tools are known and, on the basis of ethnographic and archaeological data, it is probable that predation efficiency, population density and range of the first Australians were insufficient to effect rapid mass extinction. Chronologies of human arrival and the disappearance of megafauna remain poor, but the most recent estimates for human-megafaunal coexistence in Australia range from 10,000 to 43,000 years. Although human predation may have been a contributing factor in megafaunal extinctions, rapid overkill is unlikely to describe the actual mechanism in most instances. The role of human predation and its significance relative to competing factors, human and otherwise, varied considerably between landmasses, as did the speeds with which extinctions occurred. Blitzkrieg and other mono-factorial models are heuristically valuable devices, but a growing body of evidence suggests that extinction can rarely, if ever, be attributed to a single cause. © 2004 Association of Australasian Palaeontologists.

Publication Date


  • 2004

Citation


  • Wroe, S., Field, J., Fullagar, R., & Jermin, L. S. (2004). Megafaunal extinction in the late quaternary and the global overkill hypothesis. Alcheringa, 28(1), 291-331. doi:10.1080/03115510408619286

Scopus Eid


  • 2-s2.0-2542498605

Start Page


  • 291

End Page


  • 331

Volume


  • 28

Issue


  • 1

Abstract


  • The global blitzkrieg hypothesis explains differential rates of megafaunal extinction between the world's landmasses in the late Quaternary based on a proposed leap in predation efficiency enjoyed by colonising societies. It is characterised by appealing simplicity. Selective over hunting, facilitated by naiveté to human predation, produced rapid mass extinctions of large animals wherever subsistence societies colonised new landmasses. Taken at face value the circumstantial case for blitzkrieg is compelling and despite a paucity of direct evidence it has gained considerable support. Our review of the model suggests that it overlooks much contradictory data and rests on simplistic interpretations of complex biogeographicat and anthropological phenomena. These interpretations and assumptions do not account for major differences between the biotas, ecologies and human cultures of the landmasses involved. The assertion that responses of remote island species to human predation provide realistic models for those of continental taxa is poorly founded, exaggerating the likely predation efficiency of humans colonising continents. An absence of terrestrial predators over evolutionarily significant periods, together with restricted ranges and small populations, renders island faunas uniquely vulnerable to invaders. The argument, that climate cannot explain these phenomena because previous Glacial Maxima did not cause comparable extinctions, presupposes that their local effects were at least as severe as those of the Last Glacial Maximum. This has yet to be demonstrated and at most it would indirectly support a role for anthropogenic influence, not overkill per se. Overlooked or underplayed are the influences of translocated and other invading species. Similarly, differences in the origins, technologies and traditions of colonising human societies are rarely considered. These factors strongly impact on the predation efficiency, density and range of human populations, critically affecting the outcomes of predator-prey modeling. When a fuller constellation of influences and constraints is considered it is reasonable to posit that rapid mass extinction through selective human predation may largely describe megafaunal extinctions on remote islands, but the argument is not convincing for continents. This is especially so regarding Australia. Because even the largest Australian species were prey to endemic carnivores, their responses to human predation would not have been comparable to those of oceanic island species. No kill-sites or specialized big-game hunting/butchering tools are known and, on the basis of ethnographic and archaeological data, it is probable that predation efficiency, population density and range of the first Australians were insufficient to effect rapid mass extinction. Chronologies of human arrival and the disappearance of megafauna remain poor, but the most recent estimates for human-megafaunal coexistence in Australia range from 10,000 to 43,000 years. Although human predation may have been a contributing factor in megafaunal extinctions, rapid overkill is unlikely to describe the actual mechanism in most instances. The role of human predation and its significance relative to competing factors, human and otherwise, varied considerably between landmasses, as did the speeds with which extinctions occurred. Blitzkrieg and other mono-factorial models are heuristically valuable devices, but a growing body of evidence suggests that extinction can rarely, if ever, be attributed to a single cause. © 2004 Association of Australasian Palaeontologists.

Publication Date


  • 2004

Citation


  • Wroe, S., Field, J., Fullagar, R., & Jermin, L. S. (2004). Megafaunal extinction in the late quaternary and the global overkill hypothesis. Alcheringa, 28(1), 291-331. doi:10.1080/03115510408619286

Scopus Eid


  • 2-s2.0-2542498605

Start Page


  • 291

End Page


  • 331

Volume


  • 28

Issue


  • 1