End of the Megafauna


Ross D.E. MacPhee




Date Reviewed:

March 24, 2021

checked End of the Megafauna out of the library because I wanted to look at the marvelous illustrations. Artist Peter Schouten has painted a whole series of impressive depictions of these gigantic animals. The paintings are colorful, detailed, and presumably well-researched to depict these extinct animals as close to scientifically accurate as our knowledge allows. The hardcover edition is a nice 10.5" x 8", and the paintings typically fill an entire page, so it is possible to admire the detail of the artwork. I don't know how many plates are in the book, but there are a lot of them; Schouten must have invested several years of effort to produce all of this excellent artwork. It is terrific.

I thought I would just page through this book and enjoy the paintings, but I started reading the text and ended up reading the entire book. The book discusses the question of "Why did all these species of megafauna disappear so quickly?" I thought it was a settled questioned. When humans dispersed from Africa, they encountered new species that did not know how dangerous these hairless apes were - despite their great size, the unprepared animals were defenseless in the face of ruthless human hunting. The main objection to the idea of humans killing the Mega Fauna animals seems to be that so many animals vanished, and they disappeared so quickly. Could bands of primitive humans really have been so lethal so swiftly?

Several factors that argue in favor of the human overkill theory are the fact that the mega fauna of Africa (elephants, hippos, rhinos), which evolved alongside humans, did not go extinct. It is only the animals of northern Europe and Asia, all of Australia, and especially North and South America where the great beasts vanished, almost as if a marching wave of humans obliterated every species of megafauna in its path. Also arguing that humans are to blame is the fact that smaller creatures did not disappear in the same numbers - if the extinctions are due to disease or a change in climate, then why did it only effect the largest animals? Equally conclusive is the fact that megafauna animals that lived on islands survived - mammoths lived on Wrangell Island until as recently as 4000 years ago. But when humans reached Wrangell island, the mammoths vanished shortly thereafter.

The opponents to the idea of human caused extinctions ask: "Where is the evidence that humans slaughtered all these animals?" Apparently the fact that we haven't discovered heaps of bones with evident injuries due to spears or axes means that there isn't convincing proof that bloodthirsty humans were the cause.

Another argument is that there is faint, controversial evidence that humans may have been more widespread than initially thought. If humans arrived in the Americas thousands of years earlier than it the most widely accepted estimates, then it means they co-existed with the megafauna for centuries before suddenly killing all the animals. But the evidence for an earlier arrival date for humans is scant.

Other theories include a comet strike that altered the climate, causing the big animals to starve. A plague that infected the big animals, and was so lethal that any remnant population of survivors was too small to recover. Maybe the megafauna was "tame" - not recognizing humans, they ignored them as non-threatening, and only learned of their miscalculation until far too late.

The book did not convince me that over hunting by humans was not the primary cause of the extinction of these big animals. Looking at all the plates, I realized there were many more species of giant animals than I realized. The continents must have teemed with huge exciting animals. Maybe someday we will find a way to visit parallel universes, and we will find one where humans never evolved, and on that world we will see these huge marvelous creatures.

I copied a few plates out of the book. The first image shows a herd of wooly mammoths on the Siberian steppe. The second image shows the early horses of South America. The third capture shows a giant marsupial tapir. The last scan shows a huge Haast eagle, which lived on New Zealand as recently as 1400 A.D., about the time humans discovered the islands.