Were our ancestors eco warriors?

‘The exact date of the dodo’s extinction is also unknown, as the last sighting was in 1688. Despite being large and easy to catch, there is little evidence that most of the birds were hunted extensively by humans. More likely, the birds were driven to extinction by the introduction of animals such as cats, pigs, monkeys, and dogs, who either hunted the birds directly or competed with them for food.’


A BRIEF GLANCE into our more recent past reveals very rare signs of ecologically aware individuals. That is not to say that they did not exist at all. It is probably fairer to say they didn’t have the clout that these people have today. But a clear example of man’s capacity for destruction lies in the near-extinction of the American bison.

Before the arrival of Columbus, it is estimated that there were about 60 million bison roaming the American plains in herds that would make the present-day Serengeti spectacle appear diminutive. These massive herds were hunted to the point of extinction, and were only saved by a few ‘greenies’ who provided a refuge for some 600 in what today is Yellowstone Park.


A pile of American bison skulls waiting to be ground for fertilizer, Detroit, Michigan, mid-1870s. Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library, Wikimedia Commons.

‘A solid mass of buffalo …’

The size of the herds is not just American bragging, and to substantiate the point I will quote eyewitness accounts cited in The Eternal Frontier: An ecological history of North America and its people, by the Australian palaeontologist Tim Flannery:

‘The first time we encountered the buffalo, all the horses took to flight on seeing them … The sound was coming from bellowing bison bulls, a continuous, deep steady roar that seemed to reach the clouds. … The bellowing had carried for more than 16 kilometres over the plains … As far as the eye could reach … there was a solid mass of buffalo — thousands upon thousands of them …’

For various reasons, the settlers in the course of time set about exterminating these beasts. In their own right, the bison were also capable of being destructive. When crossing a railway line, for example, a vast herd would so disperse the ballast as to render the line inoperable for a time. One could also imagine that a farmer or ‘rancher’ could feel that they did not respect his property, and replacing them with tamer bovines would make life easier. Be that as it may, in time, various uses for bits and pieces of the bison were also found, and a wholesale slaughter followed:

‘From the very beginning … the slaughter involved unforgivable waste. In the very early days most bison were shot for their skins, which were made into blankets or robes. Later they were shot for their tongues, or from railway carriages for sport. …

‘…A decisive blow against the buffalo was struck by chemists, who in 1871 perfected a tanning process for buffalo hide. The British Army added to their perfidy by proclaiming that buffalo leather made the very best military footwear. From that moment no buffalo was safe…

‘The hundreds of thousands of skins that Colonel Dodge saw sent to market were scarcely an indication of the extent of the slaughter. For each hide sent, five went to waste …

‘Eighteen eighty four was the year the buffalo lost the battle for the plains. Theodore Roosevelt recalled meeting a rancher who had traveled a thousand miles that year and who had related that he was ‘never out of sight of a dead buffalo, and never in sight of a live one’. That year 40 000 buffalo hides had been shipped east, but in 1884 only 300 were sent. The days of the bison—and the bison hunter, were over.’


Buffalo hide yard showing 40,000 buffalo hides, Dodge City, Kansas, 1878.  U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons.

‘The nearer the species approaches to complete extermination, the more eagerly are the wretched fugitives pursued to the death whenever found. Western hunters are striving for the honour of killing the last buffalo.’

Were it not for the vigilance of park rangers, the 200 buffalo that sought refuge in Yellowstone National Park ‘would have been shot years ago by Vic Smith, the Rea brothers and others’ (William Temple Hornaday, quoted by Flannery).

I must emphasise that I am not ‘picking’ on the Americans.There are many frontier stories from different continents that could be used to illustrate the same point. But what is interesting about the bison is their ecological history before the arrival of Columbus.

Encounter with Indian settlers

The bison’s encounter with the first Indian settlers was no less gory, but instead of heading for extinction, their numbers exploded. After hunting them rather less successfully with spears, these earlier settlers developed the more industrial-scale hunting technique of chasing them over cliffs. At the bottom of the cliffs would be a welcoming party that would dispatch the broken-limbed creatures with clubs. These sites, and there are many of them, are today euphemistically referred to as ‘Buffalo Jumps’. No less impressive is the archaeological evidence of the scale at which the bison came to do the jump.


Alfred Jacob Miller, Indians driving bison over a cliff, circa 1858. Wikimedia Commons.

To go back a little. After the European settlers had done reducing the bison population, they found they had sort of shot themselves in the foot. For one, as has been seen, the skin trade for army boots was dead. Ever resourceful, they now turned to collecting bison bones scattered across the land and started grinding them up for fertiliser. Then, when the pickings on the plains inevitably ended, they turned to mining the ‘jump sites’ – that is, the bottom of the abovementioned cliffs.

This might sound like a trivial cottage industry, but, according to Flannery, … ‘ancient Indian kill sites were also mined for their bones, and the volume recovered was sometimes stupendous. The Highwood site in the Missouri Valley, for example, yielded well over 6 000 tonnes… The skeleton typically comprises 10% of the body weight. If we allow a modest average weight of 300 kg for cows, calves and bulls, then no less than 20 000 creatures met their death over some thousands of years.’

The megafauna extinctions

Now we come to the main point of the story, and again this is best summed up by Flannery: ‘The near extinction of the American bison is by no means a first in the history of the world. The so-called megafauna extinctions take us way back in time, but whereas there is no doubt that the bison were taken to the brink of extinction by modern man, there is some controversy as to whether early man was responsible for the earlier extinctions.’

Early humans, in this case the early settlers of Asian extraction, are not about to be blamed for any reduction in bison numbers. In fact under their stewardship, Flannery claims, their numbers literally boomed. But what Flannery does blame them for is the extinction of 70 percent-plus of other mammals weighing more than 40kg in America. He then goes on to blame his native Australians for the extinction of 90% of Australian fauna.

‘When humans first arrived in Australia around 60,000 years ago, they found a continent covered in rainforest, much of which had existed for 100 million years… Within 20,000 years of humanity’s arrival, most of the rainforest was gone, and the megafauna was extinct’ (James Kenny, quoting Flannery).

On what basis does he and others make these claims? In the first instance, where does he get his numbers from, and how do palaeontologists know that these animals existed in the first place? Well, the answer lies in the fossil records, and of course the eyewitness accounts of the early settlers themselves – their rock art and engravings. Not being ‘modern’ artists, if there is a depiction of an animal, one might assume that it existed, and not that it was a mere flight of the imagination, or what today may be termed ‘abstract art.’. A fossil ‘fitting’ the image would of course serve as corroboration.

The African anomaly

Again. there are a lot more modern tools at the disposal of palaeontologists. The term ‘megafauna extinctions’ may for some need explaining. This I find quite difficult, as Flannery includes animals as small as 40 kilogram, and this is just an average size sheep or piglet. For me, the term megafauna brings to mind Mastodons, Woolly Mammoths, Woolly Rhinos, giant baboons and other such exotica. Also associated with the idea is the anomaly of these large animals being wiped out in many places in the world, and yet in Africa, where humans evolved, the mega animals — elephants, rhino, and so on  — have survived.

I say anomaly, because one of the theories is as mentioned that humans were the cause of these extinctions. The other explanation for the megafauna extinctions is of course that old scapegoat ‘climate change’. Here we are talking about ‘natural’ climate change – an ‘act of God’, as it were. The climate change protagonists quote attempts to eliminate feral camels in Australia as an example of how difficult it is for humans to exterminate animals even with sophisticated weapons  And point out how difficult it would be for parsely populated, primitive people to eliminate so many species.

But in a sense this is precisely the point. Some animals are indeed difficult to exterminate because they have adapted to human hunting methods, while others are all too easy to eliminate, even while half the human population is trying to protect them. The rhino would be one example of this. The point is, it depends on what the animals’ ‘natural’ abilities or disabilities are to start with. For instance, one of the rhino’s disabilities would be that it has poor eyesight, which makes it easier for poachers to sneak up on them. While a springbok would rely on its speed, the porcupine would stand its ground and bristle, but this tactic is no good against a human with a spear or knobkierie. Other animals might rely on armour-plating (armadillo) or, like elephants, their size and thickness of hide. Animals adapt as best they can. Faced with the human predator, some, like the porcupine, become nocturnal, but only when under threat. In reserves, porcupines and jackal wander around in the daytime.

Also counting against the idea of climate change being the culprit behind the megafauna extinctions is the fact that they took place at very different times across the world, but always after the arrival of humans. Again, extinctions occurred on mainlands where animals had opportunities to move to more favourable climes, while islands next door remained unaffected until humans moved there much later. Madagascar is an example.

From prey to predator

Okay, so a number of things have been left in the air. Firstly, why has Africa largely escaped the megafauna extinctions? Secondly, how did the bison manage to survive while some 70 per cent of the rest of the fauna became extinct? While Mastodons and Mammoths have become extinct, Africa has retained the elephant, rhino and hippo. But apparently, Africa was not entirely unaffected. As James Kenny has written:

‘We often think of Africa’s Serengeti as a beautiful untouched wilderness. A place that serves as the last stronghold for the animals that ruled the Earth before humanity, but this is sadly not the case. The Serengeti is indeed wild, with a primal edge; but it’s not some intact piece of prehistoric wilderness, it is also biologically impoverished, just not as much as the Americas or Australia. Africa did suffer megafaunal extinction, but it occurred far back in time, long before the emergence of our own species, at a time when another successful human species was abroad in Africa, namely Homo erectus.

‘Africa’s megafaunal extinction occurred around 1.4 million years ago and is intriguing because it occurred right at the time when Homo erectus was developing this new stone tool technology. It seems clear that our ancestors had now shifted their status, from prey to predator.

‘So, which species succumbed and which survived? Well, the survivors are basically the animals that still survive today, they survived because they learnt that they either had a new predator or new competitor in their midst and evolved essential survival behaviour in order to deal with us. This is why the living mega herbivores of Africa are among the most dangerous animals in the world to humans, because they know that among the best ways to deal with an encroaching human being is to chase them away, while many of the rest simply run away, another very effective survival strategy.

Rhinos in an African game park … among the most dangerous animals in the world.

‘The spectacular menagerie [that existed before the extinctions] also included certain animals that would have looked startlingly familiar to human eyes, but those same eyes would have been astonished by their proportions. There were giant versions of warthog and a giant version of wildebeest, plus a much larger zebra species … Our ancestors also lived alongside two huge baboon species, with one roughly the same size as us, the other reaching the size and weight of a gorilla.

‘All of these creatures plus more disappeared just at the time when Homo erectus was developing its sophisticated stone tool technology and also experimenting with fire for the first time. There is archaeological evidence that demonstrates that erectus frequently included large animals in its diet, but not enough to state with total confidence that they were responsible for this prehistoric extinction. The evidence is more circumstantial than concrete, but if the prehistoric megafauna of Africa really did succumb to the growing intelligence of Homo erectus, then it marks the first major environmental impact of our line. It could well be that our domination of the planet and its life started here.’

So the theory is that while many large African animals did in fact become extinct, many others survived precisely because humans evolved their hunting skills and armoury in Africa over a very long period of time. This gave these animals time to adapt or, more specifically, time to learn to fear humans. When these early humans migrated to other continents, they were already accomplished hunters, and the animals they encountered there were unprepared for these new hunters. That is, they did not have time to adapt. Mammoths and Mastodons may have simply depended on their size to protect themselves from predators prior to the arrival of humans. Perhaps they never developed the incredible speed of the African elephant because prior to the arrival of the human predators there simply was no need. Because of this inability they may have been hunted to extinction.

As an aside, it can be noted that humans hunted large animals such as elephants and hippos for their fat. Since fat is often lacking in other game animals, humans often developed a craving for it. Modern-day carnivore dieticians who claim to be imitating these ancients recommend a diet of 20 per cent fat. Thus the most dramatic upset in the history of ‘The Animal Kingdom ” was when humans changed in a relatively short time from being prey animals to apex predators. That is, they jumped from near the bottom of the pyramid where they had been for thousands of years to the top of the pyramid. They did this by domesticating fire and manufacturing axes, spears and eventually bows and arrows. As a result some species may have succumbed as their habitat was destroyed by fire while others adapted by abandoning their original habitat.

There is also the cascading effect, whereby the extinction of a key species has a domino effect on others. For example Mammoths and Mastodons may have created clearings in forests that allowed grass to grow. When they died out, the clearings closed and smaller animals dependent on the grass died out. It should be noted that human use of fire dates back into the very distant past.

An alternate habitat

Why then did the Bison thrive under Indian management? Tim Flannery describes how the American buffalo changed its behaviour in response to the hunting techniques of the American Indians. The archeological evidence for this suggests that the direct predecessor to the modern American buffalo was in fact a forest-dwelling selective grazer and not a grassland bulk grazer. This is a long story based largely on the discovery of a perfectly preserved 36 000-year-old buffalo in Canada. Initially preserved in ice and then covered by a landslide, it was discovered by miners.

The palaeontologist Dale Guthrie who studied this find named the buffalo Blue Babe, and images of this buffalo can be seen by simply googling ‘Blue Babe’. What is immediately apparent is that it has a narrow muzzle, indicating that it was a selective grazer. Despite looking very different to the modern-day buffalo, Guthrie could establish that it was the genetic predecessor of the modern buffalo. Subsequently, there have been several more finds, but Blue Babe was so well preserved that ‘to celebrate the end of his studies, Guthrie invited a few colleagues to share a stew made from part of Blue Babe’s neck. He went on to record that ‘the meat was well aged but still a little tough, and it gave the stew a strong Pleistocene aroma, but nobody there would have dared miss it.’

‘Blue Babe’, the perfectly preserved 36 000-year-old buffalo discovered in Canada. Image: Wikipedia Commons.

Other differences were the size of the horns and the difference in size between males and females. Flannery claims that ‘a discrepancy in size between the sexes in grazing animals often occurs when male and females forage separately for part or most of the year’. Plains bison bulls were ‘not that much larger than their cows’ because they had to feed in competition with thousands of individuals of both sexes. ‘This restricts their access to good food and thus limits their size.’ So Guthrie found that the ancestors of the modern day bison were considerably larger.

Importantly, Flannery suggests that the evolutionary changes that occurred in the American buffalo was the result of the Indian hunting techniques. This at first consisted of flushing the buffalo out of the bush by amongst other things setting it on fire. Dan Daggart claims that the Indians used fire extensively in rain rituals and even as a way of eliminating mosquitoes. This extensive use of fire in turn converted bush or forest into grassland. Their habitat destroyed, the buffalo were forced out onto the open plains where their safety depended on congregating together or herding. The resulting great herds of buffalo in turn would come to maintain the health of the grasslands.

Non-herding animals are often territorial. That is, they will expel animals of the same species from their territory. In addition, since their territory and hence food is limited some seem to control their own breeding. In Zimbabwe an attempt was made to eliminate the Tsetse fly by shooting out their hosts, namely all the game in the area. The result was an explosion in the breeding of species such as steenbuck as they filled the vacuum created.

It is impossible in a short summary to do justice to Flannery’s explanation as to how the herding behaviour of the buffalo can only be attributed to the American Indian. Essentially, he argues that the Indian hunters destroyed the original habitat of the bison and in the process inadvertently created an alternate habitat. The bison made the change, which also involved changing their social behaviour, and quite unintentionally they flourished. In contrast, this animal herding behaviour has been mythologised by others as something that existed in the state of nature when humans were simply innocent bystanders.

Yet, as mentioned, these ‘noble savages’, our ancestors, managed to exterminate 90 per cent of the animal species in Australia, and 74 per cent of all mammals above 40 kilogram in America. But while they exterminated many species, they changed the buffalo into vast herds. So while many see the phenomena of the great herds of buffalo of the recent past as a reflection of some idyllic state of nature, they are in fact an unintended creation of human hunting techniques.

Beyond the Garden of Eden

If the above is true, what are the implications for us? Firstly it would seem that the ‘state of nature’ has been irrevocably changed by humans. In the process we have become such an integral part of the natural world that we have to continue actively managing it. As Dan Daggart has said, we dare not ‘Try to fool nature by pretending we do not exist.’ Sadly, this is what many in the ‘green movement’ are unwittingly doing.

Interestingly, the story of the Garden of Eden originated at the same time when livestock was first domesticated, and in the same place, more or less where Iraq is today. This myth has influenced our thinking more than we realise. It is literally the time we date all the troubles in the world back to – the date of the ‘original sin’, a time that more or less dates back to the domestication of the cow. But in fact the major changes regarding the ‘state of nature’ may have taken place a lot earlier, at different stages, and in different parts of the world.

FEATURED IMAGE: Elephants in die Serengeti National Park, Jim Marx, Flickr.


James Kenny, The African Megafauna, Owlcation, 26 December 2023, at https://owlcation.com/stem/The-African-Megafauna.

Tim Flannery, The Eternal Frontier: An ecological history of North America and its people, Grove Press, 2002.

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap