Mystery of the Missing Mammoths
mammoth kill: Did early over-hunting bring about extinction?
(Copyright Lee Krystek, 2000)
Scientists tell us that around 14,000 years ago
North America was the home of large populations of mammoths
and mastodons. These creatures were the relatives of the modern
Asian and African elephants. Some, like the Colombian mammoth,
were larger than even the largest elephant known today. Others,
like the woolly mammoth, had strange features for an elephant,
like fur and a hump on the back. All mysteriously disappeared
about 12,000 ago and nobody knows exactly why.
Mammoths were not the only creatures to disappear
around the time. From about 132,000 years ago until about 10,000
years ago (a period known as the late Pleistocene era) many
extremely large mammals, collectively known as megafauna,
went extinct. This included sabertooth tigers, the giant short-faced
bears, giant sloths, giant camels and the huge dire wolves.
Unlike the dinosaur extinction of 65 million years ago, nobody
has found evidence of a single large meteorite strike to explain
Most scientists point to changes in climate to
explain the death of these animals. The late Pleistocene era
is the time before, during, and just after the last great Ice
Age. During that period, gigantic sheets of ice covered much
of North America, Europe and Asia. Some scientists suggest that
these harsh, cold conditions of the time gave the megafauna
an advantage. When the Ice Age came to an end, so did the mammoths,
along with many other animals.
Not all scientists accept this theory, pointing
out that these mammals had survived even bigger climate changes
earlier. Indeed, some of the relatives of the mammoths, the
elephants, survive in India and Africa today. If they could
make it, why couldn't the North American mammoths and mastodons?
A second theory is known as the "Pleistocene
overkill" hypothesis. About the same time mammoths and
mastodons were becoming extinct in North America, scientists
think early man crossed over the Bering Straight from Asia and
began to populate the Western Hemisphere. According to the theory
these groups over-hunted the mammoths causing their extinction.
Because the mammoths and mastodons probably had long gestation
periods, they might have found it hard to maintain their populations
with new births if they were constantly being hunted. Examinations
of early dwelling sites from that time show that the mammoths
were hunted for food to at least some extent by the Clovis people.
The Clovis moved into North America around 11,500 to 14,000
years ago. By comparing the location and age of Clovis dwellings
with mammoth and mastodon fossils, scientists found that whenever
the Clovis populated an area occupied by mammoths and mastodons,
these animals began to die out. Scientists also note that the
mammoth remains from that time show spiral fractures of the
bones which were probably caused by heavy blows right before
or after death. These might have been caused by human hunters
trying to break open the bones to get at the nourishing marrow
Scientists who disagree with the theory argue
that the number of human hunters was too small to have seriously
threatened the mammoth and mastodon populations. The Clovis
would have have to had killed more than 10 times the amount
of animals they would have needed to meet their dietary needs
in order to have rendered the mammoths and mastodons extinct.
This amount of overkill was unlikely given how dangerous these
hunts against these huge animals would have been. Also there
is evidence that mammoths found in the famous "Mammoth
Trap" of South Dakota also suffered from spiral fractures
to their bones even though they died many centuries before early
man arrived in North America. Scientists further argue that
many other animals not hunted by early man also went extinct
at the same time. Believers in the "Pleistocene overkill"
theory refute this, suggesting that since the mammoths had such
a major impact on the environment of land in which they lived,
their disappearance might have caused other species to also
go extinct too.
Ross MacPhee of the American Museum of Natural
History has come up with another theory to explain the missing
mammoths: the germ theory. Ross suggests that a deadly disease
(perhaps carried by early man) infected the mammoths, mastodons,
and perhaps other species, killing them. He is trying to find
evidence for this by examining the marrow of frozen mammoths
in Siberia looking for evidence of germs. While many scientists
think that this idea may be worth considering, until Ross can
show some evidence most see it as an unlikely solution, so the
search will go on for an explanation for the missing mammoths.
Copyright Lee Krystek
2000. All Rights Reserved.