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The Role Of Early Humans in Megafauna Extinction

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Early humans were suspected of coming into the Americas sometime after 20,000 years ago (Dixon 2000). There are three different scenarios that have been discussed between archeologists, but only two of them are widely accepted. There have been major breakthroughs in recent years that have helped archeologists determine which route was taken. There are a few sites that suggest that early humans came to the Americas 35,000 to 30,000 years ago, but the lack of sites indicates that this isn’t a viable timeframe in which they came (Dixon 2000). The three hypothesized routes that could have been taken by early humans are as follows: They came through and ice-free corridor across the land mass of Beringia, they came down the western coastline, and they came across the pacific from Europe by boat. Until recently, archeologists believed that early humans came into the Americas through an ice-free corridor that connected Northern Asia and North America (Dixon 2000).

This land mass, which is now submerged underwater, was given the name Beringia. The two ice sheets known as Cordilleran and Laurentide swallowed a significant amount of Canada about 40,000 years ago (Goebel et al. 2008). Temperatures periodically got warmer during this time which meant that these two ice sheets retreated, and it created an ice-free part of land which could’ve been used to enter the Americas. These corridors were temporarily available and the exact date of when the glaciers covered back up the land is still debated among scientists (Goebel et al. 2008). Although there have been many sites to indicate when humans occupied this corridor, not knowing when the glaciers covered the Bering Land Bridge is why this route is still being debated. A rough estimate of when the corridor could’ve been opened was14,000 to 13,500 years ago, but it is still insufficient information that doesn’t have enough evidence to be backed up (Goebel et al. 2008). Instead the more accepted time when this interior route was made available was 11,000 years ago (Dixon 2000). Even if humans came down through the Bering Land Bridge, they would’ve been subjected to an extremely harsh environment that contained little resources for survival (Goebel et al. 2008).

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The ice sheets were constantly growing and shrinking as the climates were becoming warmer and colder at various times. This means that animals and plants were few and far between due to the inconsistent environment, making it hard for early humans to journey across this land bridge. Swan Point has some of the oldest human evidence that has been found up in the Alaskan territory (Scarre 2018). It contains microblade evidence which was found to be a thousand years older than any sites found in the Alaskan area (Dixon 2000). This site has been dated to be 13,600 years old, which means early humans could have made it through the corridor at that time (Scarre 2018). This is one of the earliest dated sites of humans coming out of Beringia, but it still doesn’t match up with the dating of Monte Verde. South America contains a site called Monte Verde, which is a significant site that has made this hypothesized seem improbable. Monte Verde has been dated to be 14,600 years old, which is only 400 years after the earliest time archeologist suggest that humans could’ve made it through the land bridge (Scarre 2018). Since Monte Verde is located too far down in South America, it seems highly unlikely that humans made it all the way from the upper part of North America in only 400 years. The most accepted route nowadays is that of a western coastline route along the Pacific. There has been scientific evidence that early humans were able to enter the western coastline 16,000 years ago because ice glaciers had retreated, creating a corridor for humans to migrate through (Dixon 2000). This better matches the dates that go with Monte Verde, because humans had much more time to travel to the lower part of South America. A big difference in the Bering Land Bridge route and the western coastline route is that of available resources.

In Beringia there was little resources available that could sustain human life, but evidence along the coast of wild animals dating back to 12,500 years ago has shown the coastline route was sustainable for human life (Dixon 2000). This is due to the earlier retreatment of the glaciers and the overall warmer temperature of the region. When you consider the ages of people that migrated, it also makes more rational sense for them to take the coastal route. Food such as shellfish was easily gathered by people of all ages and eaten without being cooked (Dixon 2000). When you talk about large animals being killed for food, you have to remember that these large beasts were killed by humans at the peak of their athleticism and speed (Dixon 2000). This means that you can’t have elderly women or young children attempting to kill large animals, instead they have to resort to fishing or collecting their food from the ground.

The interior route of the Bering Land Bridge did not offer as many small food resources that the coastline route offers. Unfortunately, many sites are submerged underwater, which limits archeologists ability to find more sites (Scarre 2018). Due to the warming of the climate in the Holocene, there was a significant rise in the sea levels which restricts archeologists from digging up these coastline sites (Scarre 2018). Perhaps future technological advances will help archeologists discover more sites that can answer the question of which route was taken by humans. The most rejected route that humans took into the Americas is that of humans coming across the pacific by boat. The reason this route is not widely accepted is because of genetic evidence and the lack of archeological evidence to support it. Recent studies in field of DNA research shows that Native American DNA closely resembles that of a single Siberian population and not Europeans (Goebel et al. 2008).

Due to this discovery it rules out the hypothesis that Europeans were the first to arrive in the Americas. The technology at the time was not sophisticated and advanced enough to realistically get Europeans across the pacific by boat (Goebel et al. 2008). Even if one boat were to reach the Americas, it is highly doubtful that enough people would survive to successfully colonize the land. Once early humans reached the Americas, they began to colonize and grow in population. Some scientists believe that the rise in population and the upbringing of competition among people drove megafauna to extinction (Barnosky et al. 2004). New evidence of climate change as well as ecological change reveals that humans were not the sole reason for these giant creatures’ extinction, although they did contribute to it (Barnosky et al. 2004). Changes in pollen in some areas are a sign that an environmental change was occurring at the time of Megafauna extinction, although this change is not present in all regions where extinction took place (Barnosky et al. 2004).

Evidence like this shows us that there is no single cause of the disappearance of Megafauna, instead it was a combination of many reasons. At the time of their extinction climate change was not something that was unheard of, and the shifts of temperature could have changed the environment of the Megafauna drastically (Barnosky et al. 2004). Some archeologists still believe humans had the biggest contribution to Megafauna extinction, however there a very few kill sites (Barnosky et al. 2004). With the lack of evidence that humans were the sole cause, and the evidence of climate change and vegetation change, there is still no conclusive reason for why Megafauna went extinct. Archeologist will continue to research this widely debated topic.


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