Media, Science:
The Eternal Frontier

by Tim Flannery, 2001

Flannery tracks the progress of North American plants and animals from the dinosaur-killing meteor impact of 65 million years ago to today.

Flannery shows that the big animals in North America died out 13,000 years ago, when the Clovis hunters showed up as North America's first humans. Across North America, the mammoths, mastodons, peccaries, sloths, and more died out in the space of 300 years. The big animals had evolved in the absence of humans, so they didn't have a fear response to such an unimposing animal. Human hunters could approach big prey easily, and kill them fast enough that the animals didn't have the chance to evolve better instincts.

Flannery says that the Clovis hunters ate the big animals. I think the hunters just slaughtered them. There's only so much mammoth you can eat, but there's almost no limit to how many you can slaughter.

Fourteen thousand yeas ago in Asia, the hunters had to struggle to bring down the bison and mammoths. Then they trekked through a frozen waste until they came into North America. Here, to their surprise, were big beasts that didn't mind it when a bunch of armed humans walked right up to them. And the hunters went crazy. They went on a religious killing spree, creating a death cult of ecstatic slaughter. They killed and killed and killed. Sure, they also ate, but mostly they just killed for the joy of being more powerful than big brutes.

Anyway, that's what I think.

Flannery says that we should consider trying to return the North American wilderness to the ecological state it was in before people arrived. While some folks are already reintroducing bears and wolves here and there, Flannery says what about the elephants, the peccaries, and the lions?

I could skip the lions, but wouldn't it be great to have herds of elephants running wild on the great plains? If we just stopped subsidizing irrigation (and draining our aquifer), lots of the plains would once again be unsuitable for agriculture. What better use for that land than for elephants to roam around? Especially as they're endangered in Africa, North America would be a fine haven for elephants. I'd be proud for my country to help elephants escape extinction.

October 2001