Why Did Mammoths and Mastodons Become Extinct?
The debate over why mammoths and mastodons became extinct began decades ago with the first discovery of their remains. Two of the major arguments about the causes of extinction will be presented here.
Prehistoric Overkill Theory
One researcher, Paul S. Martin, has been arguing since the late 1960's that the main cause of the extinctions of mammoths, mastodons and other megafauna of the Americas were caused by overhunting by Paleoindians. He states that the mammoths had lived in North and South America for a long time before the arrival of humans around 12,000 years ago. He believes strongly that Paleoindians overhunted these animals and caused their extinction at approximately 10,000 B.P. Martin feels that the human presence in the Americas was the only new factor.
Climatic Change Theory
Another researcher, Richard MacNeish, has studied mammoth extinctions since the mid-1970's. He believes that only the latest Paleoindians, from 13,000 to 8,500 B.P affected mammoth populations. MacNeish notes that many sites in the Americas have human artifacts along with the extinct bones of the animals predating 12,000 B.P. The Clovis artifacts used by Paleoindians have been found only in the New World.
It has been argued that climatic change is responsible for mammoth and mastodon extinctions. As the last major glaciation ended around 12,000 years ago, climate generally warmed during the Holocene. It has been suggested that it warmed too quickly for the mammoths and mastodons to adapt, and their large body size and overspecialization was responsible for their demise.
Murder? Or A Union of Two Theories?
It is more than likely that there is some truth to be found in both theories. The combination of climatic change and overkill may have proved fatal. For these cold-adapted mammals, climatic change certainly pushed them to the limits of their tolerance. From a cold and arid environment to one of increasing warmth and precipitation, the stresses experienced by mammoths and mastodons was great. As the climate changed, so did the vegetation, meaning they had less food available to them. With the arrival of the Paleoindians, their hunting of these giant elephants may have been one more stress, one that they couldn't overcome and contributed to their final extinction. It is also important to realize that climate changed differently by region, and that mammoths and mastodons may have survived longer in some areas than others.
“Proposed causes of late Pleistocene extinctions fall into two categories, climate and man. Both theories have their devout adherents, to whom the opposing view seems too illogical to consider. Proponents of both views have oversimplified the conditions to make their point, and this has confused the issue. The climate and physiography of North America were not (and are not) uniform, and different species do not have the same ecological requirements. Thus to assume that a single factor affected all species is misleading “(Kurtén and Anderson 1980: 361).