The myth of the wise, “Noble Savage” the indigenous Man living in perfect harmony with nature, beloved by Gaia-worshippers and cultural anti-modernists, has taken another whacking.
Australian Aborigines have long been held up and extolled in innumerable museum displays, children’s literature and other popular culture as a paradigm example of a people whose mystic relationship with the land and its creatures led them to preserve a perfect balance with the environment and the creatures in it, unlike the rapacious, Gaia-raping, property-conscious and destructive white settlers (a myth which a number of Aborigines who I know treat with some cynicism).
Now fresh evidence has emerged to reinforce what many scientists have long suspected: that it was human hunting, not climate change, that wiped out the giant beasts in Australia — the megafauna — about 46,400 years ago, as also seems to have happened when humans reached South America, New Zealand, and Madagascar.
“There’s no way you can twist the evidence to say that climate change was responsible,” said Dr. Gavin Prideaux, Rio Tinto Research Fellow at the Western Australian Museum. Until the time humans arrived, the great animals were flourishing.
“They were coping very well, thank you very much,” Professor Bert Roberts, a dating expert at NSW’s University of Wollongong, was quoted as saying. “That’s not to say climate didn’t have an influence, but they always bounced back despite stresses from droughts and difficult conditions. Then people come along when the conditions were good and the megabeasts go extinct. It’s definitely people (who were the cause)”.
Among the creatures wiped out were giant claw-footed kangaroos, Sthenurines, that weighed up to 300kg, the 100kg Genyornis, the heaviest bird ever known, a marsupial lion, Thylacoleo carnifex, which could grow to the size of a large leopard, the diprodoton, a herbivore the size of a hippopotamus, and giant reptiles (one of these last, a huge lizard that probably inhabited water-holes, and whose skeleton looks terrifying enough, may have given rise to the Aboriginal legend of the dreaded bunyip).
Dr. Prideaux and colleagues recently published the results of research among rich fossil-beds in the Thylacoleo Caves of southeastern Australia, which support the evidence of discoveries elsewhere. Until the arrival of humans the giant creatures had been flourishing and were largely unthreatened by climate change.
The new finds support the “blitzkrieg” hypothesis of U.S. geoscientist Paul Martin and others that when the Aborigines arrived in the new continent rich with huge animals, they rapidly hunted them to extinction.
The Australian megafauna included a few large carnivorous marsupials, but most of the creatures were herbivores, unable, unlike many African animals, to defend themselves from spear-wielding hunters. In any event, with the herbivores destroyed, the whole food-chain was broken and the carnivores died too.
The big herbivores wouldn’t have stood much chance if the Aborigines of 46,000 years ago were anything like their descendants. Though many Aborigines are urbanized now, the hunting abilities of tribal Aborigines can be, quite literally, fantastic. I have done some trips in the outback with an Aboriginal law-giver steeped in real hunting lore and seem him display hunting skills almost impossible to believe, including not only amazing spear-throwing but also finding, unerringly, snakes and lizards in pitch darkness (for example reaching up from a tiny rocking boat to pick venomous snakes like fruit from the rafters inside a flooding house). I won’t say he was in telepathic communication with the quarry, only that that’s what it looked like.
Professor Roberts has published evidence from 28 megafauna sites that indicate a continent-wide extinction of large creatures when Aborigines arrived.
Other scientists have argued that as well as hunting, the Aboriginals fired the landscape, destroying the megafauna’s ecosystems, and helping the desertification of large parts of Australia. There was no idea of conservation or animal husbandry, and 90% of the large fauna disappeared. Of course, even if the early hunter-gatherer had been inclined to farming, it’s hard to know how such giant marsupials could have been farmed or husbanded — it would not be exactly easy to corral herds of giant kangaroos, for example. One West Australian politician tried to set up a possum-farm on an island after European settlement but the venture came to nothing, and in 1973 the Whitlam government, among its many bizarre and irrational schemes, tried to set up Aborigines in the far north in turtle-farming, with predictable results.
The debate is probably not over yet, however (some suggest there was more than one cause of the extinction), and there are ideological and metapolitical implications beyond the realm of pure science. The notion of the wise, environmentally conscious indigene seems in conflict with the notion of human beings in general as the enemy of Gaia, and there are ideological constituencies ready to capitalize on both.
Anyway, by the time British settlers arrived, apart from a few big kangaroos, most of Australia’s surviving marsupials were small and in general elusive and/or desert-dwelling — wallabies, wombats, bandicoots, koalas and rat and mouse-sized creatures.
Europeans were probably responsible for the final extinction of some creatures, the best-known example being the Tasmanian marsupial wolf or tiger (the last known died in captivity in the 1930s), and, until the trade was banned, hundreds of thousands of cute, cuddly koalas were shot every year for their skins. There have also been disastrous instances of over-clearing, destruction of scarce wetlands, and a European contribution to desertification, as well as the introduction of cats, rats, rabbits and foxes since the first European settlement in 1788.
However, European settlers also unintentionally helped the survival of many native species by introducing large-scale irrigation and edible crops. They also, of course, began dedicated conservation initiatives, sanctuaries, national parks and zoo breeding programs from the 19th century onwards.