The End of Eden - A New Theory of Extinctions at the End of the Ice Age

Elin Whitney-Smith, Ph.D.

Text with Model Results Graphs

(Pictures from other sites are used with permission and linked to their source site)

Eighteen thousand years ago at the height of the last ice age in North America the land not ice covered looks like a park with mixed trees and grass (Figure 1).

Figure 1 Mixed Parkland in Illinois
Mural by R.G. Larson Used with permission of the Illinois State Museum

There are mammoths being killed by massive lions and sabertooth cats (Figures 2 & 3). Bison are almost as big as elephants. Beavers are as big as bears, the short faced bear (Figure 4) stands more than 5 foot at the shoulder, almost twice the size of a grizzly bear. These big animals merit their name - mega-fauna.

Saber tooth catAmerican Lionshort faced bear

fluted point Eight thousand years later the ice caps are wasting away. Paleo-indians are using beautiful fluted points (Figure 5) to hunt the bison (Figure 6) the mastodons (Figure 7) and other mega-fauna in park lands of North and South America. They work little - about 8 hours per week - and live well. Game and vegetation is available for the taking. Theirs is a world of plenty - an Eden.

long horned bisonmastodon

archaic point Just a thousand years later, the huge ice caps, horses, sloths, other giant animals, the carnivores that ate them, and the paleo-indians, all are gone. Climate is like it is today. The parklands are gone. There are belts of closed canopy forest on the coasts and a vast grassland in the center of the North American continent.

The few people we find are living in small isolated bands. Their stone technology is far less developed than that of the paleo-indians. Who are these people? What happened to the Paleo-Indian culture?

Why did the pattern of vegetation change? Why are bison and beavers so small? Where are the mastodon, the mammoth, the horse and the big cats who hunted them?

These are the mysteries of the extinctions at the end of the last Ice Age.

Two theories have been put forward to explain them - climate change and overkill by people. (See Pleistocene Extinctions: The Search for a Cause edited by P.S. Martin and H. E. Wright, Jr., published by Yale Univ. Press in 1967 and Quaternary Extinctions: A Prehistoric Revolution edited by P.S. Martin and R. G. Klein published by Arizona Univ. Press in 1984.)

Vastly simplified, the climate change hypothesis suggests that as the ice age waned climate changed so drastically that animals were not able to adapt. The overkill hypothesis suggests that humans swept into the New World killing everything in their path.

The problems with these theories are:


Both theories are like Escher drawings, correct in detail but inconsistent over all (Figure 11).

Escher waterfall

A new theory is needed - Second Order Overkill.

Consider the following:

Modeling Extinctions

To see if the relationships specified in this hypothesis are internally consistent I made a system dynamics computer model of a simple ecosystem.

The ecosystem consists of two kinds of plants - trees and grass, four kinds of herbivores - browzers, mixed feeders, ruminant and non-ruminant grazers. I simulated Overkill (Graph 1) and Second Order Overkill (Graph 2 ). The graphs show that hunting herbivores has far less impact than does killing carnivores.

Overkill GraphSecond Order Overkill Graph

If we look behind the scenes in the Second Order Overkill simulation, browzers, mixed feeders and non-ruminant grazers go extinct (Graph 3). The immediate cause of their extinction is overgrazing (Graph 4). The browzers and mixed feeders eat all the trees and then starve.

herbivore graphvegetation graph

If this model is correct for the New World, we know why the pattern of vegetation changed, why animals not hunted by people went extinct, and why horses went extinct even though they can live in our climate.

Comparing the Overkill Hypothesis and the Second Order Overkill Hypothesis suggests new insights into the peopling of the New World:

This sequence gives us a new insight into both the spread of Paleo-Indian culture and its disappearance. During the initial boom period there was enough, and more than enough, for everyone. Human populations could expand as fast as breeding allowed. People had no reason not to share food or ideas and technology. It was a world of plenty.

Then, with the crash, people starved. Smaller animals and the denuded vegetation could only support small bands widely spaced out over the landscape. They were isolated. It was a land of scarcity. In that harsh world there was less leisure to create beautiful points and many of the people with the skills to do so had starved - paleo dark ages. As in other dark ages, skills were lost and the quality of life reduced.

This would suggest that it is easier than we think to upset the ecological balance.

If the theory is more generally true and applicable to other places, including the fertile crescent, it may be the motivating push behind the shift from hunting and gathering to planting and farming. It implies that religious stories of a golden time past in the Genesis and elsewhere, have a basis in fact. They explain the shift from the boom time - Eden - when people had more than enough food to eat and it was freely available for the taking to the time of starvation and scarcity.

Elin Whitney-Smith, Ph.D.

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Picture credits

The Illinois State Museum for the Larson Mural, Figure 1.

The George C. Page Museum for the mammals in Figures 2,3,4,6,7,9 and 10.

Stirling Smith for the projectile points and excellent photography, Figures 5 & 8.

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