With the world’s population growing at 200,000 per diem, the world’s children of the 2050s face the very real risk of never being afforded the opportunity of walking through a wood or even playing sport on a grassy field. In Gauteng, the towns of Pretoria, Joburg and Van der Bijl Park have already almost converged into one megacity within the past 30 years.
Contrast this with early man. Was the impact of these peoples such as the Aborigines of Australia or the Maoris of New Zealand as benign as is supposed? Or is modern man with its industrial scale re-engineering of the topography, the proverbial poster boy of environmental destruction or despoilation?
Main picture: An aboriginal woman performs the Woggan-ma-gule morning ceremony on Australia Day in Sydney, Friday, Jan. 26, 2007. Australia Day marks the arrival of the first European settlers in 1788. (AP Photo/Paul Miller)
An historical perspective
The first voyages of discovery in the 15th & 16th centuries uncovered a whole swathe of new islands and continents each with their own primitive tribes. On returning to Europe, these voyagers reported that many of the tribes were still hunter gatherers whilst other had progressed to the agricultural phase.
In doing so, by the time of the Industrial Revolution, it was widely believed that early man was peace-loving and living in harmony with nature. Quite obviously in hindsight, this was a fallacious assumption yet this Romanticised sanguine picture was to remain a basic tenet of anthropology until the mid 20th century. This viewpoint was espoused more in blissful hope than in certainty in order to buttress a particular anti-modernist agenda. Hence, there was a flagrant disregard for inconvenient facts.
Among the many texts debunking the peaceful coexistence theory was the book The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond in which he studies the behaviour of primate tribes in New Guinea.
Yet the attitudes of Westerners towards traditional people has swung between two equally unrealistic extremes. The antithesis of the view espoused above was that primitive people were brutish barbarians who should either be exterminated or else brought into the modern world as quickly as possible.
Whatever civilised man disagreements might have been regarding the sociological behaviour of these primitive people, on one aspect there was unanimity: the activities of these peoples on the environment was benign. It was hard to imagine that bands of itinerant humans peripatetically wandering around in the bush could affect nature by any stretch of the imagination.
The destroyers of the megafauna
To modern man, it might seem barely credible that primitive man armed with nothing more ominous than spears and fire could precipitate one of the largest extinctions of megafauna in history. In terrestrial zoology, megafauna are large or giant animals. The most common thresholds used are weight over 40 kilograms. For this purpose, megafauna have been defined as animals heavier than 50 kilograms.
Yet that is a fact.
Take the case of the Aborigines in Australia.
Like all primitive peoples, the variations in beliefs and life styles formed a mosaic with a range of variations substantially more diverse than modern man. Yet in one aspect these tribes were similar: their effect on the environment.
For this, none can be exonerated.
Let us start at the very beginning before the so-called Cognitive Revolution as per Yuval Harari in “Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind”. Effectively “trapped” on the Afro-Asian landmass, early man had to unwittingly await the cognitive revolution which would unleash him from land and enable them to build sea craft, albeit primitive, and sail to new lands such as the Americas, Australia, Madagascar and Hawaii amongst others.
Being isolated from one another, the animals in these areas evolved on their own evolutionary paths. In Australia, all species of megafauna possessed one unique feature. They were all marsupials including their lions.
The first major feat of the initial batch of Cognitive Man arose 45,000 years ago when they sailed across numerous channels and ultimately set foot on Australian soil. Upon arrival, they had to adapt overnight to a completely alien ecosystem.
Amongst these strange animals were the following: a 200 kg 2 metre tall kangaroo, a marsupial lion, huge voracious koala bears, flightless birds twice the size of ostriches. In fact one of the largest was the giant diprotodon, a two and a half tonne wombat, roaming the forests.
Within a few thousand years after the Abroginal colonisation of Australia, virtually all these giants had vanished. Of the twenty four Australian species of megafauna, twenty three had become extinct. This was tantamount to the wanton destruction of wildlife. Caught in this vortex of destruction, were many smaller species.
In an attempt to exonerate humans, the Vagaries of Weather Card has been deployed. Much like the Race Card today, it is often inappropriately used. The facts do not support this contention. Firstly the giant Diprotodon had successfully survived 10 previous ice ages over 1.5 million years. So why would a relatively mild ice age make them catch cold and die. Secondly during other ice ages, sea creatures were affected to the same extent as land animals. In this case, this norm does not apply. The third and possibly most telling incriminating piece of evidence is that period of extinction on other islands is always closely correlated with the period when humans first settled there.
Take New Zealand as a prime example. The megafauna successfully parried the thrust of climate change 45,000 years ago yet within a few centuries of the Maoris’ arrival in New Zealand 800 years ago, most species of megafauna were extinct as well as 60% of all bird species.
A similar fate befell the mammoth. First the mammoths on the Eurasian mainland went extinct. Only when early man crossed to the Americas over current day Alaska, did the American mammoths vanish. The final death throes of the mammoth only occurred 4,000 years ago on an isolated island, Wrangel, in the Artic Sea, when man first reached this island.
Based upon the extinction of species following in man’s footprints, a court will have more than circumstantial evidence to convict early man for the destruction of species on a large scale.
It is instructive to note that the changes wrought by early man were not confined to animals alone, but also the flora.
Again, Australia serves as an excellent example. It can be assumed that the Aborigines on reaching Australia had already mastered fire agriculture. Faced with an alien and threatening environment, they deliberately burned vast areas of impassable thickets and dense forests. Evidence to support this supposition is that Eucalyptus trees were rare in Australia 45,000 years ago. By all objective measures, the arrival of Homo Sapiens coincided with the demise of the Australian bush veld to usher in the Golden Age of the eucalyptus tree which was impervious to fire.
Guilty as charged.
Early man might have been culpable for the extinction of countless species and animals and the artificial re-engineering of the flora, yet by no measure can such destruction be categorised as wanton or premeditated. Unlike smaller animals and birds, the megafauna possesses a long gestation period combined with the production of a tiny number of offspring. Hence the effect of the death of one species of megafauna is more serious than the killing of a small fast procreating animal.
Not being endowed with the ability to foresee the consequences of their actions over a thousand year timespan, one can but forgive them and let them off with a warning.
The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond
Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari