Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Neither Biblical Plague nor Pristine Myth: A Lesson from Central European Sparrows

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Neither Biblical Plague nor Pristine Myth: A Lesson from Central European Sparrows

Article excerpt

In his famous Meditations on Hunting ([1942]1995), Jose Ortega y Gasset presented a remarkable example of estimating game numbers in prehistoric times, not only from the archaeological record but also by philosophical deduction. His conclusion that game was formerly scarce is inconsistent with our intuitive pictures of ancient pristine abundance of game animals but reflects, among other factors, the reality of their limited numbers. Unknowingly, Ortega also drew attention to a problem that is truly one of environmental history: how one estimates the relative abundance or scarcity of animals in the past and human impact on their numbers. The Pleistocene overkill in the Americas was really a dramatic event--doubts about the hypothesis do not really matter here--but was it as dramatic in terms of numbers? Who has the records, and what were "big numbers"?

A widespread assumption exists that any historical abundance was closer to "natural" conditions and that "man's impact" had only negative consequences on numbers. This position can be challenged simply by consulting zero-isocline-population models and understanding that oscillations in numbers of individuals are natural and will occur regularly within populations even without human impact. However, using Ortega's principle of deduction, it becomes evident that humans surely must also have had an impact on growing numbers in history. This holds true first for domestic animals, of course, but what about hunted species or, even more controversially, species beyond or even opposed to his human interest? Starting from this viewpoint, a comparison of the abundance of North American passenger pigeons and that Central European sparrows in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is enlightening.

EUROPEAN SPARROWS AND AMERICAN PASSENGER PIGEONS

If North American Indians would have come to Germany in the eighteenth century they would have seen "sun-darkening flocks" of sparrows almost all year long, flocks quite similar to those of passenger pigeons in North America that impressed European travelers and settlers from the seventeenth century through the nineteenth century with their immense size during their seasonal migration. Our Indian visitors could have seen similarly huge numbers of sparrows throughout the nineteenth and even in the beginning of the twentieth century. The observers would probably have considered sparrows a firm element in the European tableau, just as Europeans viewed North American passenger pigeons. Although the passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) became extinct in the wild in 1907, sparrow numbers have been considerably reduced in Central European countries only since the mid-twentieth century.

The story of passenger pigeons seems to have been well investigated. Arlie Schorger's work remains the baseline, but Thomas Neumann came to the convincing conclusion that the post-Columbian superabundance of passenger pigeons had an anthropogenic background (Schorger 1955; Neumann 1985). The population of pigeons was formerly kept down due to human-wildlife competition for tree nuts. This competitive network was disrupted when disease, warfare, and other consequences of European colonization decimated Indian populations and lifeways. The consequent enrichment of food and space led to the mushrooming populations of pigeons that so greatly impressed European visitors and Euro-American settlers. Seemingly, Neumann's reasoning did not reach the ornithological community (see, for example, Bucher 1992); nor did it reach general considerations of human impacts on animal populations for postglacial biodiversity (see, for example, Grayson 2001). But it made archaeozoologists look even more carefully for passenger-pigeon remains at prehistoric sites. In 2003 we reviewed reports from archaeological sites in southern Illinois and found a striking scarcity of pigeon remains in pre-European contexts that spanned several millennia (Herrmann and Woods (2003). …

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