Native Americans and the Environment: Perspectives on the Ecological Indian

By Michael E. Harkin; David Rich Lewis | Go to book overview

4. Did the Ancestors of Native Americans
Cause Animal Extinctions in
Late-Pleistocene North America?
And Does It Matter If They Did?

Robert L. Kelly and Mary M. Prasciunas

The relationship between the animal and human life of the New World has long been the subject of debate. As early as 1749 the French naturalist George-Louis Leclerc hypothesized that both humans—Native Americans—and the animals they fed upon had degenerated from their superior European forms because nature was less “active” and “energetic” on one side of the globe than on the other. In his Notes on the State of Virginia (1781), Thomas Jefferson responded to Leclerc in discussing the nature and origins of Native Americans, a subject that greatly intrigued him (and led him to undertake the first “scientific” excavation of an archaeological site in the United States). Jefferson admired the Native peoples of the New World and, unlike many of his contemporaries, believed them to be equal to Europeans in intellect. But he needed more substantive grounds on which to refute Leclerc.

One of the key elements of Leclerc's proposition was the claim that animals of the New World were smaller than those of Europe. Jefferson was aware of finds of the skeletal remains of mammoths, mastodons, and giant ground sloths in various places, such as Big Bone Lick, Kentucky. (And his interest is recognized through the scientific name for the giant ground sloth, Megalonyx jefersoni.) He once kept a mammoth skull in Monticello's front foyer, and while president he laid out mammoth bones in the White

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