Paleoamerican Odyssey

By Kelly E. Graf; Caroline V. Ketron et al. | Go to book overview

Chapter 18
Pleistocene Extinctions:
The State of Evidence
and the Structure of Debate

Nicole M. Waguespack

ABSTRACT

The demise of the Pleistocene megafauna has become a topic of such long-standing and contentious debate
that it is difficult to evaluate the merit of causal evidence independent of entrenched argumentative posi-
tions. Generally structured around the role humans and climate did or did not play in the extinction event,
the generation of new data, which will ultimately contribute to resolution of the issue, also currently serves
to perpetuate particular points of dispute. While I have participated in this debate and have advocated for
the role of human hunting, I review the current evidence in light of its implications for what is known about
the extinction event (i.e., that it was a rapid, widespread event with an inordinate impact on large-bodied
fauna during the Late Pleistocene) and its congruence with expectations of overkill in the empirical record.
Widespread acceptance of any particular cause, be it human, climate, catastrophe, or disease triggered
must be consistent with what the archaeological, paleontological, and paleoenvironmental records can pro-
vide—not necessarily with what proponents of either side of the debate claim as essential requirements for
resolution.

KEYWORDS: Pleistocene megafauna, Overkill, Extinction debate

Were human actions responsible for the extinction of 30 genera of Pleistocene mammals in the Americas? It is a simple question, and it seems reasonable to expect a straightforward answer. After all, the question is fundamentally “did we or didn’t we?” Yet as the body of evidence grows, consensus remains elusive. There has been no shortage of proposed answers, with many variants of both “yes” and “no” arguments’ achieving widespread albeit short-lived agreement among archaeologists. Of the myriad of professions involved, the debate remains largely archaeological as our paleoclimatological, ecological, and zoological colleagues have largely come to agree that humans played a causal role in the extinction event (Barnosky et al. 2004; Burney and Flannery 2005; Lyons et al. 2004; Ripple and Van Valkenburgh 2010). So it is archaeology, the one profession explicitly concerned with past human behavior, which remains equivocal of human involvement. While archaeology has perhaps the greatest disciplinary investment in this debate, as both “yes” and “no” answers have deep implications for our interpretations and perceptions of Pleistocene peoples of the Americas, resolution within the field remains mired in debate. In fact, contentious interpretive arguments are so pervasive within Paleoindian archaeology that it has become worth considering whether our lack of agreement concerning the role of humans in the extinction event stems from a current sample of evidence with its inherent equivalencies and vagaries; or is perhaps, at least in part, the product of an atmosphere more accustomed to opposing interpretations. Or is perhaps, at least partially, the product of an atmosphere more accustomed to opposing interpretations.

Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of
Wyoming, 1000 E. University Avenue, Laramie, WY 82071;

e-mail:nmwagues@uwyo.edu

-311-

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