Conservation Biology

Monday, July 31, 2006

BBC MONSTERS WE MEET: NORTH AMERICA


North America 11 000 BC

A land discovered thousands of years before Columbus.

This is the first people have come face to face with the monstrous animals which roamed the continent of North America.

An ancient discovery is revealed

In 1968 construction workers made a chilling discovery. They uncovered the remains of a human skeleton evidence of the first people to set foot in the Americas.

With the bones were over one hundred raiser sharp spear points made from semi-precious stones. They were the sharpest blades humans had ever created. Forensic archeologist discovered the skeleton is a young child’s. Both the body and the spear points had been covered in red ochre. An earthly symbol used in life and death. Why was this child buried with all these weapons? Unraveling this mystery offers tantalizing clues to the secrets of a lost world - a world where people really did meet monsters.

Radio carbon dating revealed that the child lived thirteen thousand years ago -the time this story takes place. We are in the dying years of the last ice age. Just moments past in the vastness of geological time but a world quite different from the one we live in today.

Yet the people living here are Sheyo and her only child Sunkha are just like you and me. They are intelligent highly skilled and spare complex language and emotions. These people are living at a time when the world around them is changing and they face an uncertain future.

Several years have past and Sunkha has died. Her ochre covered body is to be buried in a cliff top in Montana. Sheyo has lost her only child. The land is warming. It should be a paradise but isn’t. Why? Because once there were great creatures and now there are only bones.


These are the ancestors of today’s native Americans. There story is an epic tale pieces together from the fragments of evidence they left behind. So what do we know of these people. To find out we must look farther back into their history. Long before Shio’s child was born.

People cross the Bearing land-bridge into North America

During the last ice age much of the sea was frozen in mountains of ice. This made sea levels seventy metres lower than today. A vast land bridge of ice joined the Asian continent to the far north of North America. Many scientists believe it was across this desolate land fourteen thousand years ago that the first people found their way into the New World. They were pioneers the descendants of Siberian hunters who had honed their survival skill in the brutality of Siberia’s frozen wastes.
In discovering the Americas these people laid claim to a quarter of the world’s landmass. In that moment when the first human foot prints appeared the course of history was changed forever.

Successive waves of people made this epic journey. As each new group came in and spread out to explore their new found world. Nothing would prepare them for what they were about to discover.

Cheyo and her brother are the first people to reach this mountain range. They are discovering a Garden of Eden, an eternal frontier teaming with animals. The world they discovered is home to more species of elephant and big cat than anywhere else on earth.

A land teaming with vaste herds

The wooly mammoth its dense coat and thick layer of insulating fat make it superbly efficient at staying warm in the merciless cold. In its back is a fat filled hump a vital energy resource for time when food is scarce. Its great tusks are used to dig for vegetation under deep snow as well as combat when rival males compete for a mate.

Like the wooly mammoth the musk ox is a tenacious survivor. They are tough horned aggressive beasts who defend themselves by gathering in a tight knit pack.

Migrating herds of saga antelope graze the plains - a bizarre mix between goat and antelope.

Caribou and two species of buffalo gather in huge herds. There are five species of horse. The horse evolved in North America four million years ago and subsequently migrated to the rest of the world.

This New World is home to the largest cats ever seen. The North American lion is at least a third bigger than the African lion. In competition is the smaller cheetah-like American scimitar cat with serrated knife-like canines adapted for preying on young mastodons and mammoths.

The most formidable feline predator by far is the sabertooth. Armed with awesome canines it waits to ambush its prey.

The ingenious people survive in a bitter land

It takes ingenuity to survive in a land blasted by bitter winds but these sophisticated equipped with technology which enables them to endure the extreme climate. To exist in temperatures as low as minus sixty, these people construct cold weather clothing that will never be better. Garments are cut insulating layers from fur and tanned hides, threaded together with waterproof stitching. They are masters of fire and bush craft.

There are killers here but it is also a land of opportunity. Scavengers like the wolverine make the most of any nutritious scraps left behind.

A land of monsters – a gruesome find

For the new settlers there are unwelcome surprises in the new world. These are certainly not the remains of a wolf kill. Hega and Setan have never encountered a creature capable of such devastation. An animal of such power that is can strip the flesh and snap the bones of a caribou like this. They have arrived in a world of super predators - a world of monsters.

A caribou hunt – hard work for little reward

The caribou made the same journey as people across the bearing land bridge. Nomadic hunters probably followed the tracks of migrating caribou into the New World. They are high prized for their meat insulating hides and sinew. Caribou are familiar to man but man is familiar to caribou. The great herds have long been weary of the threat of the human hunter. These hunters use their intimate knowledge of the natural world to their advantage. Staying down-wind to avoid betraying their presence, the hunters disguise themselves in caribou capes to get close enough to launch an attack. The kill will provide Setan’s people with enough food for just one day.

Night on the tundra a threat looms in the dark

Night on the tundra temperature plummets, the time to take protection against the merciless cold, the time to stay alert against the dangers that prowl under the cover of darkness.

The sabertooth, larger and more ferocious than any lion is armed with seven inch daggers designed for puncturing flesh and severing arteries. They are ambush specialist which disembowel and bleed their victims to death. They are lucky, the sabertooth has never seen an animal with fire in its hands but these people will always have to be on their guard. There are other monsters they are yet to meet. The sabertooth is the least of their worries.

A gentle giant

Until now the giant ground sloth has live in a world without man. On first encounter it is fearless. No animal of human size has ever posed a threat. Cheyo and her brother can even walk up and touch this giant. The sloth is vulnerable and man will be quick to exploit its innocent nature.

Strangers kill the giant with a new technology
Strangers arrive. They thought they were alone. Now they share their world with people armed with far more powerful weapons. With the shock of this encounter their life will never be the same again. Now their future is balanced on a knife edge.

Paco has introduced Setan’s people to a technology they have never seen, a spear point of flawless geometry, a lethal weapon which will later give the early settlers of North America their name and identity – the Clovis.

Contact is vital allowing the exchange of information and raw materials. It’s also an opportunity for courtship.

Clovis New Mexico is where this type of spear point was originally unearthed in 1932 and it is from this town that the first Americans derive their name. It was the first of many finds later made throughout the continent.

By perfecting the skills to make and use the Clovis point, these people are in possession of a devastatingly powerful and accurate weapon.

The Clovis are master craftsman. They are superbly skilled flint nappers. The semiprecious stones like chert, quartz crystal jasper and obsidian needed to make these points are so prized it is not uncommon for the Clovis to walk fifteen hundred kilometers in search of new sources.

It takes years to master these techniques. Their weapons are exquisite designed to maximize penetration. Armed with a Clovis point, humans now held the most deadly weapon the world had ever seen. Now they can hunt the very largest of animals.

A mammoth hunt

Weighing up to eight tons the wooly mammoth is one of the largest mammals in North America. These vast creatures provide the Clovis with fat nutritious marrow and bone for making tools. Mammoth bones have been found all over America. In Arizona eight Clovis spear point where discovered buried in an adult mammoth skeleton. Each weapon inflicted a mortal wound.

Hunter fire spears in deadly quick succession, killing animals in their prime. Here they select the herd leader, the matriarch. The Clovis have developed a hunting strategy that will have dire consequences.

The hunt celebration is a time to reenact the hunt and the kill. The Clovis have a spiritual dimension to their culture. It is possible that when a hunter holds his spear, he believes he can harness some greater power.


An fearful killer
A slaying mammoth can provide enough food to satisfy hungry stomachs for weeks but it is always risky to return to the kill. It is a magnet for the most fearsome predator. The short faced bear, the largest and most intimidating predator that has ever hunted on land. It is an astoundingly efficient killer capable of running at speeds in excess of sixty kilometers per hour.

The Clovis prosper

Despite menace of predators the Clovis manage to survive and prosper. The population endures periodic losses but in fact Clovis numbers are rapidly increasing. In virgin lands with plentiful resources a population of just two hundred can increase to seventy thousand in just thirty generations, a thousand years, the time it takes the Clovis to conquer the Americas.

The ice ages ends and the world changes

Shio doesn’t know it but her only child is going to die. She is born into a world which is in decline. The climate is rapidly warming and the ice age is coming to a rapid end. Massive ice fields are melting and the American continent is reshaping. It is at this time that North American animals like the sabertooth, mammoth and the short face bear are vanishing, but why? Is it the trauma of this accelerated period of global warming? Probably not. These animals survived seventeen similar climate cycles. So why is this one proving so fatal? Humans are here, the one thing that distinguishes this ice age from all the others that have gone before.

Did the Clovis cause a massive extinction event?

The Clovis may have thought they had discovered an eternal frontier with an inexhaustible bounty of animals. Yet within as little as a thousand years of human arrival thirty kinds of animal are becoming extinct. Coincidence or were the Clovis responsible.

America was once home to five types of horse. There were also two kinds of camel. The Clovis slaughtered horses and camels. Blood of an extinct horse was recently identified on a Clovis spear point. A bone from an extinct camel shows the signs of human butchery. Many scientists are convinced that the Clovis are responsible for killing all the continents great herbivores and with the disappearance of most of the large plant eaters like the mammoth, horse, camel and ground sloth predators could no longer be sustained.

If humans are to blame they are guilty of causing the greatest mass extinction since the dinosaurs perished sixty-five million years ago.

Sheyo’s child is dead. Here on a cliff top in Montana her people gather to lay her child to rest. They carry hundreds of spear points to place in the child’s grave. Why? Is it a time of starvation? Are the Clovis spear points being laid down in a gesture to appease the gods? Have their deadly weapons become redundant in an empty land? One thing is certain at the time this child is buried all the animals the Clovis spear point is designed to slaughter have vanished.

Once there were great creatures and now there are only bones!

The carnage starts over

The loss of the new World giant animals may have forced the Clovis to reassess their relationship with nature. There is evidence that they changed their ways and became a people living in greater harmony with the natural world. For the next twelve thousand years there were no more extinctions in the Americas. Then strangers from foreign lands turned up on the horizon.

With Columbus in 1492 a new wave of pioneers Europeans landed on America’s shores and once again a new group of humans laid claim to the continent. Later the conquistadors arrived and the image of men galloping on horses struck fear into the hearts of the Native Americans. They believed they were seeing monstrous ghosts. Ironically horses were returning to the land of their evolutionary origin, twelve thousand years after their predecessors had perished on the Clovis spear point.

To the Clovis the horse had meant only meat but the European pioneers had learned to exploit the horse for a different use. Humans were now armed with a weapon far more deadly than the Clovis spear point and history was set to repeat itself. Horse mounted hunters wielding rapidly repeating rifles had turned into ruthlessly efficient killers. Within seventy years they slaughtered sixty million buffalo. The vast buffalo herds of the American Prairie once formed the greatest aggregation of mammals ever to populate the earth and yet one of natures great marvels was lost, massacred for their tongues and shot for sport. In 1893 only five hundred wild buffalo remained. Native Americans lost their livelihood.

The smoking gun is in our hands, somewhere in our battle for survival we aquired the power to cause extinction!

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