Conservation Biology

Monday, July 31, 2006


BBC Monsters we met: New Zealand

The End of Eden

New Zealand 1280 AD

Kopei a Maori hero, one of the world greatest pioneers, has journeyed from his Polynesian homeland in search of paradise, a land that might offer his people a new and prosperous beginning.
Kopei and his wife are the first humans to discover New Zealand. This is the final frontier the last habitable landmass on earth to be discovered by people. They are venturing into the unknown a lost world where monsters still roam. A world of bizarre creatures ruled by the deadliest aerial predator since the time of the dinosaurs, it’s like a Hitchcock horror.

A forgotten paradise is colonized.

Aboard great canoes a new wave of Polynesian pioneers has voyaged the open oceans to colonize New Zealand, guided by Kopei promise of bountiful islands capped with moisture and sweet scented soil. They named the land Autaaroa, the land of the Long White Cloud. These intrepid explorers will come to be known as the Maori. Pitching up on New Zealand’s shores is a auspicious moment. It is heralded with Karakea a ritual challenge to enemies and evil spirits , a calling for blessings from their spiritual guardians.

Eighteen million years ago at the time Australia and Antarctica where joined a small fragment broke off the super continent and slowly headed into the south Pacific. New Zealand was formed, marooned in splendid isolation. Cut off from the rest of the world a strange and unique set of prehistoric plants and animals has evolved. While medieval Europe is laying its foundations the Polynesian pioneers are discovering a biological wonderland on the other side of the world.

The only species that have reached New Zealand are those that can be carried by the wind or can fly, drift in currents or can swim. Their dreams of discovering Kopeis paradise appears to have come true. Yet now they are here these Polynesians has ambitious plans of reshaping the islands to their own design. They have a proud history of creating dazzling civilizations built on their command of agriculture and gardening. They have transported tropical plants and seeds straight from their homeland with expectations of cultivating New Zealand ’s wilderness. Dogs have arrived and the Kiori a Pacific rat species both are a dependable supply of meat for the Maori. In Maori culture the kiori is their respected and highly sacred possession. Other than a few bats the Maori and their domesticated animals are the first land mammals to set foot in New Zealand. They come from a rich culture. They are a highly creative and devout people. They plant the scared modi stone which hold the mana or life force of their homeland it is a potent symbol they believe will protect them from evil sprits. Like planting a national flag it represents the Maoris’ claim to New Zealand.

The story of the Maori and their occupation of New Zealand will follow the grand themes of mankind’s pioneering history played out in miniature on these isolated islands. It’s a story that gives insight into human nature, it’s a story that represents us all.

A world dominated by birds

So what is this place like, it has no large ground dwelling predators without them feeding and nesting on the ground is safe. Many of the bird have lost the power of flight. In this strange world birds dominate. Here no creatures fear people in their extreme isolation they have never encountered a two legged animal that poses a threat.

Many birds follow the life style normally associated with rabbits deer and mice. There are giants here too. Eleven species of moa patrol the islands. The largest of these species the giant moa is the tallest bird ever to have walked the earth. It is New Zealand equivalent of a giraffe.
Tuatara a living fossil with a primitive third eye, it appeared on earth long before the dinosaurs.
The giant weta’s ancestry travels even further back in time. At least two hundred million years. Their striking appearance and nocturnal habits lead the Maori to call them devils of the night.
When tuataras hunt wetas they engage in at primeval battle witnessed by the dinosaurs.
The Maori settlers take an immediate dislike to these reptiles believing them to be puma the father of ugly things.

The short-tailed bat is a zoological oddity; it is the only bat in the world that lives on the forest floor. Millions of years ago against fantastic odds they were blown here and are now castaways. They rarely use the wings that carried their ancestors here instead much like hedgehogs they scamper the forest floor digging for grubs. The Maori are to become highly superstitious of bats believing them to be harbingers of doom foretellers of death and disaster.

Death from the sky

The Maori soon discover their new found world is far larger than any islands their people have previously occupied. In fact New Zealand is a bigger landmass than all the Polynesian islands put together. Exploring the heavily forested interior it will not be long before they discover the islands top predator, a creature that will come to strike fear in the hearts of the Maori. The Haast eagle the largest and most deadly aerial predator the world has ever seen. It has a three metre wingspan, talons the size of tiger’s claws that will crush the neck of a giant moa, a bird twenty times its weight. This is a specialist in crippling two-legged prey. When it first sets eyes on humans this pre-adapted man killer sees fare game. It swoops down on unsuspecting victims at speeds up to eighty kilometers per hour. This monstrous raptor remains by its kill for days.

The Maori will speak of this giant carrying people away to feed its ravenous young. The haast eagle is terrifying that it will become a sacred totem of kite design. A bird mankind will fly to mark the recent death. The kite climbs to the spiritual world of the Maori ancestors and a toroba is a spiritual leader is a mediator between the natural and the super natural. He sends his spirit with the kite to commune with the gods. The terror bird constantly preys on Maori minds. So great is their fear the monster likeness appears on sacred stones. They dread is chilling cry and name it hokliori believing it call to be a portent of death and war.

Man the hunted becomes man the hunter

Our fear of monster like the Haast eagle is deeply ingrained in our psyche. It originates at the time our vulnerable ancestors were at the mercy of deadly predators. In Africa the birth place of humanity we acquired the basic instinct to fear. Go back three million years and it is more the case of man the hunted than man the hunter. This is the time of Austrolopithicus, the time early humans faced monster everyday of their lives. Life is nasty, brutish and short. Day to day survival is the only concern. As a consequent the brain has evolved only to deal with the present in a world where the future is a distant possibility.

At some point the tables begin to turn. This fragile creature gain the skills to make tools and weapons, the balance of power slowly tips in favour of the human species. Man the hunted becomes man the hunter. Africa is an unforgiving training ground. Over the millennia the animals learn to fear people. Man is becoming the continents to predator. One hundred thousand BC fully modern human are ready to leave their African cradle and start the odyssey across planet earth, an epic journey which will span five continents each one bringing a new set of challenges to survival.

Australia sixty five thousand year ago the time many scientists believe people first set foot on this pristine continent. A continent filled with weird and dangerous animals. Here people enter the land of fire, a land of monsters. The most fearsome reptile is the megalania, a giant predatory lizard that is the closest humans have ever come to meeting a dinosaur. A super-predator that can detect it prey from fifteen kilometers. Armed with murderous bacteria laden teeth that pierce and poison its victims to death.

People continue their perilous invasion of the planet walking into North America thirteen thousand years ago. Here they encounter the land of vicious cats and huge bears, the short faced bear the most powerful mammalian predator ever to have prowled the earth. This animal could even deter people from settling the continent.

Giant moas make a good feast

Twelve thousand years later in the land of the terror bird people once again live in fear of monsters but they also face another overwhelming challenge in this new world. The Maori settlers have underestimated just how different this climate is to their tropical Polynesian homeland. Winter is a new a bitter experience to people acclimatized to the warm air of the tropics. Most of their imported crop have perished they were ill suited to New Zealand’s cold winters.

These early years are bleak times the Maori are on the brink of starvation. They have to adapt quickly or die. The Maori resort to eating ground fern roots although the privileged are allowed to eat dogs and their sacred rats. But New Zealand has a food source beyond the size of anything ever encountered in Polynesia. It will not take long for the Maori to realize that the land they have colonized is a land of naïve animals. Isolation has left these creatures ill-prepared for the refined and deadly skills of the human hunter. The Maori develop a taste for one particular animal the giant moa. A monster bird that lays a bird that lays an egg one hundred times bigger than a hen’s. This great bird also yields succulent drumsticks the size of a cows leg. Unlike the giant animals that evolved in Africa the moa has no innate fear of people they are sitting ducks.
The moa becomes the life blood of the Maori, who after lean times are now prospering in this new world. With the moa providing so much of their energy the Maori population is flourishing.
The birds are expertly prepared and cooked in underground ovens but only the upper third of moa legs are eaten. The rest is dumped on giant rubbish heaps or fest to the burgeoning population of feral dogs.

In a large settlement like this forty people will consume ten thousand moa in only twenty years that is ten birds a week. Perhaps this is the Garden of Eden after all. But they are in fact creating a problem for themselves. The moa can only lay one egg a year and each chick take seven years to reach sexual maturity. The birds simply can’t breed fast enough to keep pace with the Maoris intensive hunting. They are doomed to extinction. Moa bones lie in shallow graves half a million will be butchered and eleven species wiped out in just over a hundred years.

The world will loose one of its most extraordinary animals. In the moa’s wake the giant Haast’s eagle will also disappear incapable of surviving once its main food supply the moa has gone. But that isn’t the end of this story. The Moari have unwittingly unleashed a monster in miniature an ecological time bomb. The kiori released by the Maori when they first arrived will eat twenty one ground dwelling bird species to extinction, birds found nowhere else in the world. But worse is still to come.

The Maori play just a small role in humanity’s total occupation of the planet. The human species is the most versatile animal on earth allowing us to endure, explore and raise great civilizations in every conceivable environment on the planet. It is our greatest triumph but since people like us left Africa about one hundred thousand years ago a bleak patter of mass extinctions has occurred around the world, a pattern that consistently coincides with the arrival of humans.
North America thirteen thousand years ago a Serengeti was it inevitable that human arrival spelt the demisal of all these great creatures or could the story have gone another way? Could North America in the twenty first century still be home to animals like the wooly mammoth, the Columbian mammoth and the mastodont? If so it should also be a land of saber-tooths, giant American scimitar cats and two species of camel. Should Florida today be home to the glyptodont a weird armadillo like creature the size of a VW beetle preyed upon by the jaguar?
As it turns out the first people into the Americas hunted thirty kinds of these huge animals to extinction in just a few hundred years.

Though out history humans have written a rolling wave of extinction , in the case of North America not so long after Columbus claimed he discovered the Americas European hunters arrived on the scene with rapidly repeating guns, w eapons far more deadly than Clovis or Maori spears. Once again history repeats itself only humans are becoming far more efficient killers.

A land of plenty become one of starvation

In Australia humans were prey to reptilian monsters to survive we had to defend ourselves, to survive we had to defend ourselves. We held fire. Fire put us in control with it we changed the landscape to suite our needs and I the process exterminated the monsters we met. New Zealand in the fourteen hundreds the Maori resort to desperate measures. Over-hunting means the Moa are becoming scarce. Fire is used to flush out the forests remaining birds. In relentless pursuit of the moa almost half the forest in the South Island is burnt to the ground. By the fifteenth century New Zealand’s natural resources are dwindling; a land of plenty has become a land of starvation. Tribes compete for depleting resources summertime is dedicated to the god of war. The Maori excel in the art of gorilla warfare. Their aggressive style mimics the style of the fantail the warrior bird in Maori mythology. Before long thousands of heavily defended forts known as Pas spring up stimulated by an upsurge in warfare, a direct response to rapidly declining natural resources. It is at this time the war dance design to instill terror in the enemy is first performed. It is called the Haka meaning stand your ground.

Alien species devastate the land

Soon the Maori were to meet a new enemy invaded from foreign lands appear on the horizon. Just as the Native Americans had to contend with the arrival of Columbus in 1492, the Maori just over two hundred and fifty years later in 1749 meet with another European Captain James Cook arrives aboard HMS Endeavor and a New Wave of colonization begins. Captain Cook claims he has discovered New Zealand and grabs its rich resources for the British crown. The British settlers will weep their own lethal blade across New Zealand. Loggers cut swathes of magnificent trees for ship building and agriculture. With the European settlers come lethal diseases, alcohol and guns, devastating for the Maori and the natural world of New Zealand. Like the Maori before them the Europeans arrive with the ambition of making a home away from home and they succeed, transforming dense forest into a green, pleasant land. As with the Maori and the Kiori they introduce yet more destructive alien plants and animals. The place the Maori called Land of the Long White Cloud will later be nicknamed Land of the Wrong White Crowd.
In the twenty first century sixteen million European sheep munch New Zealand’s imported landscape.

Across Polynesia the pattern continues alien species invaded and devastate every island they colonize. Hawaii deceptively beautiful yet over half the islands exotic plants are imported and have snuffed out the rare and exquisite plants that once lived here. Sixty percent of Hawaii’s have vanished succumbing to the ravenous appetites of European rats.

Alien species like rats when in their own environment rarely cause a problem as their numbers are held in check by their natural predators but let loose in foreign lands free from their predators, they can quickly reach plague proportions. Invaders often choose to snuggle up close to humans. They thrive in Urban and agricultural environments and just like humans they are competitive, versatile and eager to travel.

Humans have become the most successful invasive species. Like weeds we have spread unchecked across the planet. Our population growth has been exponential almost bacterial. Six billion and increasing the human species in insatiable consuming the natural world’s resources at an unsustainable rate, our only recourse has been to improve the natural order. Warping and homogenizing nature into monoculture. Mankind today just as the Maori before fights over dwindling reserves, in the race the grabs earths resources the wave of extinction continues to roll. It is likely that half the earth plant and animal species will vanish by the end to the century.
The Sumatran Rhinoceros is officially classified the living dead, a prehistoric animal with no future. Habitat destruction and over hunting means extinction is a certainty. Is population has plummeted to such critically low levels it can never recover. What you see might as well be a computer generated animation.

Throughout our long struggle we met monsters but once humans learnt to overcome them did we become the monster?

The Maori story may offer a glimmer of hope that humans are capable of redressing the balance. There is evidence that soon after the Moa became extinct the Maori succeeded in looking beyond their immediate needs tot eh fate of their world. Nature reserves were set aside a fiercely guarded. The tohuma human or wise man closed the forest to bird hunters and the land became pana meaning sacred. Animal and plant numbers began of recover. Can the same change of outlook happen in the twenty first century on a global scale, only if man is prepared to learn the lessons of time?

Easter Island the remotest scrap of land on Earth, lost in the Pacific Ocean. Here proud monoliths lie in neglect abandoned by a Polynesian society in ruins. The forests felled the birds gone the soil eroded by farming and the wind.

When the Polynesian arrived here in four hundred AD the island was covered in dense forest steadily was cleared to plant great gardens build canoes and erect these magnificent statues. Within a thousand years a culture that created the only written Polynesian language vanished collapsing into warfare cannibalism and environmental ruin.

Here is the paradox of humans we are capable of such heroic and triumphant creations and yet we are also highly capable of perpetrating such horror on the rest of the natural world.


It is 65 000 BC

A journey back in time, no human eye has ever seen this land or the extraordinary creatures that roam here. When the first people reach this continent in prehistory they found an immense wilderness ravaged by drought and scorched by fire. This is a land where human survival will be tested to the very limits.

Imagine what life will be like for these first Australians. In this harsh strange world, human ingenuity will be pitched against predators which are a throwback to the age of the dinosaurs.

Aboriginal origins deep in the mists of time

Aboriginal myths speak of a time thousands years ago when the first ancestors came from the sea. These beliefs are echoed by scientific theory claiming that humans came across the sea from Timor, as much as six-five thousand years ago, arriving on the northern coast of Australia – a new world.

What ever their origins the coast is where it all started long ago.

This family are people like you and me they have the same feelings and intelligence. Highly skilled they have a complex language. They make fire and craft fine tools.

A nasty find on the beach

Jabarola is a great hunter. It must feel good the only people in a pristine world, an ancient Eden but beach combing in prehistory can throw up nasty surprises.

Now Japangadi realizes they are not the first people here after all. Not only that but this was the victim of a violent death but by whom or what. It makes them realize how small and vulnerable they are in this unknown world.

For humans night is always a fearful time. Fresh from their discovery of the skull they will not dare sleep without a fire and a night watchman.

Gathering food along the shore of a new land

The north of ancient Australia is cover in dense dry jungle but around the coastal fringe it harbours a rich supply of food if you know where to find it. As these are a coastal people they certainly experience to find all their needs from the animals and plants of shore and coastal forest.

The women and child gather most of the family food supplies men hunt for bigger game but over all they are rather less effective.

Although this is a new land many of the plants are similar to those of the islands from which they came. This one is medicinal. There are many things that they do not know. Australia is home to more species of venomous snake that anywhere else in the world. As yet they do not realize the full dangers. A bite from a brown snake means a horrible death. They learn by trial and error. Who first discovered that green ants taste of lemon?

One thing these coastal people know all about is the threat from giant salt water crocodile. Despite their immense size seven meters long and a ton in weight these predators stalk the water ways unseen. Their splashing might attract a crocodile’s attention by waterlilies are excellent food well worth the risk. Jabarola the most sharp eyed hunter takes guard.

The men go hunting

When cockatoos spot a threat they let each other know but are they startled by their first sight of humans or by something else.

Although the hunting party don’t yet know this bird well they pick up on the alarm calls and look out for possible dangers.

Ancient Australia harbours some of the strangest animals ever to walk this planet and none stranger than Geniornus, the demon duck of doom. A over two hundred and fifty kilograms with massively powerful legs, this is a threat but is it meat-eater or plant-eater. Guess wrong and you are dead.

Whatever the dangers there is a pressing need to find food so they cautiously continue to hunt. If they can make even one substantial kill it will provide the family group with protein for days to come.

But others have already claimed this area. Over the years many waves of hunter gatherers have made the same journey from the nearby coastal islands seeking new hunting territory. Hunting rights are fiercely defended.

Out gunned Japangadi’s face a decision stay and fight and risk more losses or move.

A land scorched by fire

For at least two million years Australia has been a dry land where electric storms set tinderbox vegetation ablaze. These fires rage across hundred of kilometers for weeks on end and travel at the speed of the wind, faster than a man can run.

Forced from the coast Japangadi’s family move inland searching for their own hunting territory. It is a journey into the unknown. They have never met anything on the scale of Australian bush fire. Smoke the first sign of what is to come. Get caught down wind and you are in big trouble. Their only chance is to find an area where there is less dry vegetation. That is where the fire burns weakest and the only safe place to break through the wall of flame.

Natural fires on this scale happen once only every thirty to forty years. The trees and forest will grow back it will just be a matter of time.

Search for water in a parched land

Forced further into the unknown these early explorers have no idea of the immense scale of the land they walk. Although they don’t know it yet fire will become a critical part of there lives but for now they simply need to find water.

In this parched continent finding water has been a problem for all life for millions of years. Flocking birds can easily cover huge distance from waterhole to waterhole and are a clue of standing water nearby. Japarola and Japangadi know that the birds almost certainly mean water amongst the trees but there is a problem. Here there is every chance it will attract deadly creatures too.

Despite their thirst the man are cautious and leave the family behind to follow in relative safety. They are moving into a dense jungle of palms and vines. These jungles are common and contain many fruit bearing plants but that is not all.

By stalking up wind the men reduce the chance of an animal smelling their approach. Neither creature had ever met, both need to assess the dangers of the other. It is a vast animal it could be dangerous but it doesn’t look like a predator – herbivore after all.

At two tons Diprotodon is the biggest marsupial ever to have live. These clumsy giants lurch about in vine jungles constantly eating fruits and leaves. What caused one of their number to charge so furiously. Is there something more sinister hidden in the vine jungle?

Confident the nearby herd of Diprotodon is not a threat after all Japangadi feels it is safe enough to approach the water’s edge. This far inland they feel they have little to fear from salt water crocs and throwing stones at the water will spook any other smaller predators in the area. The decision is that it is safe.

Tracks! Huge foot prints in the sand. This was no crocodile and the tracks are fresh. Somewhere nearby there is another giant creature but what?

Something in the darkness

Millions of bats take to the air. The creatures of the dark are on the move. If the day revealed strange giants what might be lurking out there in the gathering chill of darkness.

As the noised fades Japarola thinks the danger is gone. In a way he is right this furtive giant is not a creature of the night. Its body is too cold and sluggish to hunt – for now!

By day a gruesome find

With the new day in an Australian summer the oppressive heat quickly returns. Unsettled by the tracks at the water’s edge and the sinister noises in the night the family keep moving.

Out noses are insensitive but even so we are capable of smelling death in the warm air. A fresh kill an adult Diprotodon brutally mauled. What monster animal had the power to do this? With the stench of carrion their concern is that predators or scavengers will return to the kill.

The family has no option but to seek safer hunting grounds leaving behind the land of the giants, if they can. In fact Diprotodon is unlikely to stray far from the vine jungles and water.

Life in a sun-baked world

Ancient Australia is covered in a patch work of different vegetation types. Open grassy country like this is far less common than it will be n the present day. The further inland they go the hotter it becomes. The desert here is a furnace temperatures here can reach forty degrees centigrade. Without shade the heat saps energy and the dry air sucks water from your skin. A world of mirage.

In this open country there are tracks from creatures they haven’t seen before. They are the first humans to see a red kangaroo, a weird and seemingly misshapen beast. Yet this odd hopping gait is superbly efficient for good reason.

In this sun-baked world rainfall can never be relied on it could be a huge distance to the next water hole. The creatures here are adapted to conserve both energy and water.

Kangaroos and emus are grazers. They lead nomadic lives in open country, endlessly searching for grass and water. They are less widespread than they will in the present day.

Learning from these animals will help these people to survive here but for now all they have to work out is that this is game they can safely tackle. Following the trail of the kangaroos they are learning bush craft, picking up skills that will be honed over the centuries to make aboriginal tracker legendary.

Crouching one behind the other carefully coordinated as one, the hunters appear as a single smaller animal to the quarry. This kangaroo has never seen a human before. It has no idea that an animal can hurl a lethal projectile to strike from thin air.

A delicious meal
Here at last is a perfect source of fresh meat. After month living hand to mouth and on the run this is riches indeed!

Cooking kangaroo will become a strict ritual which celebrates their importance to aborigines. The animal is cooked whole in its skin to retain juices. It fur is beaten off and the meat is often eaten extremely rare. It will be a staple of aboriginal desert diet. So respected would the eating of kangaroo become that braking the proper etiquette of eating will be punishable by tribal law.

The kangaroos had encountered for the first time a formidable new predator. The humans had found a feast.

Bush fires are an ally

Living in this place you never know what will happen next. Even in the desert the sky can crackle to the beat of electric storms. Fire here burns at over a thousand degrees. There is only one simple lesson to learn stand up wind. Now the family is no longer so much at the mercy of Australia’s savage elements and they are to make another discovery. In the wake of a fire the scorched earth is easy to pick over a place where you can easily find burrows of tunneling creatures and already barbequed remains. Bushfire has become an ally. Fire rages here for good reason despite the lightening storm this is still a land of drought.

Back to the dangers of a better watered land

In the desert they found a safer place with plentiful food but there is another problem the seasons are changing and becoming increasingly dry. Rain may not fall again for year on end. The last drops of water are burning off under the blazing sun. They are simply running out of time.

In the future their descendants will learn of hidden water supplies the secret of desert survival. But now without that knowledge they face no choice they must face the long trek towards river country where they can find standing water. It is a walk that will lead them back into the heart of danger. After week spent kicking dust, weary feet long for the cooling rush of running water.

Grabbed without warning by a giant salt water crocodile a human has no chance. In prehistoric Australia all the great waterways support a great number of crocodiles. It is a continent where reptilian predators are ever present, a country where you drop your guard at great peril.

Since the weather is seasonal the cold deepens as winter draws on and the wildlife becomes less active. For the people it is proving hard to find so despite the threat of deadly predators the cautious search for food goes on.

A mighty lizard

They never know what snack they might stumble across in the grass but these are unwelcome signs. Large dropping scattered on a patch that has been used regularly.

Some of the group has spread out unaware of any threat. What creature uses this place and how recently. Regurgitated bones suggest a predator, danger for the unwary. This looks like a basking site. The droppings are fresh. A large carnivorous animal cannot be far away.

A giant bird defending its nest is a formidable foe but something else has distracted it from the chase. It is time to leave!

Megalania six metres long the largest lizard ever to have lived. Its saliva is riddled with toxic bacteria, a bite from this creature spell certain death. It is short sighted but it has another method for detecting prey. Like the Komodo dragon it tastes the air with its forked tongue using an acute sense of smell to track down food from as far as fifteen kilometers away.

The scent of man is new to the reptile it is on the scent of more familiar fare. The instinct to protect eggs is strong but not that strong.

Humans are unique animals because of our ability to communicate ideas and complex information but you need more than speech to survive it take knowledge and experience to tackle deadly threats. This is a wilderness where terrors lurk and tensions run high but the aggressive display of a frilled lizard is nothing to be afraid of.

By now even the simple act of drink water has become a deadly task. For the early settlers the need to find a source of water that isn’t patrolled by monsters has become critical for survival.

Perhaps shallow water sources in dense woodland might be safer. Even so it is perilous for a child to wander off alone unnoticed. Nangala knows she has little to fear from a lumbering Diprtodon but they are not alone. Megalania is an ambush specialist with a brutal bite one that causes blood loss and poisoning so severe that even two tons creatures are at risk. Never stray close to an attacking predator you become competition.

Jabarola is killed.

Humans have always believed in the spirits of the dead. The keening ritual or sorry camp may last several weeks. It is a time to mourn the departed and speed their spirit’s return to the ancestors. In grief people need time on their own.

The hunter becomes the hunted

The parenti, it will become Australia’s largest lizard. Now in prehistory it is a minnow. During the day this is a fast moving aggressive creature but in the cold hours of dawn the reptile’s blood is too cold for it to move and if a small reptile is too cold to move could Japangadi have found a chink in the armour of its bigger relative the Megalania. Is the cool of dawn to become a time of strength for humans, a time when the vast predatory Megalamia will immobile?

It is these people ability to learn and plan that will transform them into a super predator. Armed with new knowledge Japangadi will fight back.

In the morning cold the hunters work as a team lighting the scrub upwind. The fire gathers pace with the morning breeze. By setting large scale bush fires man has discovered a way to defend himself against the most powerful of predators.

Fires changes the Australian landscape

Evidence suggests that Australian fires became more frequent some sixty thousand years ago. Before man’s arrival all fires had natural causes. Was the most likely change people burning the hostile bush for their own security?

There are many plants that can’t survive regular burning in particular the more delicate types of tree but some plants always grow back the fastest to return are the grasses. New tender grass shoots attract grazing herbivores. Kangaroos travel hundred of kilometers looking for such fresh growth. Burning not only clares the ground and defends humans against predators it also changes the vegetation to attract game for hunting. At some point humans must have realized that fire was more than just a weapon is was a tool that could alter the land to their needs.

Over the millennia regular burning has dramatically changed the vegetation. Most of the vine jungles where Diprotodon browsed have disappeared. Without suitable food these browsers were doomed along with their huge predators. At some point in the last forty thousand years they simply vanished.

Many will argue that humans had no part in these extinctions. Today grazing kangaroo are widespread. They are the symbol of Australia, winners in a world where fire resistant plants have replaced ancient forests. Was it fire in the hands of man that created the land we see today and burnt the monster of Australia to extinction?


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!


ArchaeologyWho Were The First Americans?
They may have been a lot like Kennewick Man, whose hotly disputed bones are helping rewrite our earliest history. An exclusive inside look


Mar. 13, 2006

It was clear from the moment Jim Chatters first saw the partial skeleton that no crime had been committed--none recent enough to be prosecutable, anyway. Chatters, a forensic anthropologist, had been called in by the coroner of Benton County, Wash., to consult on some bones found by two college students on the banks of the Columbia River, near the town of Kennewick. The bones were obviously old, and when the coroner asked for an opinion, Chatters' off-the-cuff guess, based on the skull's superficially Caucasoid features, was that they probably belonged to a settler from the late 1800s. • Then a CT scan revealed a stone spear point embedded in the skeleton's pelvis, so Chatters sent a bit of finger bone off to the University of California at Riverside for radiocarbon dating. When the results came back, it was clear that his estimate was dramatically off the mark. The bones weren't 100 or even 1,000 years old. They belonged to a man who had walked the banks of the Columbia more than 9,000 years ago.
In short, the remains that came to be known as Kennewick Man were almost twice as old as the celebrated Iceman discovered in 1991 in an Alpine glacier, and among the oldest and most complete skeletons ever found in the Americas. Plenty of archaeological sites date back that far, or nearly so, but scientists have found only about 50 skeletons of such antiquity, most of them fragmentary. Any new find can thus add crucial insight into the ongoing mystery of who first colonized the New World--the last corner of the globe to be populated by humans. Kennewick Man could cast some much needed light on the murky questions of when that epochal migration took place, where the first Americans originally came from and how they got here.

U.S. government researchers examined the bones, but it would take almost a decade for independent scientists to get a good look at the skeleton. Although it was found in the summer of 1996, the local Umatilla Indians and four other Columbia Basin tribes almost immediately claimed it as ancestral remains under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (see box), demanding that the skeleton be reburied without the desecration of scientific study. A group of researchers sued, starting a legal tug-of-war and negotiations that ended only last summer, with the scientists getting their first extensive access to the bones. And now, for the first time, we know the results of that examination.


It was clearly worth the wait. The scientific team that examined the skeleton was led by forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History. He has worked with thousands of historic and prehistoric skeletons, including those of Jamestown colonists, Plains Indians and Civil War soldiers. He helped identify remains from the Branch Davidian compound in Texas, the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon and mass graves in Croatia.

In this case, Owsley and his team were able to nail down or make strong guesses about Kennewick Man's physical attributes. He stood about 5 ft. 9 in. tall and was fairly muscular. He was clearly right-handed: the bones of the right arm are markedly larger than those of the left. In fact, says Owsley, "the bones are so robust that they're bent," the result, he speculates, of muscles built up during a lifetime of hunting and spear fishing.

An examination of the joints showed that Kennewick Man had arthritis in the right elbow, both knees and several vertebrae but that it wasn't severe enough to be crippling. He had suffered plenty of trauma as well. "One rib was fractured and healed," says Owsley, "and there is a depression fracture on his forehead and a similar indentation on the left side of the head." None of those fractures were fatal, though, and neither was the spear jab. "The injury looks healed," says Owsley. "It wasn't a weeping abscess." Previous estimates had Kennewick Man's age as 45 to 55 when he died, but Owsley thinks he may have been as young as 38. Nothing in the bones reveals what caused his demise.

But that's just the beginning of an impressive catalog of information that the scientists have added to what was already known--all the more impressive given the limitations placed on the team by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for the skeleton because the Corps has jurisdiction over the federal land on which it was found. The researchers had to do nearly all their work at the University of Washington's Burke Museum, where Kennewick Man has been housed in a locked room since 1998, under the watchful eyes of representatives of both the Corps and the museum, and according to a strict schedule that had to be submitted in advance. "We only had 10 days to do everything we wanted to do," says Owsley. "It was like a choreographed dance."

Perhaps the most remarkable discovery: Kennewick Man had been buried deliberately. By looking at concentrations of calcium carbonate left behind as underground water collected on the underside of the bones and then evaporated, scientists can tell that he was lying on his back with his feet rolled slightly outward and his arms at his side, the palms facing down--a position that could hardly have come about by accident. And there was no evidence that animal scavengers had been at the body.

The researchers could also tell that Kennewick Man had been buried parallel to the Columbia, with his left side toward the water: the bones were abraded on that side by water that eroded the bank and eventually dumped him out. It probably happened no more than six months before he was discovered, says team member Thomas Stafford, a research geochemist based in Lafayette, Colo. "It wouldn't have been as much as a year," he says. "The bones would have been more widely dispersed."

The deliberate burial makes it especially frustrating for scientists that the Corps in 1998 dumped hundreds of tons of boulders, dirt and sand on the discovery site--officially as part of a project to combat erosion along the Columbia River, although some scientists suspect it was also to avoid further conflict with the local tribes. Kennewick Man's actual burial pit had already been washed away by the time Stafford visited the site in December 1997, but a careful survey might have turned up artifacts that could have been buried with him. And if his was part of a larger burial plot, there's now no way for archaeologists to locate any contemporaries who might have been interred close by.

Still, the bones have more secrets to reveal. They were never fossilized, and a careful analysis of their carbon and nitrogen composition, yet to be performed, should reveal plenty about Kennewick Man's diet. Says Stafford: "We can tell if he ate nothing but plants, predominantly meat or a mixture of the two." The researchers may be able to determine whether he preferred meat or fish. It's even possible that DNA could be extracted and analyzed someday.

While the Corps insisted that most of the bones remain in the museum, it allowed the researchers to send the skull fragments and the right hip, along with its embedded spear point, to a lab in Lincolnshire, Ill., for ultrahigh-resolution CT scanning. The process produced virtual slices just 0.39 mm (about 0.02 in.) thick--"much more detailed than the ones made of King Tut's mummy," says Owsley. The slices were then digitally recombined into 3-D computer images that were used to make exact copies out of plastic. The replica of the skull has already enabled scientists to clear up a popular misconception that dates back to the initial reports of the discovery.


Thanks to Chatters' mention of Caucasoid features back in 1996, the myth that Kennewick Man might have been European never quite died out. The reconstructed skull confirms that he was not--and Chatters never seriously thought otherwise. "I tried my damnedest to curtail that business about Caucasians in America early," he says. "I'm not talking about today's Caucasians. I'm saying they had 'Caucasoid-like' characteristics. There's a big difference." Says Owsley: "[Kennewick Man] is not North American looking, and he's not tied in to Siberian or Northeast Asian populations. He looks more Polynesian or more like the Ainu [an ethnic group that is now found only in northern Japan but in prehistoric times lived throughout coastal areas of eastern Asia] or southern Asians."

That assessment will be tested more rigorously when researchers compare Kennewick Man's skull with databases of several thousand other skulls, both modern and ancient. But provisionally, at least, the evidence fits in with a revolutionary new picture that over the past decade has utterly transformed anthropologists' long-held theories about the colonization of the Americas.


The conventional answer to that question dates to the early 1930s, when stone projectile points that were nearly identical began to turn up at sites across the American Southwest. They suggested a single cultural tradition that was christened Clovis, after an 11,000-year-old-plus site near Clovis, N.M. And because no older sites were known to exist in the Americas, scientists assumed that the Clovis people were the first to arrive. They came, according to the theory, no more than 12,000 years B.P. (before the present), walking across the dry land that connected modern Russia and Alaska at the end of the last ice age, when sea level was hundreds of feet lower than it is today. From there, the earliest immigrants would have made their way south through an ice-free corridor that geologists know cut through what are now the Yukon and Mackenzie river valleys, then along the eastern flank of the Canadian Rockies to the continental U.S. and on to Latin America.

That's the story textbooks told for decades--and it's almost certainly wrong. The first cracks in the theory began appearing in the 1980s, when archaeologists discovered sites in both North and South America that seemed to predate the Clovis culture. Then came genetic and linguistic analyses suggesting that Asian and Native American populations diverged not 12,000 years ago but closer to 30,000 years ago. Studies of ancient skulls hinted that the earliest Americans in South America had different ancestors from those in the North. Finally, it began to be clear that artifacts from Northeast Asia dating from just before the Clovis period and South American artifacts of comparable age didn't have much in common with Clovis artifacts.

Those discoveries led to all sorts of competing theories, but few archaeologists or anthropologists took them seriously until 1997. In that year, a blue-ribbon panel of researchers took a hard look at evidence presented by Tom Dillehay, then at the University of Kentucky, from a site he had been excavating in Monte Verde, Chile. After years of skepticism, the panel finally affirmed his claim that the site proved humans had lived there 12,500 years ago. "Monte Verde was the turning point," says David Meltzer, a professor of prehistory at Southern Methodist University in Dallas who was on the panel. "It broke the Clovis barrier."

Why? Because if people were living in southern Chile 12,500 years ago, they must have crossed over from Asia considerably earlier, and that means they couldn't have used the ice-free inland corridor; it didn't yet exist. "You could walk to Fairbanks," says Meltzer. "It was getting south from Fairbanks that was a problem." Instead, many scientists now believe, the earliest Americans traveled down the Pacific coast--possibly even using boats. The idea has been around for a long time, but few took it seriously before Monte Verde.

One who did was Jon Erlandson, an archaeologist at the University of Oregon, whose work in Daisy Cave on San Miguel Island in California's Channel Island chain uncovered stone cutting tools that date to about 10,500 years B.P., proving that people were traveling across the water at least that early. More recently, researchers at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History redated the skeletal remains of an individual dubbed Arlington Springs Woman, found on another of the Channel Islands, pushing her age back to about 11,000 years B.P. Farther south, on Cedros Island off the coast of Baja California, U.C. at Riverside researchers found shell middens--heaps of kitchen waste, essentially--and other materials that date back to the same period as Daisy Cave. Down in the Andes, researchers have found coastal sites with shell middens dating to about 10,500 years B.P.

And in a discovery that offers a sharp contrast to the political hoopla over Kennewick Man, scientists and local Tlingit and Haida tribes cooperated so that researchers could study skeletal remains found in On Your Knees Cave on Prince of Wales Island in southern Alaska. "There's no controversy," says Erlandson, who has investigated cave sites in the same region. "It hardly ever hits the papers." Of about the same vintage as Kennewick Man and found at around the same time, the Alaskan bones, along with other artifacts in the area, lend strong support to the coastal-migration theory. "Isotopic analysis of the human remains," says James Dixon, the University of Colorado at Boulder anthropologist who found them, "demonstrates that the individual--a young male in his early 20s--was raised primarily on a diet of seafood."


Erlandson has found one more line of evidence that supports the migration theory. While working with a group of marine ecologists, he was startled to learn that there were nearly continuous kelp forests growing just offshore all the way from Japan in the western Pacific to Alaska and down the West Coast to Baja California, then (with a gap in the tropics) off the coast of South America. In a paper presented three weeks ago, he outlined the potential importance to the earliest Americans of what he calls the "kelp highway."

"Most of the early sites on the west coast are found adjacent to kelp forests, even in Peru and Chile," he says. "The thing about kelp forests is they're extremely productive." They not only provide abundant food, from fish, shellfish, seals and otters that thrive there, but they also reduce wave energy, making it easier to navigate offshore waters. By contrast, the inland route along the ice-free corridor would have presented travelers with enormous ecological variability, forcing them to adapt to new conditions and food sources as they traveled.

Unfortunately, the strongest evidence for the coastal theory lies offshore, where ancient settlements would have been submerged by rising seas over the past 10,000 years or so. "Artifacts have been found on the continental shelves," says Dixon, "so I'm quite confident there's material out there." But you need submersible craft to search, and, he says, that type of research is a very hard sell to the people who own and operate that kind of equipment. "The maritime community is interested in shipwrecks and treasures. A little bit of charcoal and some rocks on the ocean floor is not very exciting to them."


Even if the earliest Americans traveled down the coast, that doesn't mean they couldn't have come through the interior as well. Could there have been multiple waves of migration along a variety of different routes? One way scientists have tried to get a handle on that question is through genetics. Their studies have focused on two different types of evidence extracted from the cells of modern Native Americans: mitochondrial DNA, which resides outside the nuclei of cells and is passed down only through the mother; and the Y chromosome, which is passed down only from father to son. Since DNA changes subtly over the generations, it serves as a sort of molecular clock, and by measuring differences between populations, you can gauge when they were part of the same group.

Or at least you can try. Those molecular clocks are still rather crude. "The mitochondrial DNA signals a migration up to 30,000 years ago," says research geneticist Michael Hammer of the University of Arizona. "But the Y suggests that it occurred within the last 20,000 years." That's quite a discrepancy. Nevertheless, Hammer believes that the evidence is consistent with a single pulse of migration.

Theodore Schurr, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Laboratory of Molecular Anthropology, thinks there could have been many migrations. "It looks like there may have been one primary migration, but certain genetic markers are more prevalent in North America than in South America," Schurr explains, suggesting secondary waves. At this point, there's no definitive proof of either idea, but the evidence and logic lean toward multiple migrations. "If one migration made it over," Dillehay, now at Vanderbilt University, asks rhetorically, "why not more?"


Genetics also points to an original homeland for the first Americans--or at least it does to some researchers. "Skeletal remains are very rare, but the genetic evidence suggests they came from the Lake Baikal region" of Russia, says anthropologist Ted Goebel of the University of Nevada at Reno, who has worked extensively in that part of southern Siberia. "There is a rich archaeological record there," he says, "beginning about 40,000 years ago." Based on what he and Russian colleagues have found, Goebel speculates that there were two northward migratory pulses, the first between 28,000 and 20,000 years ago and a second sometime after 17,000 years ago. "Either one could have led to the peopling of the Americas," he says.

Like just about everything else about the first Americans, however, this idea is open to vigorous debate. The Clovis-first theory is pretty much dead, and the case for coastal migration appears to be getting stronger all the time. But in a field so recently liberated from a dogma that has kept it in an intellectual straitjacket since Franklin Roosevelt was President, all sorts of ideas are suddenly on the table. Could prehistoric Asians, for example, have sailed directly across the Pacific to South America? That may seem far-fetched, but scientists know that people sailing from Southeast Asia reached Australia some 60,000 years ago. And in 1947 the explorer Thor Heyerdahl showed it was possible to travel across the Pacific by raft in the other direction.
At least a couple of archaeologists, including Dennis Stanford of the Smithsonian, even go so far as to suggest that the earliest Americans came from Europe, not Asia, pointing to similarities between Clovis spear points and blades from France and Spain dating to between 20,500 and 17,000 years B.P. (Meltzer, Goebel and another colleague recently published a paper calling this an "outrageous hypothesis," but Dillehay thinks it's possible.)

All this speculation is spurring a new burst of scholarship about locations all over the Americas. The Topper site in South Carolina, Cactus Hill in Virginia, Pennsylvania's Meadowcroft, the Taima-Taima waterhole in Venezuela and several rock shelters in Brazil all seem to be pre-Clovis. Dillehay has found several sites in Peru that date to between 10,000 and 11,000 years B.P. but have no apparent links to the Clovis culture. "They show a great deal of diversity," he says, "suggesting different early sources of cultural development in the highlands and along the coast."

It's only by studying those sites in detail and continuing to search for more evidence on land and offshore that these questions can be fully answered. And as always, the most valuable evidence will be the earthly remains of the ancient people themselves. In one 10-day session, Kennewick Man has added immeasurably to anthropologists' store of knowledge, and the next round of study is already under way. If scientists treat those bones with respect and Native American groups acknowledge the importance of unlocking their secrets, the mystery of how and when the New World was populated may finally be laid to rest.

Coming To America

For decades, scientists thought the New World was populated by migrants from Asia who wandered down the center of the continent about 12,000 years ago. New discoveries are pushing that theory out to sea. Three views on how humans populated the Americas

  • COASTAL Recent finds at Daisy Cave, Calif., and Monte Verde, Chile, point to bands of people moving down the Pacific coast of North and South America much earlier, perhaps 30,000 years ago
  • OVERLAND Discoveries at Clovis, N.M., led to the theory that a single human culture moved into the Americas down the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains about 12,000 years ago
  • ATLANTIC Artifacts found in South Carolina have led some archaeologists to speculate that early migrants might have arrived on the East Coast from Europe, although the evidence remains in dispute Select archaeological sites*
  • Other artifacts found Ushki Lake RUSSIA 11,000 B.P. • Human remains found On Your Knees Cave ALASKA 9,818 B.P. • Human remains found Kennewick WASH. 9,400 B.P.
  • Other artifacts found Daisy Cave CALIF. 10,500 B.P.
  • Other artifacts found Cedros Island MEXICO 11,000 B.P.
  • Other artifacts found Folsom N.M. 10,490 B.P.
  • Other artifacts found Clovis N.M. 11,200 B.P. • Dates in dispute Meadowcroft PA. 14,250 B.P. • Dates in dispute Cactus Hill VA. 15,070 B.P. • Dates in dispute Topper S.C. 15,200 B.P. • Dates in dispute Taima-Taima VENEZUELA 13,000 B.P.
  • Other artifacts found Pedra Furada BRAZIL 47,000 B.P.
  • Other artifacts found Lapa do Boquete BRAZIL Up to 12,070 B.P.
  • Other artifacts found Tibit COLOMBIA 11,740 B.P.
  • Other artifacts found Quebrada Jaguay PERU 10,500 B.P.
  • Other artifacts found Monte Verde CHILE 12,500 B.P.
  • Human remains found Palli Aike CHILE 8,640 B.P.

Tools in the search ARCHAEOLOGY Skeletons like Kennewick Man are rare. More often scientists study and date other indications of human activity -- remains of butchered animals, stone tools, spear points or even bits of burned charcoal. Unfortunately, such artifacts may never be found along coastal migration routes -- they're now under water

GENETICS Scientists use markers in DNA samples from indigenous peoples in North and South America to figure out when populations diverged from each other. DNA comparisons suggest the first Americans may have diverged from groups in the Lake Baikal area of what is now Russia as early as 26,000 years ago

LINGUISTICS By studying native words and grammar, scientists can establish links and infer the amount of time required for different languages to evolve from a common origin. As of 1492, there were an estimated 1,000 languages in the Americas that may have developed from the original migrants

Migration milestones

  1. 30,000 B.P.* Beginning of last North American ice age. Mitochondrial-DNA studies indicate the earliest possible migration
  2. 25,000 Approximate opening of Bering land bridge between Asia and North America
  3. 20,000 Earliest migration date, according to Y-chromosome studies • 15,000 Evidence of humans in South America Glacial melting floods Bering land bridge • 10,000 End of last ice age in North America Kennewick Man lives in Pacific Northwest • 5,000 Dawn of Central American cultures such as Olmec and Maya • Present

*Dates are in radiocarbon years "before the present," a scientific standard meaning "before 1950"

—With reporting by With reporting by Dan Cray/Los Angeles


Great work Karen, yes I sought of set this up, since I knew the overkill hypothesis was a hotly debated issue, I like the fact that you did describe the contrasting views of the two camps with peer-reviewed references, there is a similar situation in Europe – with the balance being that the changing climate was hugely influential in the mega-fauna extinctions, whereas the situation in Australia and especially New Zealand tends to sway to increasing support for an overkill hypothesis. In particular New Zealand being the last relatively large land mass to be populated with people showed no extinctions until the arrival of the Polynesians and is the most concrete case for human induced habitat change and overkill.

I think you were right – North America was nothing like the productivity of Serengeti when Clovis man arrived. Indeed one problem is we still do not accurately know who the earliest North American was? It does appear that the uniquely manufactured Clovian tools have only been around for some 11 000 to 13 000 years in North America – but see latter the South American evidence. This is actually quite critical, because at least in Europe and Asia the climate was changing and forest and tundra were replacing grasslands which were the preferred habitat of the mammoths. By 12 000 years ago the once widespread mammoths had isolated into several widely dispersed populations. Smaller and isolate population always puts stress on the evolutionary survival (subject to minimum viable population), but it would also mean that actually they were already likely quite rare in the environment when the Clovis people arrived.

One expert view on the existence of the overkill in Europe is that of Adrian Lister, Professor of Palaeobiology, University College, London who stated to the BBC that…

"our data suggests that the mammoth's range splintered into several small Populations hundreds or thousands of kilometres apart, a situation which - as is well known from endangered species today - leaves the animals very vulnerable to further stress. It is possible that they then succumbed to a mixture of further warming, and hunting by prehistoric humans, the last populations petering out one By one between about 11,000 and 4,000 years ago. Although humans may have played a role, this is a far cry from theories that suggest that hunting wiped out millions of animals across the entire original range of the species." [1]

If the mammoths were becoming rarer it is likely that other species might also become rarer – especially plains-living species such as the woolly rhinoceros, and even the giant deer (Irish elk). Obviously as they became rarer so would the predators including the saber-toothed cats. Of these latter predators – there appeared to be a great variety of them and that they had evolved some 10 times independently [2] only to go extinct each time as their prey items declined and those extinctions were unlikely to be human aided. The last saber-toothed cat lived 11 000 years ago. Accepting the 11 000 to 13 000 years ago arrival of humans to North America then I would speculate that it probably would have been quite sparsely populated with animals, frozen tundra and coniferous forest is not an ideal environment for lots of herds of mega fauna. The most common animals would probably have been the musk ox and reindeer or caribou (same animal).

If humans had arrived earlier than the presumably mongoloid Indian “Clovian Cultures” as suggested through Mitochondrial DNA – then who were these people? Earlier people of assumed “Caucasoid” have lead to the erroneous interpretation that the first Americans were possibly white! [3]. This is clearly wrong and although Kennewick Man has been described as Caucasoid he is rather better description as not being of recent mongoloid origin. This person’s ancestry was mostly likely linked to the Ainu of Northern Japan, who are also not mongoloid and indeed share certain characteristics with the Caucasoid such as their general hairiness, but otherwise are quite distinct phenotypically [4]. Reconstructions of Kennewick Man also suggested he looked more similar to people from Papua Guinea [5]

To complicate matters more at Monte Verde in southern Chile human sites have been positively dated to 12 500 years ago [6], but some archaeologists have argued that some human artifacts date to 33 000 years ago [7]. The use of genetic markers for Y chromosome do not date North Americans nearly as early as this (Karen can you check in the Spencer Wells book here, but I think he put it down to about 12 000 years) but did not include South Americans. Llinguistic analyses suggesting that Asian and Native North American populations diverged closer to 30,000 years ago [6]. To complicate matters even more South America Indians are usually considered to have different ancestors from North American Indians [6] and are not especially closely related and some people have even suggested that Polynesians came from a South America ancestry but this is not widely accepted. I have found one reference to a colonization of America dating back to 30 000 years ago based on mtDNA – but this time they are suggesting a possible route across the northern Atlantic [8] explaining a closer ancestry to European people. This research is based on the shared Haplogroup X (series of alleles at specific locations on a chromosome). Herein lies some interesting evidence, since the Haplogroup X group exists mostly in Europeans, but can occur in North America e.g. Ojibwa (25% occurrence), and even in South American Yanomami people (12% occurrence) that live in the Amazon, but is rarely associated with Central Asian groups [9] Does this explain how a Greek woman could be related to a North American Native Indian that we saw in the video (Real Eve) which confirmed a common ancestor 30 000 years? The explanation in the film was of a shared ancestor living 30 000 years ago in Central Asia and was pushing the credibility a bit here.

At the end of all of this I am also really confused, but I think it is safe to say that to portrait the Clovian invaders as solely responsible for the over-kill of the North America megafauna is misrepresentative, unless we accept the combined evidence of divergence of dialects the shared Haplogroup X and the South American artifacts all confirming colonization some 30 000 plus years ago, in which time a slower-paced over-kill might have occurred.

I noted that on visiting the BBC website they have attempted to re-dress this balance (mis-representation?) by including the views of Dr Ken Tankersley an anthropologist at Northern Kentucky University who concluded a combination of a very abrupt climate change and hunting [10].

"Data from these sites suggests that the ice age ended within the span of a single human life, within a period of 50 years when the climate was extremely unstable and rapidly and profoundly changing. Not every animal had the same tolerance to climatic change, so some were more vulnerable to human predation than others. Other animals, such as turtles and amphibians, were unaffected and still others such as the jaguar, pine marten, and water rat moved north, south, east, or west. Bison became smaller in size, but most of the mega-mammals, such as mammoths and mastodons could neither adapt nor move. They were hunted and became extinct.”

My conclusion is that we can only really start speculating on the North American overkill once we know who the first North Americans were and when they occurred and by what route? In attempting to piece together the mtDNA Eve and the Y Chromosomal Adam with the invasion of various continents and overkill of the mega fauna requires some spectacular leaps of faiths, even greater leaps than those that humans made when populating the world, and possibly the one explanation is that we actually used boats at a lot earlier stage that has been previously considered, and indeed Stinger 2002 suggested as far back as 65 000 years ago to reach Australia [11].

Thanks Karen for a very informative posting but it is important to realize that in science there is lots of room for scientific interpretation and egos at stake. – One of our colleagues here at UWC said about academia “never was the fighting more bitter and never were the stakes so low”. It is important to realize that science does not have answers for everything and an open mind and good observation and integration skills are also critical for interpretation.

[1] BBC Science & Nature: Prehistoric Life. What the experts say: Dr Adrian Lister [Internet] Monsters we met; undated [cited 2006 Jul 31]. Available from:

[2] Discovery Channel (1995) Paleoworld - Dawn of the Cats, [Video] The Learning Channel, Discovery Communication Inc.

[3] Louis Beam. Evidence suggests whites settled Americas First [Internet]. Originally published in the SPOTLIGHT 1997 October 13 [cited 2006 Jul 31]. Available from:

[4] Wikipedia contributors. Ainu people [Internet]. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia; 2006 Jul 29, 19:54 UTC [cited 2006 Jul 31]. Available from:

[5] Wikipedia contributors. Kennewick Man [Internet]. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia; 2006 Jul 28, 01:20 UTC [cited 2006 Jul 31]. Available from:

[6] Lemonick, M.D. & Dorfman, A. Who were the First Americans? [Internet] Time Archive 2006, Mar 13 [cited 2006 Jul 31]. Available from:,10987,1169905,00.html

[7] Wilford J.N. Chilean Yields New Clues to Peopling of Americas [Internet]. New York Times Field; 1998 Aug 25 [cited 2006 Jul 31]. Available from:

[8] Highfield, R. Europeans colonised America in 28,000 BC [Internet] Electronic Telegraph; 2000 February 19, [cited 2006 Jul 31]. Available from:

[9] ] Wikipedia contributors. Haplogroup X (mtDNA) [Internet]. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia; 2006 Jul 29, 02:18 UTC [cited 2006 Jul 31]. Available from:

[10] BBC Science & Nature: Prehistoric Life. What the experts say; Dr Ken Tankersley [Internet] Monsters we met; undated [cited 2006 Jul 31]. Available from:

[11] Stringer, C. (2002) Modern human origins: progress and prospects. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. 357, 563–579.

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