Around 1650 BCE (Before the Common Era), the last mammoth on earth died on Wrangel Island, a small outpost in the Chukchi Sea off northeastern Siberia. In the same general period of time, the Shang Dynasty ruled China, the Thirteenth Dynasty began in Egypt, (it will be 300 more years before Tutankhamen is born), the Hittites sack Babylon and the world’s first wooden bridge was constructed on Lake Zurich.
Frequently ice-bound, Wrangel was visited by hunters before its mammoth population became extinct, evidenced by the various stone and ivory tools the hunters left behind. Possibly a part of a vast Inuit trading culture, the hunters did what hunters do – feed their families. They might, or might not, have known mammoths were becoming very scarce. Large mammals such as reindeer and sea lions were their prey – why not the last mammoth left on earth? Wrangel Island is now a sanctuary, a breeding ground for polar bears, with the highest density of dens in the world.
Most mammoth and mastodon populations became extinct during the transition from the Late Pleistocene (126,000 BCE to 12,000 BCE) to the Holocene, the age of modern man beginning at 12,000 BCE. The word Holocene derives from the Greek words holos (whole or entire) and kainos (new) and the epoch encompasses all of the period from the last glaciations throughout the worldwide population growth of the human species and up to present day. Animals and plants have not evolved much during the Holocene, but have undergone major shifts in their distributions, due to the effects of man. It was also the period where the megafauna – mammoths, mastodons, giant bears and an entire range of predators – disappeared.
During the transition from the Pleistocene to the Holocene, the Stone Age came to an end with the advent of flint tool manufacturing, the first usage of advanced darts and harpoons, and the development of a modern toolkit including oil lamps, fish hooks, ropes, and eyed needles – all perfect inventions that indicate successful hunting-gathering techniques. During this transitionary period, Neanderthals became extinct, clay figures were hardened in wood-fired ovens, the bow and arrow was invented, and cave painting appeared in Europe. By 12,000 BCE, Asiatic peoples crossed from Asia to North America, entered South America as far as the Andes, and domesticated llamas.
Although climate change and human predation are considered the main causes for the extinction of the Pleistocene-Holocene megafauna, the spread of disease is also an extinction theory. Scientists who believe that the catastrophic drop in mammoth and mastodon populations was due to a hyper-disease are studying frozen samples from the mammoths of Wrangel, hoping to find evidence of an Ebola-like virus in their DNA. They theorize that the virus could have jumped from fleas to mammoths, which would account for an extinction rate that increased as humans spread across the planet. (Rats, which carry fleas, caravanned right alongside us, as we propagated our way across the continents.) To date, the DNA recovered from Wrangel is incomplete and fragmentary.
But climate change and overhunting are the two main theories for the Holocene extinctions. During the last glaciations of the Pleistocene (19,000 to 20,000 BCE) most of the climate of the world was colder and drier. Deserts expanded, sea level dropped, and rain forests were splintered by savannah. Twelve thousand years ago, the last Ice Age ended. The vast grasslands of Siberia froze under permafrost. Trees marched north. Humans moved into the more temperate regions, following game. As habitat collapsed with the climate change, as mammoths and mastodons were confined to shrinking islands of refuge, they became easier to hunt.
Females and the young, the easiest and most numerous, died first. And with the older females went the knowledge of where and when to migrate. With fewer and fewer females, birthrates could not keep up with death rates. Mammoths couldn’t pop up every spring like wildflowers.
The longer it takes to find each elusive herd makes a difference on how long you stay and how much you overhunt it. But even as places of refuge became further and further apart, it was still possible to find them. And hunt again and again and again.
There’s a lot of return for killing mammoths, much more so than gathering grass seeds, which were the most abundant food item of the Pleistocene. In the last twenty years tons of evidence has been unearthed, confirming the overhunting theory. Below Krakow’s Spadzista Street in Poland, 8,000 bones of 73 individuals were found in a 40 x 40-foot square area, a mammoth mausoleum. At a hunting campsite in Czechoslovakia, archeologists excavated more than a thousand mammoths. In areas where wood was scarce, such as the Ukraine, shelter frameworks were constructed of mammoth bones, with skulls for foundations and interlocking tusks as arches. One shelter, near Kiev, contained the bones of 95 mammoths. And in Dent, Colorado, the bones of a dozen mammoths are clustered at the bottom of a cliff. Scattered among them are stone spear points and large rocks.
Mammoths and mastodons survived through the Pleistocene and into the age of man. Ten thousand years ago, North America resembled Africa, with huge migrating herds of elephant, camels, horses and antelope. Following alongside the herds were Saber-toothed cats, Dire wolves, Miracinonx (the American cheetah that looked like an elongated cougar), Giant short-faced bears and American lions. Then, in the blink of an evolutionary eye, within just eight thousand years, three-fourths of North America’s large mammals disappeared.