~ Misc Quotes
~ Steven Mithen - After The Ice: A Global Human History


We are chronologically illiterate and cannot easily conceive of the very distant past. Like the Piraha of north-west Amazonia, whose only numerical concepts are said to be "one", "two" and "many", most of us can only really deal with "now" and "ages ago". As a result, it is rather difficult to imagine your way past the last Ice Age. You can take a set of relatively steady steps back through time until you bump up against Stonehenge and Avebury. Tentatively, you might then move out into the fragmentary, half-articulate moment of the mesolithic, with their piles of limpets and hazelstick shelters. But after that what? At about 10,000 or 12,000 years ago, the imagination comes to a stop, the great curtain of ice descends, and the more distant past seems almost nothing to do with us. Very cold, presumably, with mammoths; a sort of Rannoch Moor with tusks. And as for before the Ice Age, it seems more inaccessible than Mars.
        - Adam Nicolson, reviewing "Homo Britannicus", "The Telegraph"

Many forces that could trigger extinction are evident in Earth’s history. Proposed explanations for the near-time extinctions have included meteor strikes, climate change, nutrient shortages, and disease, among many others. But for half a century, the explanation that has made the most sense to me is what Richard Klein calls the "ecological shock of human arrival". Climatic change is always of interest but not crucial in formulating explanations. As our species spread to various continents, we wiped out their large mammals; as we progressed to oceanic islands, we extinguished many mammals that were much smaller, and even more birds, especially flightless species. Based on the concept that animal populations could have sustained some additional predation, but not as much as took place after human arrival, this explanation has come to be known as "overkill". Thanks to radiocarbon and other geological methods of dating, we now know the timing and pattern of many extinctions in considerable detail. Globally, the chronological progression is extremely interesting. The sweep of extinctions of large mammals began gradually and inconspicuously in Africa over two million years ago, intensified in Europe beginning with the extinction of the Neanderthals 50,000 years ago, hit hard in Australia 40,000 to 50,000 years ago, and exploded in the Americas around 13,000 years ago. In the last 3,000 years, extinctions swept thousands of taxa of flightless birds and many land snails from the  islands of the remote Paci?c, beginning in the west in Tonga, New Caledonia, and Fiji (those islands closer to the Asian mainland) and ending 1,500 years ago (or later, in some cases) in Hawaii, the Marquesas, and Rapanui (Easter Island). Extinctions struck Madagascar beginning less than 3,000 years ago. The extinction of moas in New Zealand took place only 500 years ago. These extinctions reflect the spread of our species.
In near time, Africa and Asia suffered least. This does not mean that hominids would have had little to do with shaping the African and Asian faunas. However, interactions between evolving hominids and African wildlife, for instance, extend over at least two million years. The resulting coevolution would have meant that as human hunting skills advanced, so did the wariness and defenses of potential prey. Similarly, in Eurasia, the contact between horses and camels and Paleolithic people was gradual and thereby more favorable for both survival and domestication of the large herbivores than the sudden sweeping contact that took place when humans entered North America.
As noted, climate change is frequently invoked to explain the near-time extinction spike. Geological evidence and shifting percentages of fossil pollen indicate that the late Quaternary was indeed a time of severe and rapid climate change. So, however, were earlier stages of the Quaternary. Why, then, is there not a trail of extinctions of large mammals through the last two million years as the ice advanced and retreated, sea levels rose and fell, and plant communities moved farther north and farther south, higher and lower in elevation? If glacial climates forced the large animal extinctions, they should have struck when the susceptible animals encountered unfavorable climatic change going into the Quaternary. Extinctions of large Quaternary mammals in North America did not concentrate toward the beginning of the Quaternary ice age, or throughout the 1.8 million years involved, but piled up toward the end, within near time. Whatever was involved in forcing extinctions had to be something late in the Quaternary, not early or throughout the ice age.
The proposal that near-time extinctions in some critical way involve people, our species, Homo sapiens, requires at least a modicum of cultural sensitivity. Certainly no one can pass judgment, from long after the fact, on the peoples who first discovered and inhabited new lands. Their achievements were truly remarkable. It is one thing to note synchronicity in the arrival of first pioneering prehistoric people in various corners of the planet and the concurrent extinction of many native animals; it is another to make a judgment. It would be absurd to assign blame to the progeny of Paleolithic Europeans or of the First Americans for the extinction of the Old World or New World mammoths, to Australian Aborigines for the end of the diprotodonts, or to the New Zealand Maoris for eliminating the moa. It is important to remember that the extinctions of near time occurred worldwide. To the extent that responsibility is assigned, it belongs to our species as a whole. This may be an even more disturbing thought for many.
Ignorance of the late-Pleistocene extinctions warps our view of what "state of nature" we should be trying to conserve or restore. In North America, the modern extinction-pruned large-mammal fauna, those animals at "home on the range" since European settlement, are not a normal evolutionary assemblage. The fossil record thus suggests, for instance, that we reconsider the impact of wild equids in the New World. Because horses evolved here, flourished for tens of millions of years, and vanished around 13,000 years ago, their arrival with the Spanish in the 1500s was a restoration, not an alien invasion. In evaluating the ecological impacts of wild horses and burros, we need to be aware not just of their presence in the last half millennium, but of the coevolution of equids with the land for tens of millions of years before a relatively brief 10,000-year interruption. More broadly, the life and times of the mammoths and other megafauna need to be understood before we can claim to know the true nature and potential of our planet
    - Paul S. Martin, "Twilight of the Mammoths: Ice Age Extinctions and the Rewilding of America"


[#1 The Beginning]

Human history began in 50,000 BC. Or thereabouts. Perhaps 100,000 BC, but certainly not before. Human evolution has a far longer pedigree - at least 3 billion years have passed since the origin of life, and six million since our lineage spilit from that of the chimpanzee. History, the cumulative development of events and knowledge, is a recent and remarkably brief affair. Little of significance happened until 20,000 BC - people simply continued living as hunter-gatherers, just as their ancestors had been doing for millions of years. Then came an astonishing 15,000 years that saw the origin of farming, towns and civilization. Farmer inhabited permanent villages and towns, and supported specialist craftsmen, priests and chiefs. Indeed, they were little different to use today: the Rubicon of history had been crossed - from a lifestyle of hunting and gathering to that of farming.

The peak of the last oce age occured at around 20,000 BC and is known as the last glacial maximum, or LGM. Before this date, people were thin on the ground and struggling with a deteriorating climate. Subtle changes in the planet's orbit around the sun had caused massice ice sheets to expand across much of North America, northern Europe and Asia. The planet was inundated by drought; sea level had fallen to expose vast and often barren coastal plains.

Close to 7000 BC what is happening in the world? In Jericho a young man is plastering the skull of his father, while at Nea Nikomedeia in Greece, the first farmers are clearing the land. At the other end of Europe, hunter-gatherers are roasting hazelnuts on a tiny Scottish island. A stampede of bison is taking place at Horner on the Great Plains of Norther America, while pumpkins are being gathered in the Oaxaca valley and vicuna herded in the Andes. On the other side of the world, the rock-faces of Arnhem Land in Australia are being painted with rainbow serpents and yams. In East Asia wild rice is being sown at Pengtoushan and pig traps are being dug in the Tama Hills of Japan. At Damdama on the Ganges plain, a turtle is being hauled from a nearby river.

[#2 Western Asia - Village Life]

The village people had began to over-exploit the wild animals and plants on which they relied. Carol Cope has found that the Natufian people preferred to kill male gazelles. By preferentially selecting the males, the Natufians were probably attempting to conserve the gazelle populations. Although both sexes were born in equal proportions, only a few male animals were actually needed to maintain the herds. Carol Cope thinks that they decided that the males were expandable. If this was their aim, it went horribly wrong. The Natufians made the mistake of not just hunting the males, but selecting the biggest that they could find to kill. So the female gazelles were left to breed with the smaller males. As small fathers gave rise to small offspring, and as the Natufians killed the largest offspring, the gazelles were reduced in size with each generation.

Along with sheep, goats were among the first animals to be domesticated after the dog, and completed the shift from hunting and gathering to a farming lifestyle. Precisely where, when and why such domestication occured is still much debated by archaeologists.

A reduction in body size occurs with all animals once they become domesticated - pigs are smaller than wild boar, cows smaller than wild cattle. This most likely arises from poor maternal nutrition and the selective killing of the largest adult males for meat.

[#3 Europe - Pioneers in Northern Lands]

The people who lived in Europe and western Asia had the most challenging roller-coaster ride of environmental change.

Animal bones tell us a great deal about the changing environments of Europe. As with beetles, mammals are known to favour different types of habitats - reindeer emjoy cold tundra, red deer prefer more temperate woodland. One of the most useful is the Arctic lemming - the peaks and troughs in the quantity of its bones are almost as good as a temperature gauge itself. And so, by arranging the collections of bones in an ordered sequence through time we can reconstruct the changing animal communities, and hence environments, of Europe.

Although all of Europe other than the far north was habitable at 12,500 BC, much of it is likely to have remained quite empty of people. Ice-age conditions would still have inhibited the rate of population growth and caused severe difficulties during the winter seasons. Additionally, people's dependence on reindeer for food may also have caused problems, for as we know from modern times, reindeer populations can go through periods of boom and bust. The latter would have left many ice-age hunters desperate for food and cancelled out any population growth that had been made. In such conditions it was essential that groups of people remained in contact with each other - not only those within the same region, but those who may have lived hundreds, even thousands, of kilometres away. The key to survival was information - about food supplies, environmental conditions, possible marriage partners, and new inventions, such as bows and arrows.

Just as Tutankhamum's tomb and the paintings of Lascaux are symbolic of lost and ancient worlds, so too is the site of Star Carr in Yorkshire - the lost world of forest-dwelling hunter-gatherers who lived within the period which archaeologists call the Mesolithic. That was the new world of European culture. It was forged by the descendants of the reindeer hunters after the ice sheets of Europe had finally melted away. The Mesolithic is the period of Holocene hunter-gatherers in Europe, those living in thick forests before the arrival of the first farmers.

Oak trees were already found throughout Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece when the Younger Dryas came to its sudden end. By 8000 BC they had edged up the west coast of France and had reached the far southwest coast of Britain; by 6000 BC they were across the whole of mainland Europe and the southernmost parts of Scandinavia. The great beneficiaries of global warming were the red deer, roe-deer and wild boar that soon became the favoured prey for the Mesolithic hunters. In the new woodlands the deer lived in small and scattered herds. So bloody slaughter of migatory herds of reindeer by brute force had to be replaced by stealth - stalking lone animals, shooting arrows through thick undergrowth, more tracking as the prey fled while trailing blood.

The date is 9500 BC. Somewhere in southern Europe the last of the ice-age cave artists is at work. He or she is mixing pigments and painting upon a wall, perhaps a horse or a bison, perhaps a line of dots or merely touching up a painting made long ago. And that will be it: more than 20,000 years of cave painting - perhaps the greatest art tradition humankind has even known - will have come to an end.
It had extended from the Urals to southern Spain, and produced masterpieces by the score. For more than 800 generations, artists had inherited the same concerns and the same techniques.
The cave art tradition ended because there was no longer a need to make such art. The paintings and carvings had never been mere decoration, they had been much more than this, a tool for survuval. The ice age had been an information age. Ambush and bloody slaughter had been easy, as long as the right people were in the right place at the right time, ample supplies of food could be acquired. An abundance of food in one region had meant scarcity elsewhere - groups had to be willing to join together and then split apart; to do so they needed to know which group was where, and to have friends and relations that could be relied upon in times of need. Information was crucial - knowledge about the location and movements of animals, about who was living and hunting where, about future plans, about what to do in times of crisis. The art, the mythology and the religious ritual served to maintain the constant acquisition and flow of information. The mythological stories contained survival strategies for those inevitable but unpredictable years of hardship.
Life in thick woodland after 9600 did not exact the same demands. Animals were now largely hunted on a one-to-one basis; with no mass kills there were no surpluses to manage. Just like the red deer, people began to live in smaller, more scattered groups, becoming increasingly self-sufficient.

At 7500 BC the coast of northern Europe ran directly from eastern England to Denmark. It was deeply incised with estuaries that led into narrow-sided valleys that in turn wound their way between gently rolling hills. Doggerland - the region now submerged below the North Sea - had a coastline of lagoons, marshes, mud-flats and beaches. It was probably the richest hunting, fowling and fishing grounds in the whole of Europe. Graham Clark, the excavator of Star Carr, believed that Doggerland had been the heartland of the Mesolithic culture.

The final melting of the great ice sheets, especially those of North America, poured millions upon millions of gallons of water into the oceans and touched the lives of many thousands of people, sometimes quite literally.

The Mesolithic coastal dwellers of Doggerland began to see their landscape change - sometimes within a single day, sometimes within their lifetime, sometimes only when they recalled what parents and grandparents had told them about lagoons and marshes now permanently drowned by the sea. The North Sea invaded Doggerland. High tides became higher and then refused to retreat. Marine waters worked their way into the valleys and around the hills; new peninsulas appeared, became offshore islands and then disappeared for ever.

On some day close to 7000 BC a small group of Mesolithic people had nestled themselves into a natural hollow within the dunes overlooking the estuary of the River Ness and most likely with a view out to sea. Perhaps they were waiting for dusk before setting out to hunt seal. A few hours earlier a massive submarine landslide had occured almost 1,000 kilometres to the north, within the Arctic Ocean midway between the coast of Norway and Iceland. This was the Storrega slide and it created a tsunami, an immense tidal wave. The impact of this tsunami across the low-lying coast of Doggerland must have been devastating. Many kilometres of coast are likely to have been destroyed withi a few hours, perhaps minutes, and many lives lost.

Another catastrophe happened on the other side of Europe, 3500 kilometres away. The victims were those who lived upon the lowlands around the freshwater lake that was the Black Sea. The Black Sea had become a freshwater lake during the ice age. The level of the Mediterranean had fallen to below the base of the Bosphorus channel, its link to the Black Sea through which seawater once flowed. The channel became blocked with silt. As the sea level rose above the base of the channel, the plug of silt held firm. It held, and it held, as a gigantic wall of marine water built up on its western face. And then it burst. So, one fateful day about 6400 BC, a cascade of salty water crashed with the force of 200 Niagara Falls into the placid waters of the like  - and continued to do so for many months. Within a matter of months an area equivalent to the whole of Austria had been submerged.

It was from western Asia that the very first farmers to arrive in Europe had once embarked, after loading their small boats with baskets of seedcorn and suitably shackled sheep and goats. Some had crossed the Aegean to the eastern lowlands of Greece; others went to Crete and southern Italy. They cleared woodlands, set their sheep and goats to browse, built their houses and began a new chapter in European prehistory.

The overriding impression is that life at Nea Nikomedeia is hard: tilling fields, weedling, watering, grinding seed, digging clay, clearing woodland. Labour appears to be in short supply as even young children are pressed into weeding and spreading muck. None of the hunter-gatherers of Lepenski Vir and Creswell Crags seemed to work for more than a few hours on any one day. For them, the key to a full stomach had been knowledge, not labour: where the game would be, when the fruit would ripen, how to hunt wild boar and catc shoals of fish.

Yanamamo warfare provides an appealing analogy to what might have occured in the Mesolithic of northern Europe. Many raids between villages were in order to abduct women. Extremely violent conflicts, especially those that involved 'nomohori' or treachery in which people vist another village on false pretences and then brutally kill the welcoming residents and then flee with their women. A captured women is typically raped by all members of the raiding party, and then by any other man in the village who chooses. One of the men then takes her as a wife.
It is however, always dangerous in archaeology to take descriptions of living people and impose them on to the past, espeically when the two societies come from such different environments - the South American tropics and coastlands of Mesolithic Scandinavia could hardly be more different. Whatever the case, Mesolithic Europe evidently had its moments of brutal violence and bloody slaughter.
The common explanation among archaeologists for the growth of violence in the Mesolithic societies of northern Europe after 5500 BC concerns population pressure on diminishing resources. Ever since 9600 BC the woodlands, lagoons, rivers, estauaries and seashores of northern Europe had provided abundant wild resources. The populations of the first settlers after the ice age and those of the Early Holocene would have expanded rapidly - they were in a Mesolithic Garden of Eden. But by 7000 BC those living in the lands of modern-day Sweden and Denmark were losing substansial areas of land to the rising sea. People were increasingly crammed into smaller and smaller territories, leading to intense competition for the best hunting, plant-gathering and fishing locations.

By 6000 BC the Mesolithic people of Northern Europe were listening to fireside stories from visitors about a new people in the east, people who lived in great wooden houses and controlled the game. Soon they found their own Mesolithic neighbours using polished stone axes, moulding cooking vessels from clay and herding cattle for themselves. When farming villages arrived within their own hunting lands, Mesolithic eyes peered from behind trees at the timber long houses, the tethered cattle and the sprouting crops with mixed emotions - fear, awe, dismany and digust. The farmers appeared intent on controlling, dominating and transforming nature. Mesolithic culture had been no more than an extension of the natural world. Its chipped stone axes were merely an elaboration of the natural world.

By 5500 BC, a new type of farming culture had emerged from the fringes of the Hungarian plain, the Linearbandkeramik, which archaeologists thankfully abreviate to the LBK. It spread with astonishing speed both east and west, into the Ukraine and into central Europe... crossing and clearing the deciduous woodlands of Poland, Germany, the Low Countries and western France. The new farmers travelled westwards at a remarkable rate, covering 25 kilometres a generation. Just like the original immigrant farmers of Southeast Europe, they filled up each new region of fertile soils with farmsteads and villages and then leap-frogged across less favourable soils to establish a new frontier. Such speed reflects more than the success of their lifestyle - it implies an ideology of colonisation, an attraction to 'frontier life', similar, some have suggested to that of the pioneers of the American West. A 'frontier' mentality may also explain the cultural uniformity of the LBK farmers.

When Bryan Sykes and his colleagues examined the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from 821 individuals distributed across Europe, they found that there were six clear lineage groups; this immediately indicated that Europeans are more genetically diverse than the 'wave of advance' model would suggest. Just one of these lineages was sufficiently recent to relate to the immigration of farmers from western Asia, and this did indeed have some clear genetic markers that pointed to a West Asian origin. This group only constituted 15% of the total number of lineages within the 6 groups. All other lineages dated to between 23,000 and 50,000 years ago, indicating that 85% of the existing mtDNA lineages were already present in the Mesolithic, having originated during the preceding ice age. But a key problem for the mtDNA evidence is that it only tracks the female line. If West Asian immigrants chose to take indigenous Mesolithic women for their wives - as is quite likely - the mtDNA record will have failed to register the presence of the immigrants at all. Nevertheless, we must conclude that the indigenous Mesolithic people played a role at least as great as that of immigrant farmers in the development of the European Neolithic. The genes of Mesolithic hunter-gatherers may be dominant among modern Europeans today, but their way of life failed to survive much beyond 4000 BC. Only in the far north of Europe did hunting and gathering have a longer life, continuing until at least 1000 BC, after which pastoralism took over.

[#4 The Americas - Explorers in a Restless Landscape]

"The ultimate pioneering event... a brave new people in a brave new world."
        - Robson Bonnichsen, on the arrival of the first Stone Age people in the Americas

Anthropologists from Texas A&M University made a startling discovery: the earliest Native Americans looked quite different to the Native Americans recorded from later prehistory or historic times. The more recent people are described as having a mongoloid appearance - clearly indicating descent from northern Asia. But the skeletal sample from pre-9000 BC suggests people with short and narrow faces. rather than looking like recent North American and North Asian people, those early Americans were far more similar in appearance to the earliest Austalians dating back to 60,000 years ago, and modern Africans. In 1996 a precious new skull and the partial remains of a skeleton "Kennewick Man" were discovered in the Columbia River region, Washington State and dated to about 7400 BC. A detailed statistical analysis showed that the shape of the skull was most similar to Polynesian people, particularly those from Easter Island in the Pacific and the Ainu of Japan. In the light of their difference in physical appearance, the First Americans, as known from the pre-9000 BC skeletal record, might have been quite unrelated to the Native Americans known in the later prehistoric and historic records, and indeed to those living today. All of those more recent Native Americans evidently originated from migrations, perhaps better described as dispersals, of North Asian peoples after distinctive mongoloid features had evolved. Those already present in the Americas may simply have been subsumed into these new populations, with their own dental, genetic and linguistic traits swamped by those of the new arrivals. Alternatively, the First Americans might have become extinct, making no linguistic or genetic contribution to future populations.

To my mind, the First Americans, those who must have travelled from Alaska to southern Chile within less than a hundred generations, were the most extraordinary group of explorers ever to have lived on this planet. I suspect that the mystery of the peopling of the Americas can only be resolved by invoking those peculiar human qualities of curiosity and thirst for adventure that in recent times have taken men to the poles, to the deep oceans, and to the moon. Did the same notions drive generation after generation of the First Americans to travel ever further southwards from their original homelands?
If that journey did indeed occur, a journey through the landscapes of North America in turmoil as global warming took hold, it would have been one of the most momentous events in human history.

Now the exotic North American fauna faced a new type of potential predator, one that came armed with stone-yipped spears, that hunted in large groups, that laid ambushes and set traps. The mammoths, mastadons and other giant herbivores were certainly used to repdators that attempted to take their young: wolves, lions and sabre-toothed cats. They had been living and coevolving with such carnivores for millions of years and had their means of defence: large herd size, massive bodies, lethal tusks, group formations to protect the vulnerable, patterns of movement to enable them to keep out of the carnivores' way. Would these have been any good when a new type of predator arrived? One whose spears were even more deadly than smilodon's teeth, whose group hunting tactics were more sophisticated than that of the wolf, and who had one 'weapon' that the ground sloths, mastodons and even smilodons had never encountered before: a large brain with which to outwit its prey.

It is one of the most astonishing features of ice-age animal communities that species which may now live many thousands of miles apart, in radically different environments, then regularly rubbed haunches with each other. The First Americans, touring their new world, would have seen what are today far northern tundra species, such as caribou and lemmings, living side by side with what to us are quite southern woodland or prairie species, such as elk and bison. Such animal mosaics could exist in the ice age because the contrast between the seasons was not nearly as marked as it is now.

Although neither Clovis hunters nor climate change appear to have had sufficient impact when working alone, together they amounted to a death sentence for mammoths, sloths, mastodons and fellow victims when their forces were combined.

Just as economists use computers to predict the future, such as the impact of interest rates on the rate of inflation, so too can archaeologists build models to 'predict' the past. The objective of my research was to explore the impact of slightly increased rates of predation in conjunction with similarly increased frequencies of grought on the level of the mammoth population in North America. I used the similations to do some experiments: different levels of mammoth hunting, different strategies, different degrees of environemental stress. It was possible to push mammoths into extinction by environmental change alone. Equally, without any climate change the mammoth populations were very susceptible to human predation. Even if hunters were randomly taking animals from a herd at a rate of no more than 4 to 5 per cent each year, the populations would enter serious decline and suffer eventual extinction because of their slow rate of reproduction. The population consequences of killing a few mammoths, especially the young females, may not felt until a decade later; if that is when the environmental stress also occurs, its effect pm the population may be devastating. The same explanation might suffice for the extinction of the ground sloth, mastodon, the American horse, camel and tapir.

The last North American mammoth died at some time around 10,000 BC. The world became a far poorer and less interesting place without such a magnificient array of ice-age mammals. With the passing of the ice-age bestiary and the emergence of a more stable environment, the Clovis way of life had disappeared. As it did so, human culture underwent the exact converse of nature; it diversified, to make the North American continent a much richer and more interesting place. All its inhabitants continued to live as hunter-gatherers but never again would there be the unity to the North American people that was found during Clovis times.

The land beyond the Fraser River is known to archaeologists as Cascadia. It includes modern-day Washington State and British Columbia, and stretches from southern Alaska to northern California. Cascadia is where the most elaborate hunter-gatherer societies of America, and most probably in the whole history of the world, developed.
When Europeans first encountered the Native Americans of the northwest coast in the late 18th century they found people quite unlike any they had met before. This was not because of their timber-framed houses and settlements with more than a 1000 inhabitants. Neither was it because they found aristocracies, freeman and slaves. Such houses, towns and customs would have been of no surprose had the people been cultivating corn and herding cattle. But the people of the northwest coast were hunter-gatherers. More accurately, they were fishermen: their elaborate cultures were based on the harvesting of salmon. Such 'complex hunters' first appeared at around 500 BC.

[#5 Greater Australia - A Lost World Revealed]

At the LGM, Australia was a continent of hunter-gatherers, and it remained so until 1788, the year of the first European settlement. At least 250,000 Aborigines were living in this southern land mass, distributed between the tropical forests of the north and the edge of Antarctic waters in the south. Aborigines were found to have a profound knowledge of plant distribution and animal behaviour; they were able to adapt to ever-changing conditions, often adopting radically different lifestyles in wet and dry seasons according to the range of available resources. Although they were all hunter-gatherers, many managed their landscapes and food supply by the controlled burning of vegetation.

The date at which Australia was first colonised has gradually shifted back in time, from an initial guess of 10,000 BC to almost 60,000 years ago today. Having arrived in the far north of Australia at around 60,000 years ago, after an island-hopping journey from Southeast Asia involving sea-crossings of at least 100 kilometres, generation after generation kept spreading south and eventually moulded a new lifestyle aroun wallaby hunting in Tasmania as the southern-most inhabitants of the ice-age world.
At 18,000 BC the continent remains as 'Greater Australia' - a continuous land mass from Tasmania in the south to New Guinea in the north.

As in America, Australia had an abundance of large animals or mega-fauna during the Pleistocene, all but one of which became extinct before the Holocence began. Of almost 50 different species, only the red kangaroo survived, a beast that weighs up to 90 kilograms and stands two metres tall. There had once been kangaroos twp, three or even four times as large, as well as giant wombats and a range of other exotic creatures. 'Megalonia' had been the largest carnivore on the continent: a lizard seven metres in length with sharp teeth and claws; 'Genyornis', a flightless emu-like bird weighing 100 kilograms and a beak 30 centimetres long; 'Diprotodon', a mammal the shape of a wombat and the size of a rhinoceros; 'Thylacoleo', the marsupial lion. As with the America mega-faune, there has been a debate as to whether these animals became extinct owing to the climatic changes associated with the ice age or hunting pressure caused the arrival of modern humans in the continent.

By 6000 BC, Greater Australia is no more; one seventh of its land, about 2.5 million square kilometres, has been drowned by the sea. Tasmania, once a southern peninsula, is now an island whose Aborigines have lost all contact with those on the mainland, divided from them by the ferocious waters of the Bass Strait. The people of New Guinea will, however, remain in contact with those of Australia across the more benign and island-spotted Torres Strait.

The Aborigines usually lived in groups of around 20. The men spent several hours each day hunting but rarely killed anything larger than lizards and mice, while the women collected seeds and tubers from more than 30 different plants, of which seven provided the bulk of the food. They too caught small game, along with insects and grubs. The key to survival was opportunism - being prepared to move to wherever rain had been seen to fall, and where a water catchment was known. To do so they needed very few possessions and 'permanent abodes' would have been no use at all. Rainfall could be seen from 80 kilometres away and vast distances were regularly covered.


Human history arose from accident as much by design, and the paths of historical change were many and varied. In western Asia, hunter-gatherers settled down to live in permanent villages before they began to farm, just as they did in Japan and on the Ganges plain. Conversely, plant cultivation in Mexico and New Guinea led to domesticated plants and farming long before permanent settlement appeared. In North Africa, cattle came before crops, just as vicuna came before quinua in the Andes. In Japan and the Sahara the invention of pottery preceded the start of farming whereas it occured simultaneously with the origin of rice farming in China; its invention in western Asia came about long after farming towns had begun to flourish.

Who could have predicted the course that history would take? At 20,000 BC, Southwest Europe set the cultural pace with its ice-age art, by 8000 BC it was an entirely undistinguished region. At 7500 BC, western Asia had towns housing more than a thousand people, but within the millennium itinerant pastoralists were making campsites within their ruins. Who could have imagined that the Americas, the last continent to be colonised, the last to begin a history of its own, would have become the most powerful nation on planet earth today, its culture pervading every corner of the world? Or that the very first civilisation would have arisen in Mesopotamia? Or that Australia would remain a land of hunter-gatherers while farming flourished in New Guinea?


By Jared Diamond: Guns, Germs & Steel
By Colin Tudge: The Day Before Yesterday
By Tim Flannery: The Eternal Frontier

Return to Quotes index, or Site homepage.