Excerpt from Guns, Germs & Steel by Jared Diamond, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Guns, Germs & Steel

by Jared Diamond

Guns, Germs & Steel
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  • First Published:
    Mar 1997, 480 pages
    Apr 1999, 480 pages

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All of those Australian/New Guinean giants (the so-called megafauna) disappeared after the arrival of humans. While there has been controversy about the exact timing of their demise, several Australian archaeological sites, with dates extending over tens of thousands of years, and with prodigiously abundant deposits of animal bones, have been carefully excavated and found to contain not a trace of the now extinct giants over the last 35,000 years. Hence the megafauna probably became extinct soon after humans reached Australia.

The near-simultaneous disappearance of so many large species raises an obvious question: what caused it? An obvious possible answer is that they were killed off or else eliminated indirectly by the first arriving humans. Recall that Australian/New Guinean animals had evolved for millions of years in the absence of human hunters. We know that Galapagos and Antarctic birds and mammals, which similarly evolved in the absence of humans and did not see humans until modern times, are still incurably tame today. They would have been exterminated if conservationists had not imposed protective measures quickly. On other recently discovered islands where protective measures did not go into effect quickly, exterminations did indeed result: one such victim, the dodo of Mauritius, has become virtually a symbol for extinction. We also know now that, on every one of the well-studied oceanic islands colonized in the prehistoric era, human colonization led to an extinction spasm whose victims included the moas of New Zealand, the giant lemurs of Madagascar, and the big flightless geese of Hawaii. Just as modern humans walked up to unafraid dodos and island seals and killed them, prehistoric humans presumably walked up to unafraid moas and giant lemurs and killed them too.

Hence one hypothesis for the demise of Australia's and New Guinea's giants is that they met the same fate around 40,000 years ago. In contrast, most big mammals of Africa and Eurasia survived into modern times, because they had coevolved with protohumans for hundreds of thousands or millions of years. They thereby enjoyed ample time to evolve a fear of humans, as our ancestors' initially poor hunting skills slowly improved. The dodo, moas, and perhaps the giants of Australia/New Guinea had the misfortune suddenly to be confronted, without any evolutionary preparation, by invading modern humans possessing fully developed hunting skills.

However, the overkill hypothesis, as it is termed, has not gone unchallenged for Australia/New Guinea. Critics emphasize that, as yet, no one has documented the bones of an extinct Australian/New Guinean giant with compelling evidence of its having been killed by humans, or even of its having lived in association with humans. Defenders of the overkill hypothesis reply: you would hardly expect to find kill sites if the extermination was completed very quickly and long ago, such as within a few millennia some 40,000 years ago. The critics respond with a countertheory: perhaps the giants succumbed instead to a change in climate, such as a severe drought on the already chronically dry Australian continent. The debate goes on.

Personally, I can't fathom why Australia's giants should have survived innumerable droughts in their tens of millions of years of Australian history, and then have chosen to drop dead almost simultaneously (at least on a time scale of millions of years) precisely and just coincidentally when the first humans arrived. The giants became extinct not only in dry central Australia but also in drenching wet New Guinea and southeastern Australia. They became extinct in every habitat without exception, from deserts to cold rain forest and tropical rain forest. Hence it seems to me most likely that the giants were indeed exterminated by humans, both directly (by being killed for food) and indirectly (as the result of fires and habitat modification caused by humans). But regardless of whether the overkill hypothesis or the climate hypothesis proves correct, the disappearance of all of the big animals of Australia/New Guinea had, as we shall see, heavy consequences for subsequent human history. Those extinctions eliminated all the large wild animals that might otherwise have been candidates for domestication, and left native Australians and New Guineans with not a single native domestic animal.

From Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond. © 1997 Jared Diamond.

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