Most of us learn something about mammoths, mastodons, and sabertooth cats as we grow up since these are the great symbolic animals of the North American Ice Age. It is rare that we also learn that these giants walked alongside ground sloths that were as tall as giraffes and as bulky as elephants, that they shared the landscape with beavers as big as bears, bears as big as the biggest bison, and relatives of armadillos that were the size of cars. All of these animals were gone by 10,000 years ago, as were the huge scavenging birds that glided overhead on wings that spanned nearly 20’. North America was not the only place to support such animals. South America had even larger sloths and even bigger elephant-like animals, New Zealand and Madagascar had birds that weighed over 500 pounds, Australia had marsupials the size of rhinos, Europe had a deer with antlers that spanned 10’ or more. All are now gone. Our ancestors have been blamed for these and hundreds of other extinctions.
In this class, we use our knowledge of the human past as revealed by archaeological, paleontological, and paleoenvironmental research to explore whether it is reasonable to attribute the extinction of such things as the mammoths and giant sloths of the Americas, the huge marsupials of Australia, and the enormous birds of New Zealand and Madagascar to our own species. Along the way, we will learn about those kinds of settings that have seemed most vulnerable to human disruption and why they were, and remain, so vulnerable. At the same time, we will learn that many of the things the popular media might wish you to believe may not be true at all.