Archaeology 369 A
Ground Sloths and Sabertooth Cats: The Archaeology of Extinction
Donald K. Grayson
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 11,000 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 its own woolly mammoths, giant cave bears, the famous woolly rhinoceros, and 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, you will learn about all of these animals. We will also use our knowledge of the 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 flightless birds of New Zealand ("moas") and Madagascar ("elephant birds) to human activities. Along the way, you will learn about those kinds of settings that have seemed most vulnerable to human disruption and why they were, and remain, so vulnerable.
Have you ever wondered where surfing and surfboards got their start? Why avocados look the way they look? Why some birds lose their ability to fly? Have you wondered about when people first arrived in the Americas and how they got here? Are you interested in knowing why words for “sweet potato” in the native languages of Hawaiʻi and New Zealand are almost identical to the word for that plant in the Quechua language of South America? And those New Zealand moas mentioned above? In Hawaiʻi and Tahiti, the word "moa" means "chicken." How did that happen? If you are interested in the answers to these questions and others like them, and how those relate to human interactions with animals of the past, this might be the course for you.
First year undergraduates are welcome!