The human-caused extinction started thousands of years ago, when humans and other hominins began to exterminate may of the planet’s largest animals.
I grew up in South Africa, where big animals still exist in the wild. My parents took me to see those beasts, and I had long discussions about them with a grandfather who was a zoologist and a paleontologist.
I made up in enthusiasm, during those discussions, for what I lacked in comprehension. I must have been about eight when I understood my grandfather to say, on one occasion, that the biggest tigers in the world live in the northern reeds. Fascinated by the idea of those reeds, I asked him to tell me more about them, only to be informed that he’d been speaking about regions rather than reeds. He was trying to point out to me, he explained, that Siberia’s tigers are bigger than those of the southern parts of Asia. Embarrassed by my mistake, I was left, nonetheless, with an indelible image of a big tiger walking in a forest of reeds.
This grandfather, T.F. Dreyer, had discovered, at a place called Florisbad in South Africa’s heartland, the partial skull of what was later realized to be the immediate predecessor of Homo sapiens – a species he named Homo helmei. This skull, thought when it was discovered in 1932 to be about 40,000 years old, has now been directly dated, by electron spin resonance, to 259,000 years before the present, and has become one of the main supports of the “out of Africa” theory of modern human origins.
T.F. had studied zoology at Halle in Germany, and I spent hours poring over his German books, fascinated by their illustrations, and awed by the impenetrable grandeur of their Gothic script. T.F. and I communicated in both Afrikaans and English, but German was still inaccessible to me at that time. We talked about the things young children are interested in – like where the biggest tigers lived. I only remember one occasion on which our conversation touched on the topic that would become thesis of this book, viz. that humans exterminated most of the planet’s big terrestrial animals and birds before the advent of written history. I’d seen the fossilized remains of several specimens of Pelorovis antiquus (the extinct, long-horned buffalo whose image appears at the head of this site) in the National Museum in Bloemfontein, where T.F. had an office. I knew, by that time, that Pelorovis must have become extinct more recently than the dinosaurs. It was, after all, a big mammal, and big mammals had – as I was already aware – only come into existence well after the disappearance of the dinosaurs.
I was still surprised, though, when my grandfather told me that Pelorovis had only disappeared from the earth a few thousand years ago. What, I asked him, had caused that very recent extinction? Wearing an expression which didn’t invite discussion, he replied, simply, “Die mens.” This was the Afrikaans equivalent of the German der Mensch, and meant, in that context, “humans.” I remember being startled by the counterintuitive idea that stone-age humans could have exterminated animals – especially large animals. I didn’t pursue the question, though, or even think about it again, until many years later, when the writings of Björn Kurtén, Paul Martin, and Jared Diamond brought it back into my consciousness.