Skip to main content Accessibility help

On discerning the cause of late Pleistocene megafaunal extinctions

  • Michael W. Beck (a1)


I examine the late Pleistocene megafaunal extinctions by testing the only extinction model with strong a priori predictions, the blitzkrieg model (Martin 1973; Mosimann and Martin 1975). I first test an assumption of the blitzkrieg and other extinction models that the megafaunal extinctions occurred in the terminal Wisconsin (12-10 Ka). This assumption has been disputed by Grayson (1989, 1991), but I find that both a reanalysis of Grayson's data and an analysis of new reliable data support a terminal Wisconsin extinction.

The blitzkrieg model predicts that the ranges of megafauna in North America were constricted as the semicircular front of hunters moved southeastward; hence the extinctions should be time-transgressive from northwest to southeast. I test this prediction in three separate analyses that examine (1) the location of terminal sites for each taxon relative to all their other late Wisconsin fossil sites, (2) the location of terminal sites for each taxon relative to all their other reliably dated late Wisconsin fossil sites, and (3) the spatio-temporal pattern of all the reliably dated terminal Wisconsin sites without regard to taxonomy. The geographic distribution of the megafaunal remains does not support the blitzkrieg hypothesis in any of the three analyses. Moreover, all of the patterns in the data are in a direction opposite to that predicted by the blitzkrieg hypothesis. I examine how these conclusions affect both climatic and predation models, particularly in relation to the testability of other extinction hypotheses.



Hide All
Adovasio, J. M. 1993. The ones that will not go away: a biased view of pre-Clovis populations in the New World. pp. 199218In Soffer, O. and Praslov, N. D., eds. From Kostenski to Clovis: upper Paleolithic–Paleo-indian adaptations. Plenum, New York.
Adovasio, J. M., Donahue, J., and Stuckenrath, R. 1990. The Meadowcroft rockshelter radiocarbon chronology 1975-1990. American Antiquity 55:348354.
Adovasio, J. M., Donahue, J., and Stuckenrath, R. 1992. Never say never again; some thoughts on could have and might have beens. American Antiquity 57:327331.
Agenbroad, L. D., and Mead, J. I. 1989. Quaternary geochronology and distribution of Mammuthus on the Colorado Plateau. Geology 17:861864.
Agenbroad, L. D., Mead, J., and Nelson, L. 1990. Megafauna and man: discovery of America's heartland. The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, South Dakota and Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff.
Axelrod, D. I. 1967. Quaternary extinctions of large mammals. University of California Publications in Geological Sciences 74:142.
Ball, I. R. 1976. Nature and formulation of biogeographical hypotheses. Systematic Zoology 24:407430.
Bard, E., Arnold, M., Fairbanks, R. G., and Hamelin, B. 1993. 230Th-234U and 14C ages obtained by mass spectrometry on corals. Radiocarbon 35:191193.
Barnosky, A. D. 1989. The late Pleistocene event as a paradigm for widespread mammal extinction. pp. 235253in Donovan, S. K., ed. Mass extinctions: processes and evidence. Belhaven, New York.
Bartlein, P. J., and Prentice, I. C. 1989. Orbital variations, climate and paleoecology. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 4:195199.
Buck, C. E., Litton, C. D., and Scott, E. M. 1994. Making the most of radiocarbon dating: some statistical considerations. Antiquity 68:252263.
Catto, N., and Mandryk, C. 1990. Geology of the postulated ice-free corridor. pp. 4253in Agenbroad et al. 1990.
Caughley, G. 1970. Eruption of ungulate populations, with emphasis on Himalayan Thar in New Zealand. Ecology 51:5372.
Davis, M. B. 1986. Climatic instability, time lags, and community disequilibrium. pp. 269284In Diamond, J. and Case, T. J., eds. Community ecology. Harper and Row, New York.
Diamond, J. M. 1984. Historic extinction: a rosetta stone for understanding Pleistocene extinctions. pp. 824866in Martin and Klein 1984.
Diamond, J. M. 1989a. The present, past and future of human-caused extinctions. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B 325:469477.
Diamond, J. M. 1989b. Quaternary megafaunal extinctions: variations on a theme by Paganini. Journal of Archaeological Science 16:167175.
Edwards, M. E., and Barker, J. E. D. 1994. Climate and vegetation in northeastern Alaska. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 109:127135.
Gillette, D. D., and Madsen, D. B. 1993. The Columbian mammoth, Mammuthus columbi, from the Wasatch Mountains of central Utah. Journal of Paleontology 67:669680.
Gingerich, P. D. 1977. Patterns of evolution in the mammalian fossil record. pp. 469499in Hallam, A., ed. Patterns of evolution. Elsevier, New York.
Graham, R. W. 1986. Response of mammalian communities to environmental changes during the late Quaternary. pp. 300313In Diamond, J. and Case, T. J., eds. Community ecology. Harper and Row, New York.
Graham, R. W. 1990. Evolution of new ecosystems at the end of the Pleistocene. pp. 4253in Agenbroad et al. 1990.
Graham, R. W., and Lundelius, E. L. Jr. 1984. Coevolutionary disequilibrium and Pleistocene extinctions. pp. 223249in Martin and Klein 1984.
Graham, R. W., and Mead, J. I. 1987. Environmental fluctuations and evolution of mammalian faunas during the last deglaciation. pp. 371402in Ruddiman and Wright 1987.
Graham, M. A., Wilson, M. C., and Graham, R. W. 1987. Paleoenvironments and mammalian faunas of Montana, southern Alberta, and southern Saskatchewan. In Graham, R. W., Semken, H. A. Jr., and Graham, M. A., eds. Late Quaternary mammalian biogeography and environments of the great plains and prairies. Illinois State Museum Scientific Papers 22:410459. Springfield.
Grayson, D. K. 1984. Explaining Pleistocene extinctions: thoughts on the structure of a debate. pp. 807823in Martin and Klein 1984.
Grayson, D. K. 1987. An analysis of the chronology of late Pleistocene mammalian extinctions in North America. Quaternary Research 28:281289.
Grayson, D. K. 1989. The chronology of North American late Pleistocene extinctions. Journal of Archaeological Science 16:153165.
Grayson, D. K. 1991. Late Pleistocene mammalian extinctions in North America: taxonomy, chronology, and explanations. Journal of World Prehistory 5:193231.
Guilday, J. E. 1984. Pleistocene extinctions and environmental change: case study of the Appalachians. pp. 250258in Martin and Klein 1984.
Guthrie, R. D. 1984. Mosaics, allelochemics, and nutrients; an ecological theory of late Pleistocene extinctions. pp. 259298in Martin and Klein 1984.
Guthrie, R. D. 1990. Late Pleistocene faunal revolution: a new perspective on the extinction debate. pp. 4253in Agenbroad et al. 1990.
Harris, A. H. 1985. Late Pleistocene vertebrate paleoecology of the west. University of Texas Press, Austin.
Harris, A. H. 1993. Quaternary vertebrates of New Mexico. New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science Bulletin 2:179197.
Haynes, C. V. Jr. 1984. Stratigraphy and late Pleistocene extinction in the United States. pp. 345454in Martin and Klein 1984.
Haynes, C. V. Jr. 1991. Geoarchaeological and paleohydrological evidence for a Clovis-age drought in North America and its bearing on extinction. Quaternary Research 35:438450.
Haynes, C. V. Jr. 1992. Contributions of radiocarbon dating to the geochronology of the peopling of the new world. pp. 355374In Taylor, R. E., Long, A., and Kra, R. S., eds. Radiocarbon after four decades: an interdisciplinary perspective. Springer, New York.
Hollander, M., and Wolfe, D. A. 1973. Nonparametric statistical methods. J. Wiley, New York.
Jacobson, G. L. Jr., Webb, T. III, and Grimm, E. C. 1987. Patterns and rates of vegetation change during deglaciation of eastern North America. pp. 277288in Ruddiman and Wright 1987.
Jefferson, G. T. 1991. A catalogue of late Quaternary vertebrates from California: part two, mammals. Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County Technical Report 7:1129.
Jefferson, G. T., Miller, W. E., Nelson, M. E., and Madsen, J. H. Jr. 1994. Catalogue of late Quaternary vertebrates from Utah. Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County Technical Report 9:134.
Kapp, R. O., Cleary, D. L., Snyder, G. G., and Fisher, D. C. 1990. Vegetational and climatic history of the Crystal Lake area and the Eldridge Mastodont site, Montcalm County, Michigan. American Midland Naturalist 123:4763.
Kiltie, R. A. 1984. Seasonality, gestation time, and large mammal extinctions. pp. 299314in Martin and Klein 1984.
Kunz, M. L., and Reanier, R. E. 1994. Paleoindians in Beringia: evidence for arctic Alaska. Science 263:660662.
Kurten, B., and Anderson, E. 1980. Pleistocene mammals of North America. Columbia University Press, New York.
Kutzbach, J. E. 1987. Model simulations of the climatic patterns during the deglaciation of North America. pp. 425447in Ruddiman and Wright 1987.
Kutzbach, J. E., and Guetter, P. J. 1986. The influence of changing orbital parameters and surface boundary conditions on climate simulations for the past 18,000 years. Journal of Atmospheric Sciences 43:17261759.
Kutzbach, J. E., Guetter, P. J., Behling, P. J., and Selin, R. 1993. Simulated climate changes: results of the COHMAP climate-model experiments. pp. 2493in Wright et al. 1993.
Kutzbach, J. E., and Ruddiman, W. F. 1993. Model description, external forcing, and surface boundary conditions. pp. 1223in Wright et al. 1993.
Lister, A. M. 1992. Mammalian fossils and Quaternary biostratigraphy. Quaternary Science Reviews 11:329344.
Lundelius, E. L. Jr., Graham, R. W., Anderson, E., Guilday, J., Holman, J. A., Steadman, D. W., and Webb, S. D. 1983. Terrestrial vertebrate faunas. pp. 311353in Porter, S. C., ed. Late quaternary environments of the United States, Volume 1, the late Pleistocene. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
Marshall, L. G. 1984. Who killed Cock Robin? An investigation of the extinction controversy. Pp. 785806in Martin and Klein 1984.
Martin, P. S. 1967. Prehistoric overkill. pp. 75120In Martin, P. S. and Wright, H. E., eds. Pleistocene extinctions: the search for a cause. Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn.
Martin, P. S. 1973. The discovery of America. Science 179:969974.
Martin, P. S. 1984. Prehistoric overkill: the global model. pp. 354403in Martin and Klein 1984.
Martin, P. S. 1987. Late Quaternary extinctions: the promise of TAMS 14C dating. Nuclear Instruments and Methods in Physics Research 29:179186.
Martin, P. S., and Klein, R. G. 1984. Quaternary extinctions: a prehistoric revolution. The University of Arizona Press, Tucson.
McDonald, J. N. 1984. The reordered North American selection regime and late Quaternary megafaunal extinctions. pp. 404439in Martin and Klein 1984.
McDonald, J. N., and Ray, C. E. 1989. The autochthonous North American musk oxen Bootherium, Symbos, and Gidleya. Smithsonian Contributions to Paleobiology 66:177.
Mead, J. I., and Agenbroad, L. D. 1992. Isotope dating of Pleistocene dung deposits from the Colorado Plateau, Arizona and Utah. Radiocarbon 34:119.
Mead, J. I., Martin, P. S., Euler, R. C., Long, A., Jull, A. J. T., Toolin, L. J., Donahue, D. J., and Linick, T. W. 1986. Extinction of Harrington's mountain goat. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 83:836839.
Mead, J. I., Agenbroad, L. D., Phillips, A. M. III, and Middleton, L. T. 1987. Extinct mountain goat (Oreamnos harringtoni) in southeastern Utah. Quaternary Research 27:323331.
Meltzer, D. J. 1986. Pleistocene overkill and the associational critique. Journal of Archaeological Science 13:5160.
Meltzer, D. J., and Mead, J. I. 1985. Dating late Pleistocene extinctions: theoretical issues, analytical bias, and substantive results. pp. 145172In Mead, J. I. and Meltzer, D. J., eds. Environments and extinctions: man in late glacial North America. University of Maine, Center for the Study of Early Man, Orono.
Mosimann, J. E., and Martin, P. S. 1975. Simulating overkill by Paleoindians. American Scientist 63:304313.
Nowak, E. 1971. The range expansion of animals and its causes (as indicated by 28 presently spreading species from Europe). Zeszyty Naukowe 3:1255.
Oglesby, R. J., Maasch, K. A., and Slatzman, B. 1989. Glacial meltwater cooling of the Gulf of Mexico: GCM implications for Holocene and present-day climates. Climate Dynamics 3:115133.
Overpeck, J. T., Peterson, L. C., Kipp, N., Imbrie, J., and Rind, D. 1989. Climate change in the circum-North Atlantic region during the last glaciation. Nature 338:553557.
Owen-Smith, N. 1987. Pleistocene extinctions: the pivotal role of megaherbivores. Paleobiology 13:351362.
Rapoport, E. H. 1982. Areography: geographical strategies of species. Pergamon, New York.
Ruddiman, W. F., and Wright, H. E. Jr. 1987. North America and adjacent oceans during the last deglaciation. Geology of North America, Vol. K-3. Geological Society of America, Boulder, Colo.
Sharrocks, F. W. 1966. Prehistoric occupation patterns in southwest Wyoming and cultural relationships with the Great Basin and Plains culture areas. University of Utah Anthropological Papers 77.
Signor, P. W. III, and Lipps, J. H. 1982. Sampling bias, gradual extinction patterns and catastrophes in the fossil record. Geological Society of America Special Papers 190:291296. Boulder, Colo.
Simpson, G. G. 1953. Major features of evolution. Simon and Schuster, New York.
Sokal, R. R., and Rohlf, F. J. 1981. Biometry. 2d ed.W. H. Freeman, New York.
Stafford, T. W. Jr. 1990. Late Pleistocene megafauna extinctions and the Clovis culture: absolute ages based on accelerator 14C Dating of skeletal remains. Pp. 118122in Agenbroad et al. 1990.
Stafford, T. W. Jr., Hare, P. E., Currie, L., Jull, A. J. T., and Donahue, D. J. 1990. Accuracy of North American human skeleton ages. Quaternary Research 34:111120.
Stafford, T. W. Jr., Hare, P. E., Currie, L., Jull, A. J. T., and Donahue, D. J. 1991. Accelerator radiocarbon dating at the molecular level. Journal of Archaeological Science 18:3572.
Stuart, A. J. 1991. Mammalian extinctions in the late Pleistocene of Northern Eurasia and North America. Biological Reviews of the Cambridge Philosophical Society 66:453562.
Stuiver, M., and Reimer, P. J. 1993. Extended 14C data base and revised CALIB 3.0 14C age calibration. Radiocarbon 35:215230.
Tankersly, K. B., and Munson, C. A. 1992. Comments on the Meadowcroft rockshelter radiocarbon chronology and the recognition of coal contaminants. American Antiquity 57:321326.
Taylor, R. E. 1991. Frameworks for dating the late Pleistocene peopling of the Americas. pp. 77112In Dillehay, T. D. and Meltzer, D. J., eds. The first Americans: search and research. CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida.
Thompson, R. S., Whitlock, C., Bartlein, P. J., Harrison, S. P., and Spaulding, W. G. 1993. Climatic changes in the western United States since 18,000 yr b.p. Pp. 468513in Wright et al. 1993.
Toth, N. 1991. The material record. pp. 5376In Dillehay, T. D. and Meltzer, D. J., eds. The first Americans: search and research. CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida.
Van Devender, T. R., Burgess, T. L., Piper, J. C., and Turner, R. M. 1994. Paleoclimatic implications of Holocene plant remains from the Sierra Baccha, Sonora, Mexico. Quaternary Research 41:99108.
Walker, D. N. 1987. Late Pleistocene/Holocene environmental changes in Wyoming: the mammalian record. In Graham, R. W., Semken, H. A. Jr., and Graham, M. A., eds. Late Quaternary mammalian biogeography and environments of the great plains and prairies. Illinois State Museum Scientific Papers 22:334393. Springfield.
Webb, S. D., and Barnosky, A. D. 1989. Faunal dynamics of Pleistocene mammals. Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences 17:413438.
Webb, T. III, Bartlein, P. J., and Kutzbach, J. E. 1987. Climatic change in eastern North America during the past 18,000 years; comparisons of pollen data with model results. pp. 447462in Ruddiman and Wright 1987.
Webster, D. 1981. Late Pleistocene extinction and human predation: a critical overview. pp. 556594In Harding, R. S. O. and Telekei, G., eds. Omnivorous primates: gathering and hunting in human evolution. Columbia University Press, New York.
West, F. H. 1983. The antiquity of man in America. pp. 364382in Porter, S. C., ed. Late Quaternary environments of the United States, Vol. 1, The late Pleistocene. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
Whitley, D. S., and Dorn, R. I. 1993. New perspectives on the Clovis vs. pre-Clovis controversy. American Antiquity 58:626647.
Whittington, S. L., and Dyke, B. 1984. Simulating overkill: experiments with the Mosimann and Martin model. pp. 466482in Martin and Klein 1984.
Wilson, E. O. 1975. Sociobiology: the new synthesis. Belknap, Cambridge, Mass.
Wright, H. E. Jr., Kutzbach, J. E., Webb, T. III, Ruddiman, W. F., Street-Perrott, F. A., and Bartlein, P. J. 1993. Global climates since the last glacial maximum. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed