Skip to main content

Spatially explicit analysis sheds new light on the Pleistocene megafaunal extinction in North America

  • Meaghan M. Emery-Wetherell (a1), Brianna K. McHorse (a2) and Edward Byrd Davis (a3)

The late Pleistocene megafaunal extinctions may have been the first extinctions directly related to human activity, but in North America the close temporal proximity of human arrival and the Younger Dryas climate event has hindered efforts to identify the ultimate extinction cause. Previous work evaluating the roles of climate change and human activity in the North American megafaunal extinction has been stymied by a reliance on geographic binning, yielding contradictory results among researchers. We used a fine-scale geospatial approach in combination with 95 megafaunal last-appearance and 75 human first-appearance radiocarbon dates to evaluate the North American megafaunal extinction. We used kriging to create interpolated first- and last-appearance surfaces from calibrated radiocarbon dates in combination with their geographic autocorrelation. We found substantial evidence for overlap between megafaunal and human populations in many but not all areas, in some cases exceeding 3000 years of predicted overlap. We also found that overlap was highly regional: megafauna had last appearances in Alaska before humans first appeared, but did not have last appearances in the Great Lakes region until several thousand years after the first recorded human appearances. Overlap in the Great Lakes region exceeds uncertainty in radiocarbon measurements or methodological uncertainty and would be even greater with sampling-derived confidence intervals. The kriged maps of last megafaunal occurrence are consistent with climate as a primary driver in some areas, but we cannot eliminate human influence from all regions. The late Pleistocene megafaunal extinction was highly variable in timing and duration of human overlap across the continent, and future analyses should take these regional trends into account.

  • View HTML
    • Send article to Kindle

      To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

      Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

      Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

      Spatially explicit analysis sheds new light on the Pleistocene megafaunal extinction in North America
      Available formats
      Send article to Dropbox

      To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

      Spatially explicit analysis sheds new light on the Pleistocene megafaunal extinction in North America
      Available formats
      Send article to Google Drive

      To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

      Spatially explicit analysis sheds new light on the Pleistocene megafaunal extinction in North America
      Available formats
Hide All
Albert B. M. 2015. Past vegetation influence on the hydrological cycle in the Chihuahuan Desert, North Mexico as indicated by data of four pollen sites. Quaternary International 374:168181.
Alley R. B. 2000. The Younger Dryas cold interval as viewed from central Greenland. Quaternary Science Reviews 19(1), 213226.
Alroy J. 2001. A multispecies overkill simulation of the end-Pleistocene megafaunal mass extinction. Science 292:18931896.
Anderson D. G., and Gillam J. C.. 2000. Paleoindian colonization of the Americas: implications from an examination of physiography, demography, and artifact distribution. American Antiquity 65:4366.
Anderson D. G., Miller D. S., Yerka S. J., Gillam J. C., Johanson E. N., Anderson D. T., Goodyear A. C., and Smallwood A. M.. 2010. PIDBA (Paleoindian Database of the Americas) 2010: Current Status and Findings. Archaeology of Eastern North America 38:6390.
Anderson D. G., Bissett T. G., Yerka S. J., Graf K. E., Ketron C. V., and Waters M. R.. 2013. The Late Pleistocene human settlement of interior North America: the role of physiography and sea-level change. Pp. 183203 in K. E. Graf, C. V. Ketron, and M. R. Waters, eds. Paleoamerican odyssey. Texas A&M University Press, College Station, Tex.
Arroyo-Cabrales J., Polaco O. J., and Johnson E.. 2006. A preliminary view of the coexistence of mammoth and early peoples in Mexico. Quaternary International 142:7986.
Barnosky A. D., Barnosky C. W., Nickmann R. J., Ashworth A. C., Schwert D. P., and Lantz S. W.. 1988. Late Quaternary paleoecology at the Newton site, Bradford Co., northeastern Pennsylvania: Mammuthus columbi, palynology, and fossil insects. Bulletin of the Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences 33:173184.
Barnosky A. D., Koch P. L., Feranec R. S., Wing S. L., and Shabel A. B.. 2004. Assessing the causes of Late Pleistocene extinctions on the continents. Science 306:7075.
Barnosky A. D., Holmes M., Kirchholtes R., Lindsey E., Maguire K. C., Poust A. W., Stegner M. A., Sunseri J., Swartz B., Swift J., Villavicencio N.A., and Wogan G.O.U.. 2014. Prelude to the Anthropocene: two new North American land mammal ages (NALMAs). Anthropocene Review 1:118.
Barnosky A. D., Lindsey E. L., Villavicencio N. A., Bostelmann E., Hadly E. A., Wanket J., and Marshall C. R.. 2015. Variable impact of late-Quaternary megafaunal extinction in causing ecological state shifts in North and South America. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 113: 856–861.
Benson L. V., Currey D. R., Dorn R. I., Lajoie K. R., Oviatt C. G., Robinson S. W., Smith G. I., and Stine S.. 1990. Chronology of expansion and contraction of four Great Basin lake systems during the past 35,000 years. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 78:241286.
Blois J. L., Williams J. W. J., Grimm E. C., Jackson S. T., and Graham R. W.. 2011. A methodological framework for assessing and reducing temporal uncertainty in paleovegetation mapping from late-Quaternary pollen records. Quaternary Science Reviews 30:19261939.
Boulanger M. T., and Lyman R. L.. 2014. Northeastern North American Pleistocene megafauna chronologically overlapped minimally with Paleoindians. Quaternary Science Reviews 85:3546.
Bradley B., and Stanford D.. 2004. The North Atlantic ice-edge corridor: a possible Palaeolithic route to the New World. World Archaeology 36:459478.
Bradshaw C. J. A., Cooper A., Turney C. S. M., and Brook B. W.. 2012. Robust estimates of extinction time in the geological record. Quaternary Science Reviews 33:1419.
Braje T. J., and Erlandson J. M.. 2013. Human acceleration of animal and plant extinctions: a Late Pleistocene, Holocene, and Anthropocene continuum. Anthropocene 4:1423.
Bronk Ramsey C. 1995. Radiocarbon calibration and analysis of stratigraphy. the OxCal program. Radiocarbon 37:425430.
Bronk Ramsey C. 2001. Development of the radiocarbon calibration program. Radiocarbon 43:355364.
Bronk Ramsey C., and Lee S.. 2013. Recent and planned developments of the program OxCal. Radiocarbon 55:720730.
Danell K., Bergström R., Duncan P., and Pastor J.. 2006. Large herbivore ecology, ecosystem dynamics and conservation Vol. 11. Cambridge University Press, New York.
Diamond J. M. 1989. Quaternary megafaunal extinctions: variations on a theme by Paganini. Journal of Archaeological Science 16:167175.
Dietl G. P., and Flessa K. W.. 2011. Conservation paleobiology: putting the dead to work. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 26:3037.
Di Minin E., Hunter L. T., Balme G. A., Smith R. J., Goodman P. S., and Slotow R.. 2013. Creating larger and better connected protected areas enhances the persistence of big game species in the Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany biodiversity hotspot. PLoS One 8:e71788.
Eren M. I., Patten R. J., O’Brien M. J., and Meltzer D. J.. 2013. Refuting the technological cornerstone of the Ice-Age Atlantic crossing hypothesis. Journal of Archaeological Science 40:29342941.
Faith J. T., and Surovell T. A.. 2009. Synchronous extinction of North America’s Pleistocene mammals. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 106:20641–20645.
Fiedel S. J. 2005. Man’s best friend–mammoth’s worst enemy? A speculative essay on the role of dogs in Paleoindian colonization and megafaunal extinction. World Archaeology 37:1125.
Fiedel S. J. 2011. The mysterious onset of the Younger Dryas. Quaternary International 242:262266.
Fisher D. C. 1996. Testing late Pleistocene extinction mechanisms with data on mastodon and mammoth life history. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 16:34A.
Fisher D. C. 2009. Paleobiology and extinction of proboscideans in the Great Lakes region of North America. Pp. 5575 in G. Haynes, ed. American megafaunal extinctions at the end of the Pleistocene. Springer, Dordrecht, Netherlands.
Fox D. L., and Fisher D. C.. 2001. Stable isotope ecology of a late Miocene population of Gomphotherium productus (Mammalia, Proboscidea) from Port of Entry Pit, Oklahoma, USA. Palaios 16:279293.
Gajewski K., Munoz S., Peros M., Viau A., Morlan R., and Betts M.. 2011. The Canadian Archaeological Radiocarbon Database (CARD): archaeological 14c dates in North America and their paleoenvironmental context. Radiocarbon 53:371394.
Gill J. L., Williams J. W., Jackson S. T., Lininger K. B., and Robinson G. S.. 2009. Pleistocene megafaunal collapse, novel plant communities, and enhanced fire regimes in North America. Science 326:11001103.
Goebel T., Waters M. R., and O’Rourke D. H.. 2008. The late Pleistocene dispersal of modern humans in the Americas. Science 319:14971502.
Gonzales L. M., and Grimm E. C.. 2009. Synchronization of late-glacial vegetation changes at Crystal Lake, Illinois, USA with the North Atlantic Event Stratigraphy. Quaternary Research 72:234245.
Green J. L., Semprebon G. M., and Solounias N.. 2005. Reconstructing the palaeodiet of Florida Mammut americanum via low-magnification stereomicroscopy. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 223:3448.
Guthrie R. D. 1970. Bison evolution and zoogeography in North America during the Pleistocene. Quarterly Review of Biology 45:115.
Guthrie R. D 2006. New carbon dates link climatic change with human colonization and Pleistocene extinctions. Nature 441:207209.
Hall S. A., and Goble R. J.. 2012. Berino Paleosol, Late Pleistocene argillic soil development on the Mescalero Sand Sheet in New Mexico. Journal of Geology 120:333345.
Hamilton M. J., and Buchanan B.. 2007. Spatial gradients in Clovis-age radiocarbon dates across North America suggest rapid colonization from the north. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 104:15625–15630.
Hassan A. A., and Ortner D. J.. 1977. Inclusions in bone material as a source of error in radiocarbon dating. Archaeometry 19:131135.
Jenkins D. L., Davis L. G., Stafford T. W., Campos P.F., Hockett B., Jones G. T., Cummings L. S., Yost C., Connolly T. J., Yohe R. M., and Gibbons S. C.. 2012. Clovis age Western Stemmed projectile points and human coprolites at the Paisley Caves. Science 337:223228.
Johnson C. N., Bradshaw C. J., Cooper A., Gillespie R., and Brook B. W.. 2013. Rapid megafaunal extinction following human arrival throughout the New World. Quaternary International 308:273277.
Johnston K., Ver Hoef J. M., Krivoruchko K., and Lucas N.. 2001. Using ArcGIS geostatistical analyst, Vol. 300. Esri, Redlands, Calif.
Jones G. T., Beck C., Nials F. L., Neudorfer J. J., Brownholtz B. J., and Gilbert H. B.. 1996. Recent archaeological and geological investigations at the Sunshine Locality, Long Valley, Nevada. Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology 18:4863.
Jones T. L., Porcasi J. F., Erlandson J. M., Dallas H., Wake T. A., and Schwaderer R.. 2008. The protracted Holocene extinction of California’s flightless sea duck (Chendytes lawi) and its implications for the Pleistocene overkill hypothesis. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA105:4105–4108.
Kirner D. L., Burky R., Taylor R. E., and Southon J. R.. 1997. Radiocarbon dating organic residues at the microgram level. Nuclear Instruments and Methods in Physics Research Section B: Beam Interactions with Materials and Atoms 123:214217.
Kleijnen J. P. 2009. Kriging metamodeling in simulation: a review. European Journal of Operational Research 192:707716.
Lambeck K., and Chappell J.. 2001. Sea level change through the last glacial cycle. Science 292:679686.
Lima-Ribeiro M. S., and Felizola Diniz-Filho J. A.. 2013. American megafaunal extinctions and human arrival: improved evaluation using a meta-analytical approach. Quaternary International 299:3852.
Louys J. 2012a. Paleoecology and conservation paleobiology: future directions. Pp. 253262 in J. Louys, ed. Paleontology in ecology and conservation. Springer, Heidelberg.
Louys J. 2012b. Paleontology in ecology and conservation: an introduction. Pp. 17 in J. Louys, ed. Paleontology in ecology and conservation. Springer, Heidelberg.
Lyle M., Heusser L., Ravelo C., Yamamoto M., Barron J., Diffenbaugh N. S., Herbert T., and Andreasen D.. 2012. Out of the tropics: the Pacific, Great Basin Lakes, and Late Pleistocene water cycle in the western United States. Science 337:16291633.
Mann D. H., Groves P., Kunz M. L., Reanier R. E., and Gaglioti B. V.. 2013. Ice-age megafauna in Arctic Alaska: extinction, invasion, survival. Quaternary Science Reviews 70:91108.
Marshall C. R. 1994. Confidence intervals on stratigraphic ranges: partial relaxation of the assumption of randomly distributed fossil horizons. Paleobiology 20:459469.
Marshall C. R. 1997. Confidence intervals on stratigraphic ranges with nonrandom distributions of fossil horizons. Paleobiology 23:165173.
Martin P. S. 1984. Prehistoric overkill: the global model. Pp. 354403 in P. S. Martin, and R. G. Klein, eds. Quaternary extinctions: a prehistoric revolution. University of Arizona Press, Tucson.
McGuire J. L., and Davis E. B.. 2014. Conservation paleobiogeography: the past, present and future of species distributions. Ecography 37:10921094.
Metcalfe S. E., O’Hara S. L., Caballero M., and Davies S. J.. 2000. Records of Late Pleistocene–Holocene climatic change in Mexico—a review. Quaternary Science Reviews 19:699721.
Oviatt C. G. 2014. The Gilbert Episode in the Great Salt Lake Basin, Utah. Utah Geological Survey Miscellaneous Publication, 14–3. Utah Department of Natural Resources, Salt Lake City.
Pedersen M. W., Ruter A., Schweger C., Friebe H., Staff R. A., Kjeldsen K. K., Mendoza M. L., Beaudoin A. B., Zutter C., Larsen N. K., et al. 2016. Postglacial viability and colonization in North America’s ice-free corridor. Nature 537:4549.
Prowse T. A., Johnson C. N., Bradshaw C. J., and Brook B. W.. 2014. An ecological regime shift resulting from disrupted predator-prey interactions in Holocene Australia. Ecology 95:693702.
Reich D., Patterson N., Campbell D., Tandon A., Mazieres S., Ray N., Parra M. V., Rojas W., Duque C., Mesa N., et al. 2012. Reconstructing native American population history. Nature 488:370374.
Reimer P. J., Bard E., Bayliss A., Beck J. W., Blackwell P. G., Bronk Ramsey C., Buck C., Cheng H., Edwards R. L., Friedrich M., Grootes P. M., Guilderson T. P., Haflidason H., Hajda I., Hatte C., Heaton T. J., Hoffman D. L., Hogg A. G., Hughen K. A., Kaiser K. F., Kromer B., Manning S. W., Niu M., Reimer R. W., Richards D. A., Scott E. M., Southon J. R., Staff R. A., Turney C. S. M., and van der Plicht J.. 2013. INTCAL13 and MARINE13 radiocarbon age calibration curves 0–50,000 years cal BP. Radiocarbon 55:18691887.
Ripple W. J., and Van Valkenburgh B.. 2010. Linking top-down forces to the Pleistocene megafaunal extinctions. BioScience 60:516526.
Rivals F., Semprebon G., and Lister A.. 2012. An examination of dietary diversity patterns in Pleistocene proboscideans (Mammuthus, Palaeoloxodon, and Mammut) from Europe and North America as revealed by dental microwear. Quaternary International 255:88195.
Robinson B. S., Ort J. C., Eldridge W. A., Burke A. L., and Pelletier B. G.. 2009. Paleoindian aggregation and social context at Bull Brook. American Antiquity 74:423447.
Robinson G. S., Pigott Burney L., and Burney D. A.. 2005. Landscape paleoecology and megafaunal extinction in southeastern New York State. Ecological Monographs 75:295315.
Schubert B. W. 2010. Late Quaternary chronology and extinction of North American giant short-faced bears (Arctodus simus). Quaternary International 217:188194.
Shakun J. D., Clark P. U., He F., Marcott S. A., Mix A. C., Liu Z., Otto-Bliesner B., Schmittner A., and Bard E.. 2012. Global warming preceded by increasing carbon dioxide concentrations during the last deglaciation. Nature 484:4954.
Shuman B., IIIWebb T., Bartlein P., and Williams J. W.. 2002. The anatomy of a climatic oscillation: vegetation change in eastern North America during the Younger Dryas chronozone. Quaternary Science Reviews 21:17771791.
Shuman B., Bartlein P. J., and Webb T.. 2005. The magnitudes of millennial- and orbital-scale climatic change in eastern North America during the Late Quaternary. Quaternary Science Reviews 24:21942206.
Steadman D. W., Martin P. S., MacPhee R. D., Jull A. J. T., McDonald H. G., Woods C. A., Iturralde-Vinent M., and Hodgins G. W.. 2005. Asynchronous extinction of late Quaternary sloths on continents and islands. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 102:11763–11768.
Steele J., Adams J., and Sluckin T.. 1998. Modelling paleoindian dispersals. World Archaeology 30:286305.
Strong W. L., and Hills L. V.. 2005. Late-glacial and Holocene palaeovegetation zonal reconstruction for central and north-central North America. Journal of Biogeography 32:10431062.
Surovell T., Waguespack N., and Brantingham P. J.. 2005. Global archaeological evidence for proboscidean overkill. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 102:6231–6236.
Taylor J. 1997. Introduction to error analysis: the study of uncertainties in physical measurements. University Science Books, New York.
Telford R. J., Heegaard E., and Birks H. J. B.. 2004. The intercept is a poor estimate of a calibrated radiocarbon age. The Holocene 14:296298.
Waters M. R., and Stafford T. W.. 2007. Redefining the age of Clovis: implications for the peopling of the Americas. Science 315:11221126.
Waters M. R., Stafford T. W., McDonald H. G., Gustafson C., Rasmussen M., Cappellini E., Olsen J. V., Szklarczyk D., Jensen L. J., Gilbert M. T. P., et al. 2011. Pre-Clovis mastodon hunting 13,800 years ago at the Manis site, Washington. Science 334:351353.
Williams J. W., Shuman B. N., and Webb T.. 2001. Dissimilarity analyses of late-Quaternary vegetation and climate in eastern North America. Ecology 82:33463362.
Williams J. W., Shuman B. N., Webb T., Bartlein P. J., and Leduc P. L.. 2004. Late-quaternary vegetation dynamics in North America: scaling from taxa to biomes. Ecological Monographs 74:309334.
Zimmerman D. L., and Zimmerman M. B.. 1991. A comparison of spatial semivariogram estimators and corresponding ordinary kriging predictors. Technometrics 33:7791.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

  • ISSN: 0094-8373
  • EISSN: 1938-5331
  • URL: /core/journals/paleobiology
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 112
Total number of PDF views: 512 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 1685 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between 29th August 2017 - 15th December 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.