History and comic books are littered with images of fur-wearing, spear-wielding cavemen chasing woolly mammoths across barren, snowy landscapes. Humans, those images imply, were what drove the majestic beasts to extinction. In a way, it’s a reminder that human hubris has a long history—who were these tiny men who had the guts to take on a massive mammoth?—and that humans have been upending ecosystems for millennia.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, reality is more nuanced than that. Glen MacDonald, a geographer and evolutionary biologist at UCLA, wanted to dig deeper into the woolly mammoth’s extinction, so he pored over 1,323 mammoth remains and 576 archaeological sites.
Jennifer Abbasi, writing for Discover:
His analysis showed that the LGM [the Last Glacial Maximum] — when annual temperatures in northernmost Asia and northwestern North America were some 12 degrees Celsius lower than today — likely reduced the northern populations of mammoths as grasslands froze over and food became sparse. Then the climate warmed. The northern populations began to recover as the cold, dry, grassy steppes that fed them in their heyday returned, but mammoths in warmer central and southern Siberia died off when forests and peatland — and humans — moved in.
So the wooly mammoth’s extinction wasn’t entirely the fault of humans, though we certainly played a role. A shifting climate had weakened mammoth populations, which weren’t robust enough to recover from successive and successful human hunting expeditions.
It’s a cautionary tale. Today, we’re in the middle of a sixth mass extinction event. Like the mammoth’s extinction, we have played a direct role in taking some species to the brink—the dodo, the passenger pigeon, the Pyrenean ibex. Yet unlike with the mammoth, our actions are changing the climate, too, placing most of the responsibility for this extinction event squarely on our shoulders.