We arrived in North America, in what is now Canada, 16,000 years ago. Within a few thousand years, three quarters of the continent’s large animals were gone.
By “we,” I don’t mean we European colonizers, I mean we Homo sapiens.
There were no indigenous people when we arrived. Not like 70,000 years ago when we came to Europe from Africa. Then, the indigenous people of Europe were the Neanderthals. We probably treated them much in the way that Europeans treated the indigenous people of North America -as savages.
Am I equating indigenous people of North America to the indigenous people of Europe? Yes. We are all humans, says Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens:
“Yet the real meaning of the word human is ‘an animal belonging to the genus Homo,’ and there used to be many other species of this genus besides Homo sapiens.”
We encountered other humans as we spread around the globe, probably with the same disdain. We dismiss other humans who look slightly different as inferior; it’s a convenient way of subjugating “others” and appropriating their land and resources.
The extent to which Neanderthals were human is indicated in our DNA. Shortly after arriving in Europe, the Neanderthals disappeared. There are two possible explanations: either sapiens and Neanderthals interbred to become one species or the Neanderthals died off, or we killed them. If we interbred, we are not “pure sapiens” but carry DNA of those other humans that we encountered –Denisovans from Siberia, Homo Erectus in East Asia.
DNA analysis reveals interbreeding. Europeans and those from the Middle East carry one to four per cent of Neanderthal genes. Melanesians and Australian Aboriginals carry six per cent of Denisovan genes. We humans are probably all one species, just as Spaniels and Chihuahuas are all dogs.
To the chagrin of racists, the only pure members of our species are found in Africa. The rest of us are just bastards.
When we walked into North America 16,000 years ago across the Bering Strait, we had no idea that we were walking into a new world. In just a few thousand years we traveled all the way to the island of Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America. Along the way, we exterminated many species.
“According to current estimates, in that short interval, North America lost thirty-four out of forty-seven genera of large animals,” says Harari, “South America lost fifty out of sixty.”
After flourishing for 30 million years, sabre-toothed cats were gone as well as giant sloths that weighed up to eight tons. Gone were giant beavers, horses, camels and mammoths.
We arrived in Australia with the same disastrous results. Within a few thousand years, out of twenty-four species of large Australian animals, most of them marsupials, twenty-three became extinct.
The unsettling fact is that we were not good stewards of the land, not as first people and certainly not as European colonizers.
We sapiens are remarkable humans in other respects. We inhabit every corner of the earth. But I can’t help but feel that it’s going to end badly.
Maybe a new version of humans will rise, breed with us, and do a better job at living in harmony with the planet.