Jared Diamond wrote one of my favorite books, Guns Germs and Steel, which explains why Eurasians conquered and colonized the rest of the world rather than vice versa. It also explains why Europeans didn’t displace the local populations anywhere except in the southern tip of Africa, Australia, and the Americas. Here is an excerpt from chapter that explains why Australia and the Americas didn’t have many big animals that people could domesticate.
Domesticated animals in Eurasia led to higher agricultural productivity, more interchange of ideas through travel and trade, and, most importantly, immunity to more infectious diseases which wiped out most of the people of Australia, and the Americas.
During the Ice Ages, so much of the oceans’ water was locked up in glaciers that worldwide sea levels dropped hundreds of feet below their present stand. As a result, what are now the shallow seas between Asia and the Indonesian islands of Sumatra, Borneo, Java, and Bali became dry land. (So did other shallow straits, such as the Bering Strait and the English Channel.)
…To reach Australia/New Guinea from the Asian mainland at that time still required crossing a minimum of eight channels, the broadest of which was at least 50 miles wide. …Australia itself was always invisible from even the nearest Indonesian islands, Timor and Tanimbar. Thus, the occupation of Australia/New Guinea is momentous in that it demanded watercraft and provides by far the earliest evidence of their use in history. Not until about 30,000 years later (13,000 years ago) is there strong evidence of watercraft anywhere else in the world…
The settlement of Australia/New Guinea was perhaps associated with still another big first, besides humans’ first use of watercraft and first range extension since reaching Eurasia: the first mass extermination of large animal species by humans. Today, we regard Africa as the continent of big mammals. Modern Eurasia also has many species of big mammals (though not in the manifest abundance of Africa’s Serengeti Plains), such as Asia’s rhinos and elephants and tigers, and Europe’s moose and bears and (until classical times) lions.
Australia/New Guinea today has no equally large mammals, in fact no mammal larger than 100-pound kangaroos. But Australia/New Guinea formerly had its own suite of diverse big mammals, including giant kangaroos, rhinolike marsupials called diprotodonts and reaching the size of a cow, and a marsupial “leopard.” It also formerly had a 400-pound ostrich-like flightless bird, plus some impressively big reptiles, including a one-ton lizard, a giant python, and land-dwelling crocodiles.
All of those Australian/New Guinean giants (the so-called megafauna) disappeared after the arrival of humans. While there has been controversy about the exact timing of their demise, several Australian archaeological sites, with dates extending over tens of thousands of years, and with prodigiously abundant deposits of animal bones, have been carefully excavated and found to contain not a trace of the now extinct giants over the last 35,000 years. Hence the megafauna probably became extinct soon after humans reached Australia.
The near-simultaneous disappearance of so many large species raises an obvious question: what caused it? An obvious possible answer is that they were killed off or else eliminated indirectly by the first arriving humans. Recall that Australian/New Guinean animals had evolved for millions of years in the absence of human hunters. We know that Galapagos and Antarctic birds and mammals, which similarly evolved in the absence of humans and did not see humans until modern times, are still incurably tame today. They would have been exterminated if conservationists had not imposed protective measures quickly. On other recently discovered islands where protective measures did not go into effect quickly, exterminations did indeed result: one such victim, the dodo of Mauritius, has become virtually a symbol for extinction. We also know now that, on every one of the well-studied oceanic islands colonized in the prehistoric era, human colonization led to an extinction spasm whose victims included the moas of New Zealand, the giant lemurs of Madagascar, and the big flightless geese of Hawaii. Just as modern humans walked up to unafraid dodos and island seals and killed them, prehistoric humans presumably walked up to unafraid moas and giant lemurs and killed them too.
Hence one hypothesis for the demise of Australia’s and New Guinea’s giants is that they met the same fate around 40,000 years ago. In contrast, most big mammals of Africa and Eurasia survived into modern times, because they had coevolved with protohumans for hundreds of thousands or millions of years. They thereby enjoyed ample time to evolve a fear of humans, as our ancestors’ initially poor hunting skills slowly improved. The dodo, moas, and perhaps the giants of Australia/New Guinea had the misfortune suddenly to be confronted, without any evolutionary preparation, by invading modern humans possessing fully developed hunting skills.
However, the overkill hypothesis, as it is termed, has not gone unchallenged… Critics emphasize that, as yet, no one has documented the bones of an extinct Australian/New Guinean giant with compelling evidence of its having been killed by humans, or even of its having lived in association with humans. Defenders of the overkill hypothesis reply: you would hardly expect to find kill sites if the extermination was completed very quickly and long ago, such as within a few millennia some 40,000 years ago. The critics respond with a countertheory: perhaps the giants succumbed instead to a change in climate, such as a severe drought on the already chronically dry Australian continent. The debate goes on.
Personally, I can’t fathom why Australia’s giants should have survived innumerable droughts in their tens of millions of years of Australian history, and then have chosen to drop dead almost simultaneously (at least on a time scale of millions of years) precisely and just coincidentally when the first humans arrived. The giants became extinct not only in dry central Australia but also in drenching wet New Guinea and southeastern Australia. They became extinct in every habitat without exception, from deserts to cold rain forest and tropical rain forest. Hence it seems to me most likely that the giants were indeed exterminated by humans, both directly (by being killed for food) and indirectly (as the result of fires and habitat modification caused by humans). But regardless of whether the overkill hypothesis or the climate hypothesis proves correct, the disappearance of all of the big animals of Australia/New Guinea had, as we shall see, heavy consequences for subsequent human history. Those extinctions eliminated all the large wild animals that might otherwise have been candidates for domestication, and left native Australians and New Guineans with not a single native domestic animal.
…The oldest unquestioned human remains in the Americas are at sites in Alaska dated around 12,000 B.C., followed by a profusion of sites in the United States south of the Canadian border and in Mexico in the centuries just before 11,000 B.C. The latter sites are called Clovis sites, named after the type site near the town of Clovis, New Mexico, where their characteristic large stone spearpoints were first recognized. Hundreds of Clovis sites are now known, blanketing all 48 of the lower U.S. states south into Mexico. Unquestioned evidence of human presence appears soon thereafter in Amazonia and in Patagonia. These facts suggest the interpretation that Clovis sites document the Americas’ first colonization by people, who quickly multiplied, expanded, and filled the two continents.
One might at first be surprised that Clovis descendants could reach Patagonia, lying 8,000 miles south of the U.S.-Canada border, in less than a thousand years. However, that translates into an average expansion of only 8 miles per year, a trivial feat for a hunter-gatherer likely to cover that distance even within a single day’s normal foraging. One might also at first be surprised that the Americas evidently filled up with humans so quickly that people were motivated to keep spreading south toward Patagonia. That population growth also proves unsurprising when one stops to consider the actual numbers. If the Americas eventually came to hold hunter-gatherers at an average population density of somewhat under one person per square mile (a high value for modern hunter-gatherers), then the whole area of the Americas would eventually have held about 10 million hunter-gatherers. But even if the initial colonists had consisted of only 100 people and their numbers had increased at a rate of only 1.1 percent per year, the colonists’ descendants would have reached that population ceiling of 10 million people within a thousand years. A population growth rate of 1.1 percent per year is again trivial: rates as high as 3.4 percent per year have been observed in modern times when people colonized virgin lands, such as when the HMS Bounty mutineers and their Tahitian wives colonized Pitcairn Island.
…The Edmonton pioneers would have found the Great Plains teeming with game. They would have thrived, increased in numbers, and gradually spread south to occupy the whole hemisphere. [It took less than 1,000 years for people to fill up all of the Americas.]
…Like Australia/New Guinea, the Americas had originally been full of big mammals. About 15,000 years ago, the American West looked much as Africa’s Serengeti Plains do today, with herds of elephants and horses pursued by lions and cheetahs, and joined by members of such exotic species as camels and giant ground sloths. Just as in Australia/New Guinea, in the Americas most of those large mammals became extinct. Whereas the extinctions took place probably before 30,000 years ago in Australia, they occurred around 17,000 to 12,000 years ago in the Americas. For those extinct American mammals whose bones are available in greatest abundance and have been dated especially accurately, one can pinpoint the extinctions as having occurred around 11,000 B.C. Perhaps the two most accurately dated extinctions are those of the Shasta ground sloth and Harrington’s mountain goat in the Grand Canyon area; both of those populations disappeared within a century or two of 11,100 B.C. Whether coincidentally or not, that date is identical, within experimental error, to the date of Clovis hunters’ arrival in the Grand Canyon area.
The discovery of numerous skeletons of mammoths with Clovis spearpoints between their ribs suggests that this agreement of dates is not a coincidence. Hunters expanding southward through the Americas, encountering big animals that had never seen humans before, may have found those American animals easy to kill and may have exterminated them. A counter theory is that America’s big mammals instead became extinct because of climate changes at the end of the last Ice Age, which (to confuse the interpretation for modern paleontologists) also happened around 11,000 B.C.
Personally, I have the same problem with a climatic theory of megafauna extinction in the Americas as with such a theory in Australia/New Guinea. The Americas’ big animals had already survived the ends of 22 previous Ice Ages. Why did most of them pick the 23rd to expire in concert, in the presence of all those supposedly harmless humans? Why did they disappear in all habitats, not only in habitats that contracted but also in ones that greatly expanded at the end of the last Ice Age? Hence I suspect that Clovis hunters did it, but the debate remains unresolved. Whichever theory proves correct, most large wild mammal species that might otherwise have later been domesticated by Native Americans were thereby removed.
Similarly, deer are vulnerable to getting hit by cars on highways because they haven’t yet evolved an instinctual fear of the oncoming headlights and attendant sounds, but I predict that they will have the inbred instinct to fear oncoming cars within my kids’ lifetimes because the selection pressures seem very high.