Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Blitzkrieg of Ungulates in Levant

The region of the Middle East referred to as “Levant” includes modern day Israel, Palestine and Jordon, and there are few places on earth more intensely studied by archaeologists than the birthplace of monotheistic religion. In addition to yielding a vast record of human occupation, culture and war, the archaeological sites within this region also document the decimation of several mammalian species. A couple of days ago (April 29), several Israeli scientists published an article in PLoS One in which they identified human driven overkill as the primary cause of regional extinction in several species of ungulates.

Through examination of vertebrate remains associated with the archaeological sites of Levant, scientists were able to piece together patterns of ungulate biogeography that point to over hunting and environmental degradation as the impetus for the extinction of hartebeests, aurochs, hippopotami and several species of deer. Additionally, a direct correlation was found between the body mass of the hunted species and the rate at which the animal went extinct – presumably, larger animals were of greater value (provided more meat) and were easier to hunt (bigger = slower).

Figure: Body mass of ungulates that became extinct at end of Iron Age (by 586 BCE), at end of Mamluk period (12th century CE), at end of 19th century CE, as well as body mass of extant ungulate species. Three species became extinct during the Iron Age (1,Hippopotamus amphibius; 2, Bos primigenius; 3, Alcelaphus buselaphus), one species during the 12th century CE (4, Cervus elaphus), and six species during the 19th century CE (5, Dama mesopotamica; 6, Capra aegagrus; 7, Capreolus capreolus; 8, Gazella subgutturosa; 18 9, Equus hemionus; 10, Oryx leucoryx). Four species still exist (11, Sus scrofa; 12,Gazella gazelle; 13, Capra ibex nubiana; 14, Gazella dorcas). Because only one species become extinct during the 12th century this period could not be included in the ANOVA analysis. Horizontal broken line indicates average body mass of the 14 ungulates in Natufian Period (13,000–9,500 years BCE). Letters above bars indicate a significant difference between groups (Bonferroni Multiple Comparison Test, P,0.05). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0005316.g011

According to the researchers, “It thus appears that during the Holocene period in the southern Levant, the most important causes of ungulate extinctions were habitat destruction and uncontrolled hunting.” They further detail, “Based on the data of this study we assume that overkill in the southern Levant operated in two stages: 1) slow overkill by ancient hunting methods, that caused the disappearance of the larger species and 2) modern blitzkrieg, which was made possible by the use of modern firearms, such blitzkrieg differed drastically from the prehistoric hunting of naive large fauna in other continents and islands, where human hunters were never encountered.”

Tsahar, E., Izhaki, I., Lev-Yadun, S., & Bar-Oz, G. (2009). Distribution and Extinction of Ungulates during the Holocene of the Southern Levant PLoS ONE, 4 (4) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0005316

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