New Study Supports Human Overkill as cause of Megafauna Extinctions in the Middle East

The Middle East is a gateway between African and Eurasian faunas. Elephants, humans, and big cats among other animals originally evolved in Africa and spread through the Middle East to Eurasia and beyond. The Middle East, also known as the Levant, encompasses Israel, the Sinai Peninsula, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. Humans and their evolutionary ancestors beginning with Homo erectus have had a continuous presence in the region for at least 1.5 million years, and it is a good place to study the historical interaction between human species and Pleistocene megafauna. A recent survey of data from 58 archaeological sites in the Levant concluded the average size of the animals humans hunted declined over time throughout the past 1.5 millions years. The study also compared this data with temperature changes and changes in paleoenvironmental conditions and found little correlation between these factors and the decline in average animal body size. Therefore, they determined human hunters were entirely responsible for the disappearance and/or decline of megafauna populations from this region.

Map of the sites surveyed in the below referenced study.
Graph showing the decline in megafauna body size over the past 1.5 million years from archaeological sites located in the Middle East. From the below referenced study. The authors attribute this to human hunting, not changes in climate or paleoenvironmental conditions.

Africa did not experience many extinctions during the late Pleistocene as other parts of the world did when humans colonized new territory. However, there was a spike in extinctions of large mammals in Africa during the beginning of the Pleistocene. One example is an extinct species of giant baboon (Therepithecus oswaldi), an animal that occupied a similar niche as Homo erectus. There is direct evidence of Homo erectus killing 90 giant baboons at a site in Kenya, and I have no doubt they are responsible for the extinction of this species. Some scientists believe some species of megafauna were able to persist in Africa because the animals there co-evolved with man and had time to learn better survival strategies than megafauna in other parts of the world. Although this may be partly true, I think African megafauna survived to the present because large parts of the continent were frequently depopulated and uninhabited by man due to tropical diseases and intertribal warfare. Megafauna consistently found refuge in the depopulated areas.

Megafauna was able survive in the Levant until quite late in the Pleistocene, but the average size of the 83 species found at the 58 archaeological sites declined over time, and some of the larger species did eventually disappear. Elephants became extirpated in the Levant 125,000 years ago, hippos vanished here 42,000 years ago, rhinos met their demise 15,500 years ago, and the final population of the aurochs (ancestor of the domestic cow) was wiped out in the region 3500 years ago. The authors of this study believe humans preferred hunting larger animals because they provided more meat, and it took less skill to hunt them. A group of men with spears could easily bring down any large beast. Paradoxically, human hunting technology advanced when megafauna became scarce, and humans were forced to hunt smaller more elusive prey.


Dembitzer, J. R. Borkei, M. Ben-dor, and S. Neiri

“Levantine Overkill: 1.5 million Years of Hunting Down the Body Size Distribution:

Quaternary Science Review 276 2022


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