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Television: Downfall of the Mega Beasts Volume 55 Number 4, July/August 2002
by David Hurst Thomas

[image] The fearsome "marsupial lion" went extinct during the last Ice Age. (Discovery Channel) [LARGER IMAGE]

One of archaeology's enduring mysteries is why animals like giant sloths, mammoths, and giant beavers died out suddenly at the end of the last Ice Age. The two-hour What Killed the Mega Beasts (airing on the Discovery Channel August 18, 8:00 p.m. EST) presents current thinking regarding these Pleistocene and Holocene extinctions as a three-part debate among those promoting climate change, human hunting, and trans-species disease as the main culprits. The narrator refers relentlessly to these competing theories as "chill-kill-and-ill."

Ecologist and "kill theorist" Paul S. Martin argues that humans possessed both motivation and opportunity to hunt the mega beasts into extinction. Walking along the railroad tracks at Dent, Colorado, archaeologist Gary Haynes agrees, citing as evidence 15 slaughtered mammoths discovered there 60 years ago. Period footage of the original Dent site excavation is augmented by a computer-generated attack of three dozen Paleoindian hunters upon a bewildered herd of mammoths.

The program, laden with special effects, also highlights paleontologist Ross MacPhee's "ill theory," which suggests the mega beasts were taken out by disease--plagues of rabies, bubonic plague or perhaps anthrax--introduced by migrating human newcomers and their "cloud of microbes." On the theory that "where animals get sociable, they get sick," MacPhee examines a "mega beast freeway" at "Monster Beach" (Bahia Blanca, south of Buenos Aires), where the fossilized footprints of giant ground sloths and other Pleistocene animals are preserved.

Veterinarian Sarah Cleveland suggests that the devastating spread of canine distemper in modern-day East Africa might provide a model of how such catastrophic diseases operated in the past. Showing killer diseases on television is grisly business, and the viewer is subjected to seemingly endless, if dramatic, footage of wild dogs and a lion writhing in their death throes.

Paleontologist Russell Graham points to climate as the main suspect, making the case that a sudden cold snap at the end of the Ice Age triggered the massive die-off. The program concludes, perhaps predictably, with a compromise, suggesting that a nuanced interplay of kill-chill-and-ill might best explain the mega animal extinctions: "In short, what killed the mega beasts, was progress."

While What Killed the Mega Beasts is a welcome glimpse into the issues surrounding the global extinctions, the presentation is unnecessarily drawn out and, in places, labored. Perhaps a one-hour edit of the show would have been just about right.

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© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America