New carbon dates link climatic change with human colonization and Pleistocene extinctions

Nature. 2006 May 11;441(7090):207-9. doi: 10.1038/nature04604.


Drastic ecological restructuring, species redistribution and extinctions mark the Pleistocene-Holocene transition, but an insufficiency of numbers of well-dated large mammal fossils from this transition have impeded progress in understanding the various causative links. Here I add many new radiocarbon dates to those already published on late Pleistocene fossils from Alaska and the Yukon Territory (AK-YT) and show previously unrecognized patterns. Species that survived the Pleistocene, for example, bison (Bison priscus, which evolved into Bison bison), wapiti (Cervus canadensis) and, to a smaller degree, moose (Alces alces), began to increase in numbers and continued to do so before and during human colonization and before the regional extinction of horse (Equus ferus) and mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius). These patterns allow us to reject, at least in AK-YT, some hypotheses of late Pleistocene extinction: 'Blitzkrieg' version of simultaneous human overkill, 'keystone' removal, and 'palaeo-disease'. Hypotheses of a subtler human impact and/or ecological replacement or displacement are more consistent with the data. The new patterns of dates indicate a radical ecological sorting during a uniquely forage-rich transitional period, affecting all large mammals, including humans.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biodiversity*
  • Carbon / analysis*
  • Carbon Radioisotopes
  • Climate*
  • Fossils*
  • History, Ancient
  • Human Activities*
  • Humans
  • Mammals / physiology*
  • Population Dynamics
  • Time Factors


  • Carbon Radioisotopes
  • Carbon