Humanity’s History with Animals: The Beginnings: Animals
Animals: Tradition - Philosophy


Toby Köberle Melbourne
July 2005

It is a sad fact that throughout the history of the human race, we have been ‘at war’ with nature and our fellow animals.

Most of us however, can not or will not accept the fact that we are slaughtering to extinction many other species. We invariably see ourselves as benevolent, kind and compassionate. Our prominent religion tells us that we are “made in the image of God”.[i] And those who look toward the east for their spiritual fulfilment learn much the same, namely that they ‘are’ God (as taught in Indian Advaita philosophy). We are completely unable to see ourselves from a point of reference other that our own. At best, we view ourselves in relation to our society or country but never through the eyes of the animals who we are exterminating or the planet we are destroying. If we were to do that, we would see that we are, in reality - and from the point of view of most other species – “the most pernicious mode of earthly being - the termination, not the fulfilment, of the Earth process. We are an affliction of the world, its demonic presence. We are the violation of Earth's most sacred aspects.”[ii]

A small minority of us are coming to awareness - people who are not completely given over to greed and who do not measure all of nature on the profit-scale of the so-called “rational” economics. To those people, it is obvious that humans have, in their quest to possess more and more material wealth, and as a result of our plague-like overpopulation of this planet, destroyed a great proportion of the natural world, polluted it beyond redemption[1] and exterminated for ever many of our fellow species, not for survival, but for profit, for “sport” or simply because they were in the way of our “progress”.

Many people would, if asked, place the beginnings of humans’ destruction of the planet at around the time of the Industrial Revolution, or perhaps a century or two earlier, at the Age of Enlightenment or the Humanistic philosophies of the Renaissance. And it is true that industrialism, overpopulation and the phenomena of the large modern city were all born out of the Industrial Revolution, as western society moved from a rural to an urban existence, fuelled by scientific models from the Age of Enlightenment, in turn fuelled by the humanistic philosophies of the Renaissance, in particular Cartesianism. Since then, our destructive tendencies have seemed to have grown exponentially.

But did it really begin there? There is today, a prominence of the idea that pre-industrial peoples all over the world lived in harmony with nature, and with our fellow animals. The interest in Native American, Celtic and other indigenous spirituality has increased almost to the point of becoming 'mainstream', as people search for a connection to the world of which we are a part.

It is true that native peoples did not clear-fell thousands of acres of land. They did not dump hundreds of tons of toxic waste in the oceans and they did not pollute the air with smoking factories.

To the extent that the term refers to being aware of nature’s cycles and patterns, native peoples certainly did live in “harmony” with nature. On top of that, they often showed some respect, or at least gratitude, toward the animals they hunted, as anthropological research shows. Yet there are several instances when native peoples – sometimes deliberately - drove species of animals to extinction and caused – maybe less deliberately – significant and harmful changes to landscapes.

It is important to note at this point that I am not making an attack on native peoples, either singly or collectively – I am attempting to show that those aspect of the human condition which drives us to be so destructive today, has always been rooted within us[2], and part of that process is to refute the myth that indigenous peoples lived an idyllic, Eden-like existence as so many westerners today seem to believe. Nor am I saying that all indigenous peoples had a destructive effect on the earth and on the animals with which they shared their space. Nevertheless, many did, and in my mind the only two reasons why native peoples did not cause the wholesale destruction of the Europeans colonists and modern western societies is because i) populations were not nearly as large and ii)  people did not have the technological means (for example metal saws, guns, chainsaws, bulldozers) for large-scale ‘resource gathering’.

It is my firm conviction that the human desire to possess; to control nature and our fellow animals has always been within us, even in pre-historic times, and over the space of this essay, using several countries as examples, I shall examine the evidence.

New Zealand

Before human settlement, New Zealand was the island of the birds. Mammals had never arrived there and birds filled every ecological niche. A giant sea eagle - Haast's eagle - was the dominant predator of the large, flightless moa - the ‘grazer’. Then came the Polynesian seafarers called Maoris.

According to the study presented by Holdaway and Jacomb[iii], the Maoris arrived on New Zealand in the late 1200s. By the late 1300’s, all species of giant moas were extinct. The reason for the extinctions is that the Maoris could easily capture and kill the big birds that had never encountered such a relentless land predator and had never evolved the ability to fly. [iv] Archaeological bone findings from Maori midden heaps provide the evidence. [v]

There were around twelve different species of moas, the largest standing three metres tall. Not only were the moas hunted, but animals introduced by the Maoris, such as dogs and rats, preyed on chicks and eggs. Birds which primarily preyed on the moas, such as Haast's eagle, afterwards became extinct.[vi]

Great Britain and Ireland

Around 5,000 years ago, the Neolithic people – using flint axes - began to clear forests for cultivation and to build permanent settlements.[vii]

In 500 BC the Celts arrived with their more advanced technologies began to create fields for crops and meadows for cattle. The Celts and Romans mainly concentrated on cultivating light soils, chalk and lime stones, on higher ground and they put sheep and cattle on these downlands preventing them from reverting to woodland.[viii]

The Anglo-Saxons, using eight-ox ploughs to turn heavy clay soil, cleared many valleys and much of the farmland of the high ground was abandoned. Grazing sheep continued to graze, keeping the land clear of trees, forming chalk and limestone grasslands.[ix]

In Ireland during the Bronze Age, a soaring population put increased pressure on the land. As a result, lowland forests were felled, - aided by the invention of the bronze axe. “Thus the Bronze Age in Ireland marks the beginning of the end for Ireland's lowland forests which were systematically cleared over the coming centuries”[x]


Australia, during its 45 million year isolation from other continents, developed its own unique fauna, including a three meter tall short-faced kangaroo (Procoptodon), a marsupial “lion” Thylacoleo carnifex, and a six meter long monitor lizard called Megalania. 86 percent or up to 55 species of Australia’s megafauna, are believed to have been wiped out prior to European settlement.

There is much debate over the cause of the extinction of these species, with theories ranging from climate change and over-hunting by the Australian Aborigines, who arrived from South East Asia between 50,000 and 60,000 years ago. However the latest dating of megafauna extinction in Australia lends evidence that the cause was the Aborigines’ burning of the landscape by fire-stick farming, which modified vegetation and reduced habitat.

Although the evidence is much debated, it appears that Aboriginal burning was carried out on such a scale that large tracts of native vegetation became permanently changed, thus depriving many specialised feeders (including much of the megafauna) of their food sources.[xi]

For example, there is conclusive evidence that Aboriginal use of fire caused massive attrition of rainforest and plant extinctions in northeast Queensland from 40 000 BP to 20 000 BP.[xii]

Furthermore, it is interesting to note that most animals made extinct were browsers that ate soft vegetation while those that survived - like the red kangaroo, emu and wombat - ate grasses (which are both fire-adaptable and replenish much more quickly after a fire).

North America

Similarly, throughout North America, anthropological research shows that Native Americans used a great deal of fire to modify the landscape. Fires were kindled for various reasons, including improvement of forage for game animals, encouragement of valuable plants, game herding, and visibility improvement.[xiii]

Fire was also used to destroy animal species which the Native Americans regarded as ‘vermin’.[xiv]

Furthermore, there was a considerable amount of tree felling and clearing of riparian areas by the native North Americans.

Trees were important for building structures and canoes. Before axes were available through trade, Native Americans used fire to kill trees. One method was to drill two intersecting holes in a trunk, put charcoal in one hole and let the smoke escape in the other. The other method involved encircling a tree with fire at the base, "girdling" it, and eventually killing it. [xv]

Clearing riparian areas facilitated easier hunting for beaver, muskrats, moose and waterfowl. [xvi]

Native American activities were also responsible for the extinction of most large mammal species in North America between 10,800 and 10,000 years ago - a result of the effective (and wasteful) hunting practices of Paleoindians. [xvii]

Further evidence of this is unearthed by archaeological research. For example, archaeologists have found evidence of kill sites with hunting tools, arrows and skeletons buried together. Also, fossil records show that the disappearance of the megafauna coincides with the dating of the earliest human remains found in a region.

Obviously, the disappearance of the large herbivores then resulted in the disappearance of the large carnivores which depended on them for food.

It is an accepted fact that most of the world's continents and islands have lost their large fauna at some time over the last 50,000 years.  The debate is as to ‘why?’ Many scientists cite climate change, astronomical events or other natural phenomena; only a few consider that early man may have played a significant role.

One such man is botanist Tim Flannery. Dr Flannery believes that human hunting played a larger role in the extinction of megafauna globally that has previously been assumed.

He proposes that people caused the extinction of megafauna “in a blitzkrieg-like fashion”, and his theory is based on the world-wide pattern of extinctions for the following reasons:

“Firstly, megafauna became extinct up to 50,000 years ago in Australia and New Guinea, around 10,900 years ago in North and South America, about 1500 years ago in Madagascar, and between 900 and 600 years ago in New Zealand. This pattern closely follows the current chronology of human expansion around the world.

Secondly, megafauna are the biggest and slowest animals in the environment. These kinds of animals are very vulnerable to hunting, but not to climate change. As people did not arrive in Africa, but evolved there, the evolution of our human ancestors from scavengers into skilled hunters happened slowly, allowing the ecosystem and its abundant megafauna time to adjust. However, that did not happen elsewhere. The extinction of megafauna was most extreme in places where humans arrived as already skilled hunters.

Other evidence to support a human-caused extinction includes the relatively recent extinction of megafauna, such as those in South Africa after 1820, when rifles were introduced. With this kind of weaponry, humans can clearly exterminate large mammals and other defenceless species.

In Australasia, megafauna were once very diverse. Some species lived in the eternally wet rainforests of Papua New Guinea, while others lived in the driest deserts. The theory of megafauna extinction that is based on climate change must argue that extinction could have happened at almost any time in the last 50,000 years, whether the climate has been warm and wet or cold and dry, or any combination in between. Under this scenario, it is my opinion that the influence of climate on megafauna extinction was so weak that it must have been negligible.”

While Flannery’s “blitzkrieg” theory is hugely debated, the evidence does point to human hunting as a major factor in megafauna extinctions world-wide. Indeed, new studies are showing that Flannery is right and that theories such as climate change are not viable in explaining global megafauna extinction.[xviii]  

It seems to me that the “climate change” theorists are doing exactly what I stated at the beginning of this essay, namely refusing to accept that it is humans and humans alone who are slaughtering such a vast number of species to extinction. The blood, dear reader, is on our hands - and always was. We can see that clearly in the sad story of the Cave Bear. 

Europe – Stone Age (Pleistocene)

Dr. Wladyslaw J Kowalski, of Penn State University, says: “The longest war ever fought by humans was not fought against other humans, but against another species -- Ursus spelaeus, the Cave Bear”.

For several hundred thousand years our Stone Age ancestors fought bloody wars against the Cave Bears, for “the most precious commodity on earth - habitable caves. Without these shelters homo sapiens would have had little chance of surviving the Ice Ages, the winter storms, and the myriad of hungry predators that lurked in the dark.”[xix]

It appears that our ancestors routinely destroyed the Cave Bears, driving them out of caves in a progressive northward movement, and finally up into the mountains. The last Cave Bear was slaughtered high in the mountains of Yugoslavia about 10,000 years ago.

Evidence of the violent deaths of Cave Bears is seen in the many bone piles, often notched with marks from spearpoints or arrowheads, and sometimes bits of broken spear tips are found embedded in the rib cages.[xx]

Cave Bears inhabited caves in Europe throughout the Pleistocene, from about 300,000 to 15,000 BC, disappearing by the end of the last ice age. Fossil records show that populations seem to have diminished upon the arrival of modern (Cro-Magnon) man in Europe. Although the Neanderthals had hunted Cave Bears, the superior weapons of Cro-Magnon man gave them the capability of hunting Cave Bears to extinction. [xxi]

The Brown Bears (Ursus arctos) was already widespread at the end of the Pleistocene and it may well be asked, why it too was not hunted to extinction? There is no doubt that Ursus arctos was also hunted. Its bones are often found in Cro-Magnon midden heaps. However, Brown Bears use caves only for hibernation and to shelter from adverse weather conditions, not as a regular and permanent abode as did the Cave Bear, so if Cro-Magnon man desired to possess the caves, the conflict with Ursus arctos would have been less.  Furthermore, it is possible that Cave Bears were considered better game due to their size (about one third again the size of a Brown Bear). The skin of a single Cave Bear could have made a tent. [xxii]In the Caucasus, at least seven caves were found which contained Cave Bear remains among the middens.

An alternate theory sometimes proffered for the extinction of the Cave Bear is that the post-glacial climate became unsuitable, but fossil records indicate that Ursus spelaeus survived several long interglacial periods. The final extinction of the Cave Bear seems directly linked to the appearance of Cro-Magnon man as the replacement for Neanderthals in Europe. Furthermore, the Cave Bear was not the only species to disappear at the end of the last Ice Age. Mammoths, cave lions, woolly rhinos, steppe bison, giant deer, musk ox, and others all vanished, all coinciding with the spread of Cro-Magnon man. [xxiii]

According to Dr Kowalski, “Some theories presuppose that Cave Bears died out from a reduced food supply when the forests shrank at the end of the Ice Age, but for a herbivore that ate grass and herbs, this should have helped, not hurt their chances for survival. Other large animals that lived on grass, herbs and berries thrived, like horses, cattle, and deer. Their extinction was far more likely due to the fact that humans singled out Cave Bears for destruction, for the simple reason that they needed their caves.”

So we can see that native peoples did not really live as peacefully and harmoniously with their fellow animals as modern myth suggests. The reader may now ask: “Then why does native lore often speak of honouring the land and respecting the life of all of creation, or something along those lines?”

That would be an understandable question, especially as this line of thought is fuelled by the many books on ‘native’ spirituality found in new-age bookstores. For example, the Inuit claim to honour and revere the Snowy Owl (Nyctea scandiaca) yet at the same time hunt the bird relentlessly, destroy its nests and eggs and kill its chicks.[xxiv] The same thread of thought underlines Inuit whaling, native Papuan hunting and all expressions of revived ‘traditional’ hunting. This hunting is for the most part, not needed for the people’s survival but is performed for ‘cultural reasons’. Although how hunting caribou with guns from helicopters - as the Inuit do - fits in with traditional hunting culture is beyond me. As if traditional hunting ceremonies could not be re-enacted without spilling blood.

Be that as it may, the contradictory claim of ‘respecting’ and ‘honouring’ the very same animals which they kill, is exactly the same self-deception as that of modern western society with regard to our own bloody past, whether toward animals or other humans. We do not generally stand up and say, “I acknowledge that my ancestors have a history of mass butchery, and I, like my kin, am compelled by greed and the desire to possess, to pollute and exploit this planet to such a degree that most wild animals will soon be gone forever and the land will be fouled beyond redemption”! Yet that is exactly what we are doing.

Humans generally, as I have already stated, have great difficulties in seeing themselves from a non-anthropocentric perspective. And the fact that modern man continues with the rape of the planet even though we are explicitly aware of the consequences, is far more inexcusable than over-hunting by a group of native peoples long in the past, who may not have been so fully aware of the chain of consequences and who, it must be said, lived to survive, not to amass possessions and wealth to sate their egos.

Today we have the knowledge and the means to save what is left, and even to give something back. The choice is ours and each individual can contribute. You, dear reader, can choose to live with less material possessions, or at least not accumulate new ones. You can choose to buy environmentally friendly products. You can choose to buy products not tested on animals. You can adopt a vegetarian/ vegan diet. You can use the car less. You can lobby industry and government to outlaw animal testing, reduce pollution, and end unsustainable logging. The possibilities are endless, but if it all seems too difficult, consider this: do you really want yourself, or your children, or your grandchildren to live in a hopelessly polluted and used-up world where there are no large forests, no wilderness areas, no tigers, lions, pandas, whales or grizzlies? The choice is yours.


[1] The author refers here to nuclear waste, plastics and other toxins which the earth cannot break down and render harmless, thus creating a ‘permanent’ state of pollution.

[2] This essay does not allude to, and will not discuss the Christian concept of original sin. The author feels that topic would require a separate essay.

[i] Genesis 1:26-27, The Bible

[ii] Thomas Berry – freely quoted

[iii] As quoted in “Extinction Can Happen More Rapidly Than We Think” Whit Gibbons, 2004                

[iv] ibid                                    

[v] “Big Bird Croaked Quick”, D. Tennebaum, 2000

[vi] “700 Years Ago in Australia & Oceania” – Author anon., Baxter Publications Inc. 2005

[vii] “Disappearing Habitats in Britain” Information supplied by the Young Peoples Trust for the Environment, 2005

[viii] ibid

[ix]  ibid

[x] “Ireland: The Bronze Age” Wesley Johnston 2005

[xi] Miller, G.H., as quoted in “Issues in Co-existence between Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Approaches to Land & Sea Management”, issued by James Cook  University, 2005

[xii] Kershaw, J. as quoted in “Issues in Co-existence between Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Approaches to Land & Sea Management”, issued by James Cook University,  2005

[xiii] “Challenge of the Big Trees” Sequoia natural History Association, 2005

[xiv]  “The Indian as an Ecological Factor in the Northeastern Forest”, G. M. Day,  1953.

[xv] “Introduction to Aboriginal Fire Use in North America. Fire Management Today”, G.W. William, 2000

[xvi] Williams, 2000

[xvii]  “America's Ancient Forests: From the Ice Age to the Age of Discovery”, T. M. Bonnicksen, 2000.

[xviii] “Aborigines killed Australia's giant animals: study”, S. Astbury, 2005

[xix] Dr. Wladyslaw J Kowalski, Penn State University as quoted on:, 2005

[xx] ibid

[xxi] ibid

[xxii] ibid

[xxiii] ibid

[xxiv] “Owls”, David Hollands, 2005

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