Mass Extinction: The Early Years

A quick rundown of the ecocidal empires that came before us.

Ashley Dawson | Extinction: A Radical History | OR Books | July 2016 | 13 minutes (3,487 words)


Below is an excerpt from Extinction: A Radical History, by Ashley Dawson, who argues that contemporary mass extinction is a result of the excesses of the capitalist system. In this chapter, Dawson gives a brief history of the ecocidal societies that came before ours. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

“Gilgamesh listened to the word of his companion, he took the axe in his hand, he drew the sword from his belt, and he struck Humbaba with a thrust of the sword to the neck, and Enkidu his comrade struck the second blow. At the third blow Humbaba fell. Then there followed a confusion for this was the guardian of the forest whom they had felled to the ground. For as far as two leagues the cedars shivered when Enkidu felled the watcher of the forest, he at whose voice Hermon and Lebanon used to tremble. Now the mountains were moved and all the hills, for the guardian of the forest was killed.”
The Epic of Gilgamesh (2500–1500 BCE)

When did the sixth extinction begin, and who is responsible for it? One way to tackle these questions is to consider the increasingly influential notion of the Anthropocene. The term, first put into broad use by the atmospheric chemist Paul J. Crutzen in 2000, refers to the transformative impact of humanity on the Earth’s atmosphere, an impact so decisive as to mark a new geological epoch. The idea of an Anthropocene Age in which humanity has fundamentally shaped the planet’s environment, making nonsense of traditional ideas about a neat divide between human beings and nature, has crossed over from the relatively rarified world of chemists and geologists to influence humanities scholars such as Dipesh Chakrabarty, who proposes it as a new lens through which to view history. Despite its increasing currency, there is considerable debate about the inaugural moment of the Anthropocene. Crutzen dates it to the late eighteenth century, when the industrial revolution kicked off large-scale emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This dating has become widely accepted despite the fact that it refers to an effect rather than a cause, and thereby obscures key questions of violence and inequality in humanity’s relation to nature.

By thinking through the periodization of extinction, these questions of power, agency, and the Anthropocene become more insistent. If we are discussing humanity’s role in obliterating the biodiversity we inherited when we evolved as a discrete species during the Pleistocene epoch, the inaugural moment of the Anthropocene must be pushed much further back in time than 1800. Such a move makes sense since the planet’s flora and fauna undeniably exercise a world-shaping influence when their impact is considered collectively and across a significant time span. Biologists have recently adopted such a longer view by coining the phrase “defaunation in the Anthropocene.” How far back, they ask, can we date the large-scale impact of Homo sapiens on the planet? According to Franz Broswimmer, the pivotal moment was the human development of language, and with it a capacity for conscious intentionality. Beginning roughly 60,000 years ago, Broswimmer argues, the origin of language and intentionality sparked a prodigious capacity for innovation that facilitated adaptive changes in human social organization. This watershed is marked in the archeological record by a vast expansion of artifacts such as flints and arrowheads. With this “great leap forward,” Homo sapiens essentially shifted from biological evolution through natural selection to cultural evolution.

Yet, tragically, our emancipation as a species from what might be seen as the thrall of nature also made us a force for planetary environmental destruction. With this metamorphosis in human culture, our relationship to nature in general and to animals in particular underwent a dramatic shift. During the late Pleistocene era (50,000–35,000 years ago), our ancestors became highly efficient killers. We developed all manner of weapons to hunt big game, from bows and arrows to spear throwers, harpoons, and pit traps. We also evolved sophisticated techniques of social organization linked to hunting, allowing us to encircle whole herds of large animals and drive them off cliffs to their death. The Paleolithic cave paintings of the period in places such as Lascaux record the bountiful slaughter: mammoths, bison, giant elk and deer, rhinos, and lions. Some of the first images created by Homo sapiens, these paintings suggest an intimate link between animals and our nascent drive to imagine and represent the world. Animals filled our dream life even as they perished at our hands.

Cave paintings

Bison in a prehistoric cave painting. Via Wikimedia Commons.

In tandem with this great leap forward in social organization and killing capacity, humanity expanded across the planet. From our ancestral home in Africa, we radiated outward, colonizing all the world’s major ecosystems within the span of 30,000 years. We spread first to Eurasia, then, around 50- to 60,000 years ago, to Australia and New Guinea, then to Siberia and North and South America around 13,000 years ago, and then, most recently, to the Pacific Ocean Islands only 4,000 years ago. At the same time, humans underwent a massive demographic boom, expanding from a few million people 50,000 years ago to around 150 million in 2000 BCE. The late Pleistocene wave of extinctions cannot be understood in separation from this spatial and demographic expansion of Homo sapiens. In most places around the planet, the megafauna extinctions occurred shortly after the arrival of prehistoric humans. On finding fresh hunting grounds, our ancestors encountered animals with no evolutionary experience of human predators. Like the ultimate invasive species, we quickly obliterated species that didn’t know how to stay out of our way. The susceptibility of creatures who were unfamiliar with humans is evident from what biologists call the filtration principle: the farther back in time the human wave of extinction hit, the lower the extinction rate today.

Animals filled our dream life even as they perished at our hands.

This filtration effect means that in our ancestral home, Sub- Saharan Africa, only 5% of species went extinct, while Europe lost 29%, North America 73%, and Australia an astonishing 94%. Given the fact that biologists are only just beginning to understand the cascading, ecosystem-wide impact of the destruction of megafauna, it is hard to gauge the full impact of the late Pleistocene wave of megadeath. Nonetheless, given its planetary scale, the mass extinctions of the period are certainly the first evidence of humanity’s transformative impact on the entire world’s animal species and ecosystems. When all the big game was gone, our ancestors were forced to find alternatives to their millennia-old hunter gatherer survival traditions. Combined with climatic and demographic changes, the megafauna extinctions catalyzed humanity’s first food crisis. Pushed by these crisis conditions, humanity underwent what may be seen as its second great transition: the Neolithic Revolution. Given conducive environmental conditions—including plant species that could be domesticated, abundant water, and fertile soil—human beings shifted from nomadic to sedentary modes of food production. This shift happened remarkably rapidly, from about 10,000–8,000 BCE. The transition to agriculture, with its greater capacity for food production, led to a demographic explosion. About 10,000 years ago, around the time of the Neolithic Revolution, the global human population was four million. By 5,000 BCE, it had grown to five million. Then, in a pivotal period as settled societies developed on a major scale after 5,000 BCE, our population numbers began doubling every millennium, to 50 million by 1000 BCE and 100 million 500 years later. This demographic boom was accompanied by the growth of settled societies, the emergence of cities and craft specialization and the rise of powerful religious and political elites. Paleontologists dub this period the Holocene epoch, and it inaugurated an even more sweeping human transformation of the planet than the previous wave of extinctions. Indeed, the Neolithic Revolution must be seen as one of the most fundamental metamorphoses not just in human but also in planetary history. The domestication of plant species and the exploitation of domesticated animal power permitted human beings to transform large swaths of the natural world into human-directed agro-ecosystems. As “civilization” emerged, first in the city-states of Mesopotamia and then in Egypt, India, China, and Mesoamerica, humanity became a truly world-shaping species. Some critics have in fact dated the onset of the Anthropocene epoch from precisely this moment.

The Neolithic Revolution also generated a fateful metamorphosis in humanity’s social organization. Intensive agriculture produced a food surplus, which in turn permitted social differentiation and hierarchy, as elite orders of priests, warriors, and rulers emerged as arbiters of the distribution of that surplus. Much of subsequent human history may be seen as a struggle over the acquisition and distribution of such surplus. Significantly, writing as a technology emerged in Mesopotamia during the fourth millennium BCE out of the need to record annual food production and surpluses. The capacity conferred by cuneiform and subsequent systems of writing to transmit information and promote social organization clearly played an important role in the economic expansion of ancient societies. Indeed, writing appears to have emerged in tandem with the transformation of Mesopotamian city-states like Sumer into powerful empires. Ancient Sumer generated an explosion of inventions that would be foundational to subsequent civilizations, including the wheel, the preliminary elements of algebra and geometry, and a standardized system of weights and measures that facilitated trade in the ancient world. The Sumerians also pioneered less felicitous institutions such as imperialism and slavery. As the idea of private property emerged and human society became organized around control over the surplus, writing also became a tool to record the resulting social conflicts. Much early writing, what we would today term literature, in fact documents chronic warfare. In works like The Iliad (760 BCE), for instance, we find what may be seen as a record of the intensifying warfare that accompanied the growth of city-states and empires.The increased importance of warfare led to the rise of military chiefs; initially elected by the populace, these leaders quickly transformed themselves into permanent hereditary rulers across the ancient world. Military values and a veneration of potentates came to suffuse ancient culture, at significant cost to the majority of the populace. While The Iliad celebrates the martial virtues of Greek warriors, for example, it also offers an extended lament for the violence unleashed as humans turned their skills of organized violence away from megafauna and onto one another.


Gilgamesh battling the bull of the heavens. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The violence generated by what geologists call the Holocene epoch was directed not just at other human beings but also at nature. Indeed, what is perhaps humanity’s first work of literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh (1800 BCE), hinges on a mythic battle with natural forces. In the epic, the protagonist Gilgamesh, not content with having built the walls of his city-state, seeks immortality by fighting and beheading Humbaba, a giant spirit who protects the sacred cedar groves of Lebanon. Gilgamesh’s victory over Humbaba is a pyrrhic one, for it causes the god of wind and storm to curse Gilgamesh. We know from written records of the period that Gilgamesh’s defeat of the tree god reflects real ecological pressures on the Sumerian empire of the time. As the empire expanded, it exhausted its early sources of timber. Sumerian warriors were consequently forced to travel to the distant mountains to the north in order to harvest cedar and pine trees, which they then ferried down the rivers to Sumer. These journeys were perilous since tribes who populated the mountains resisted the Sumerians’ deforestation of their land. Ultimately, these resource raids were insufficient to save the Sumerian empire. The secret to the Sumerians’ power was the creation of elaborate systems of irrigation that allowed them to produce crops using water from the region’s two great rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates. Over time, however, the Sumerians’ dams and canals silted up. Even worse, as the river water carried into fields by irrigation canals evaporated under the hot sun, it left behind its mineral contents, leading to increasingly saline soils. The only way to cope with this problem was to leave the land fallow for long periods of time, but as population pressure increased, this conservation strategy became impossible.

Short-term needs outweighed the maintenance of a sustainable agricultural system. The Sumerians were forced, archeological records document, to switch from cultivation of wheat to more salt-tolerant barley, but eventually even barley yields declined in the salt-soaked earth. Extensive deforestation of the region also added to the Sumerians’ problems. The once-plentiful cedar forests of the region were used for commercial and naval shipbuilding, as well as for bronze and pottery manufacturing and building construction. As the Epic of Gilgamesh documents, the Mesopotamian city-states found themselves grappling with a scarcity of timber resources. The sweeping deforestation of the region also contributed to the secondary effects of soil erosion and siltation that plagued irrigation canals, as well as having a significant impact on the biodiversity of the region. As the Sumerian city-states grew, they were forced to engage in more intensive agricultural production to support the booming population and the increasing consumption of the civilization, with its mass armies and state bureaucracy.

The deserts that stretch across much of contemporary Iraq are a monument to ecological folly.

The Sumerians sought to cope with this ecological crisis by bringing new land into cultivation and building new cities. Inevitably, however, they hit the limits of agricultural expansion. Accumulating salts drove crop yields down more than 40% by the middle of the second millennium BCE. Food supplies for the growing population grew inexorably scarcer. Within a few short centuries, these contradictions destroyed ancient Sumerian civilization. The deserts that stretch across much of contemporary Iraq are a monument to this ecological folly. Not all ancient societies went the way of Sumer. For about 7,000 years after the emergence of settled societies in the Nile Valley (around 5500 BCE), the Egyptians were able to exploit the annual flood of the Nile to support a succession of states, from the dynasties of the Pharaonic Era, through the Ptolemaic kings of the Hellenistic Period, to the Mamluk Sultanate, and the Ottoman Era. The stability of Egypt’s agricultural system originated in the fact that the Nile Valley received natural fertilization and irrigation through annual floods, a process that the Egyptians exploited with only minimal human interference. Within decades of the introduction of dam-fed irrigation by the British in the nineteenth century, in order to grow crops like cotton for European markets, widespread salinization and waterlogging of land in the Nile Valley developed. The Aswan dam, begun by the British in the late nineteenth century, regulated the Nile’s flood levels and thus protected cotton crops but undermined the real secret of Egypt’s remarkable continuous civilization by retaining nutrient-rich silt behind the dam walls. As a result, the natural fertility of the Nile Valley was destroyed, replaced by extensive use of artificial, petroleum-derived fertilizers that placed Egypt even more deeply in thrall to the global capitalist economy.


Statues of Memnon at Thebes during the flood. David Roberts, 1848. Via Wikimedia Commons.

This history of pre-modern ecocide is not intended to suggest that human beings are inherently driven to destroy the natural world upon which they ultimately depend. While it may be true that humanity’s capacity to transform the planet on a significant scale through mass extinction dates back many millennia rather than simply two centuries, and that the Anthropocene therefore needs to be backdated substantially, it is only with the invention of hierarchical societies such as the Sumerian Empire that practices of defaunation and habitat destruction became so sweeping as to degrade large ecosystems to the point of collapse. The history of Egypt suggests that under the right material and cultural circumstances, human beings can achieve relatively sustainable relations with the natural world. It is the combination of militarism, debauched and feckless elites, and imperial expansionism, through which the Sumerians laid waste to much of the Fertile Crescent in pre-modern times, that renders ecocide so toxic as to destroy the very civilizations that carry it out. The collapse of ecocidal imperial cultures should serve as a potent warning to the globe-straddling world powers of today. Ancient Rome offers additional stark evidence for the exploitative attitude towards nature that accompanies empire. One of the most striking characteristics of the early Roman Empire is its strong expansionary drive. Following a period of political conflict between patrician elites and plebeians (or commoners) in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE, large numbers of Romans began to migrate to newly conquered provinces. The treasuries of subjected lands such as Macedonia (167 BCE) and Syria (63 BCE) were looted, and a permanent of system of tributes and taxes was imposed, allowing taxes on Roman citizens to be eliminated. This imperial expansion culminated in Augustus’s conquest of the kingdom of Egypt, which allowed him to distribute unparalleled booty to the plebeians of Rome. He was the last emperor who could afford to do so. In tandem with this looting of a significant portion of the ancient world, the Romans also used their conquests to deal with shortfalls in domestic agricultural productivity. First Egypt, then Sicily, and finally North Africa were turned into the granary of the empire in order to provide Rome’s citizens with their free supply of daily bread. Deforestation caused by the Romans’ agricultural enterprises spread from Morocco to the hills of Galilee to the Sierra Nevada of Spain. Like the Sumerians, the Romans failed to engage in sustainable forms of agriculture, seeking instead to expand their way out of ecological crisis; the arid conditions that prevail across much of North Africa and Sicily today are testaments to their improvident and destructive approach to the natural world.


Roman mosaic. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The people of Rome were kept obedient to imperial rule not just by subsidized grain, but by a combination of bread and circuses. In the latter, the class of slaves whose labor sustained the Empire was forced into gladiatorial matches to the death. They were joined in these bloody spectacles by wild animals brought from the farthest corners of the empire to die in combat with humans and with one another. Lions, leopards, bears, elephants, rhinos, hippos, and other animals were transported great distances to be tortured and killed in public arenas like the Colosseum, until no more such wildlife could be found even in the farthest reaches of the empire. The scale of the slaughter was monumental. When Emperor Titus dedicated the Colosseum, for example, 9,000 animals were killed in a three-month series of gladiatorial games. While there is no evidence that the Romans drove any species to complete extinction, they did decimate or destroy numerous animal populations in the regions surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. Indeed, the Roman Empire was probably responsible for the greatest annihilation of large animals since the Pleistocene megafauna mass extinction. As was true of the Sumerians, Rome annihilated most of the large animals it could get its hands on and reduced most of the lands it conquered to desert.

To justify this carnage of wildlife, Roman attitudes towards the natural world shifted markedly. During the early days of the Republic, Romans regarded the Mediterranean landscape as the sacred space of nature deities such as Apollo, god of the sun, Ceres, goddess of agriculture, and Neptune, god of freshwater and the sea. As Rome expanded, however, these religious beliefs became largely hollow rituals, disconnected from natural processes. During the high days of the empire, Stoic and Epicurean philosophies that legitimated the status-driven debauchery of the Roman upper classes prevailed. Orgies of conspicuous consumption, in which the wealthy would eat until they vomited, only to begin eating again, became common. By the time Christianity became the official state religion of Rome in the late 4th century, there was little to differentiate Roman philosophy from the dominant attitude of the Judeo-Christian scriptures, in whose creation myth God grants human beings absolute dominion over the world he has made. Humanity, the Bible and Christian tradition held, was placed apart from nature by God, gifted with an immortal soul and a capacity for rational thought that legitimated the transformation of the natural world in the pursuit of human self-interest.

The collapse of ecocidal imperial cultures should serve as a potent warning to the globe-straddling world powers of today.

This orientation toward nature could not be sustained indefinitely. The spices and other luxury foods consumed by the dissolute Roman elite in their banquets had to be imported at great expense from locations as distant as India. The more exotic the food, the better; as recorded in the Apicius, a cookbook for elite Roman feasts, items such as thrushes and other songbirds, wild boars, raw oysters, and even flamingo were on the menu at elite banquets. Rome could not export enough goods to pay for these luxury imports, and was increasingly forced to pay with scarce gold and silver. Severe economic crises crippled the empire, forcing emperors after Augustus to end the customary distribution of free food to plebeians and to institute taxes on Roman citizens. The empire collected the funds it needed to subsidize military campaigns mainly from farmers, who consequently could not afford to invest in the production of crops and fell increasingly into debt. Environmental degradation intensified, and the empire found itself unable to produce the food surplus on which its reproduction depended. Ultimately, Rome was no longer able to pay its large and far-flung standing armies, and, after a turbulent 500-year existence, the overextended empire fell to the invading barbarian hordes of the north. Rome today is remembered mainly for environmentally destructive achievements such as the Colosseum, suggesting that subsequent cultures learned remarkably little from the unsustainable dominion and ultimate eclipse of the empire.

* * *

From Extinction: A Radical History, by Ashley Dawson.