They ran out of groceries

It was probably humans who killed off the megafauna.

For a long time, these extinctions were thought to be linked to natural changes in the environment – until 1966, when palaeontologist Paul S Martin put forward his controversial “overkill hypothesis” that humans were responsible for the extinctions of megafauna, destroying the romantic vision of early humans living in harmony with nature.

Well, it was harmony from the early humans’ point of view.

Prof Mark Maslin, from University College London (UCL), suggests that the unsustainable hunting of megafauna may have been one of the driving forces that led humans to domesticate plants and animals. People started farming in at least 14 different places, independently of each other, from about 10,500 years ago. “Weirdly enough, I think the first biodiversity crisis was at the end of the last ice age, when early humans had slaughtered the megafauna and therefore they’d sort of run out of food, and that precipitated, in many places, a switch to agriculture,” he says.

Although the debate is far from settled, it appears ancient humans took thousands of years to wipe out species in a way modern humans would do in decades. Fast forward to today and we are not just killing megafauna but destroying whole landscapes, often in just a few years. Farming is the primary driver of destruction and, of all mammals on Earth, 96% are either livestock or humans. The UN estimates as many as one million plant and animal species are at risk of extinction.

And that’s on top of what we’ve already driven to extinction.

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