of those creatures, including the elephants
and the avian scavengers, later vanished.
Climate change seems a more likely cause
than hunting, though—H. floresiensis may
have been a scavenger rather than a hunter
and could easily have become prey itself.
“It is not unlikely … that storks would have
gobbled up a baby hobbit if it happened to
run by,” Meijer said.
Even when modern humans landed on islands, they sometimes hunted in a sustainable way. In Sri Lanka,
Patrick Roberts of the
Max Planck Institute for
the Science of Human
History in Jena, Germany, analyzed animal
bones found at archaeological sites between
3000 and 36,000 years
old. He found that three
species of monkeys—the
toque macaque, gray
langur, and purple-faced
leaf monkey—accounted for about 70% to
80% of human kills.
Monkeys are big, easy to find, and slow to
reproduce, which makes them particularly
vulnerable to overhunting, Roberts noted.
Yet all three primates are still around today, and they’re still hunted by indigenous
people “with limited effects,” Roberts wrote
in a later email. (The gray langur and the
purple-faced leaf monkey are endangered,
but because of development and deforestation, not hunting, he added.)
Studies from other islands, including
Tasmania, the Philippines, the Channel Is-
lands, and Taiwan, also suggest Pleistocene
humans had a light ecological footprint,
leaving workshop participants to speculate
why. Smaller populations and simpler tech-
nologies than those of later arrivals might
have lessened their impact. The evidence
also hints that unlike later colonizers, the
early arrivals did not introduce invasive
species such as rats and dogs.
This emerging picture raises a new puzzle,
however. On continents such as North America and Australia, ice age immigrants are
blamed for widespread
extinctions of ice age
megafauna—think mammoths, giant sloths, and
giant kangaroos. “If we
cannot locate a definite
extinction on an island,”
says Roberts, “then what
does this mean for arguments on the continents?”
Generalizing from the
studies so far is risky,
researchers emphasized. Environmental
conditions, the timing of settlement and extinctions, the technologies the new arrivals
brought—all vary from island to island, and
none of those factors is fully understood at
any site. But Louys finds a hopeful message
in the stories these islands are beginning to
tell. “Extinctions aren’t necessarily a characteristic of our species—it’s something we
learned to do,” he said. “And if it’s something we learned to do, it’s something we
can learn to undo.” j
April Reese is a journalist in
What does it take?
Yoùre one step away
from finding out.
BEING #1 IN IHC
IS NOT ONE THING
characteristic of our
we learned to do.”
Julien Louys, Australian
Homo floresiensis shared the island
of Flores with giant lizards, dwarf
elephants, and other exotic species.