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The Age of Monsters

30 March 2017


There was a time when giants ruled the Earth.

I do not mean the muscular figures of mythology. The ones with the raggedy underwear and tree-sized clubs, facing down pint-sized heroes that carry golden swords. I mean real giants, as tall as your house. Giants who roamed the land once and then afterwards left a pretty collection of bones and teeth for us to remember them by.

You’ll be familiar with some of them, if not by size, then by shape. There was the Diprotodon, a hippopotamus-sized marsupial that looked like a cross between a grizzly bear and a wombat. Also, the Varanus Priscus, the venomous seven-meter long goanna that used to range widely throughout Australia’s east. There was the aptly named Gigantithicus, a three-meter tall ape that lived in Southern Asia the Megatherium, the South American sloth the size of an elephant, and my personal favourite: the Siberian Unicorn or Elasmotherium, a horse-like rhinoceros the size of a mammoth, from whose enormous forehead protruded a two meter long horn.

The monsters that I am speaking of are known as megafauna, Earth’s second, lesser-known wave of giants that reigned in the ecological space left over by the dinosaurs. Following the dinosaurian extinction, mammals, reptiles and birds now had room to grow into enormous sizes. It was an age of monsters, creatures of incredible size and shape roaming an impossible, lost world.

There is one vital difference between the terrifying reign of dinosaurs and megafauna. We never met the terrestrial dinosaurs. We are blocked by a 66 million year gap between their existence and ours, and everything we know about them derives from bones and imagination. Megafauna, on the other hand, are much closer to home. Many of their smaller, closely related counterparts are known to us, albeit as much more cuddly versions. Moreover, there was a moment in time when we coexisted alongside them – although that moment was very brief, and its end was most likely our doing.
The fact that most megafauna have gone extinct is not altogether unusual in itself. Most species of animal that emerged from this planet lived, died, and sunk back into oblivion long before we passed through and began studying their remains. What is unusual about the megafauna extinction is this: for every inhabitable continent, bar one, the disappearance of the vast majority of megafauna has coincided very closely in time with human migration to that continent. The only exception to this is Africa, where the continued survival of Africa’s giraffes, elephants, and rhinoceros is likely because these animals evolved alongside our ancient ancestors and soon learnt to avoid us. Our hippopotamus wombat had no such insider knowledge.

As to why we killed off the largest land animals alive for us to encounter, it is impossible to know with certainty. Possibly it was by mistake. Perhaps we simply outcompeted them, their deaths inevitable for our survival. Maybe, as some still suggest, the extinction of megafauna had nothing to do with us and climate change was to blame,. I suggest, a little cynically perhaps, that we overhunted these giant species to extinction for the reason that we human beings have always given––that is to say, because we could.

We love monsters, and we love them most of all when they are huge. The breath-taking enormity, the power held in a body of impossible size and strength, the power involved in the destruction of such a body. We are raised on bedtime stories about monsters, and above all else, we are raised on our vanquishment of them. David and Goliath. Hercules and the Nemean Lion. Ghostbusters and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. The mythic hero with his golden sword never loses, and we are left all the more powerful with the giant’s defeat.
When we kill big animals, we’re doing it for fun. To be the hero. To kill the giant. It is hardly surprising that the world’s largest remaining animals––rhinos, gorillas, elephants, whales––are some of the most at risk of being lost. Anti-hunting activists speak of the hunter’s “lack of humanity”, but I fear it is the excess that is the problem. Hunters pay good money for the chance to hunt a large animal. The value is raised if the animal is more endangered. In 2014, a Texan hunter bid $350,000 for a permit to kill a black rhino, of which there are only around 5000 left alive today. In the words of one such hunter, the killing “satisfies something deep within me that is beyond my ability to explain”. There is something seductive in the killing of a giant.

Is there something horrifically, indisputably human about the destruction of another species? We certainly seem to be very good at it. Alongside the extinct megafauna species, there is ample evidence that we killed off the rest of our hominin cousins as well, leaving us the unique human conquerors of the world. When Darwin first used the expression “survival of the fittest”, another myth was born. Darwin, and the biologist Herbert Spencer who coined the phrase, intended to explain the evolutionary process of natural selection more clearly. Those with traits better suited to their environment left behind more offspring than those without, and were therefore “fitter”. But since then, we have incorporated their work into our own gladiatorial narratives, our own stories of human superiority. “Survival of the fittest” has become a warrior’s competition. The deaths of other species have become justifiable. We can say we are surviving, and they are dying, because we are tougher, smarter, and inherently better.

The number of species extinctions caused by humans has been escalating in our short, short history on this land. The planet has now entered its sixth mass extinction in its 3.5 billion year old life, an extinction driven by the actions of the human race. We have crept around the world like a virus and with us, brought a plague of senseless destruction. We have been decimating not only the giants in our path but also a countless number of smaller species, systematically slaughtered via deforestation, pollution, global warming. Collateral damage in our quest to choke the life out of this planet. The last time Earth’s species faced extinction on such a scale was 66 million years ago, and it was because a ten-kilometre wide asteroid had slammed into its side.
Make way for the humans! Our mythic hero isn’t mythic and with his sword we are carving away at the biggest animals on the planet for piano keys and jewellery.
Make way for the humans! The rate of species extinction is a thousand times higher than it would have been had we never evolved to destroy everything in our path.
Make way for the humans! The age of monsters has been handed down to us, and we are living up to its title far better than any oversized goanna ever could.