Overkill
from the book, "Our Fascinating Earth"

Book: 
Our Fascinating Earth

Overkill

Many scientists believe that the extinctions of several Ice Age animal species were due, to a great degree, to man's irreverence toward life and his predisposition to kill far more than he needed for food and clothing. Many kill sites in Eurasia and North America appear to support the premise that wanton destruction was easier than selective killing.

Mass slaughter of horses was an almost continuous event in Europe about 115,000 years ago. At the base of a high cliff near Solutre, France, incredible numbers of crushed horse bones have been found. Authorities estimate that approximately 100,000 horses met their deaths at that locale. Time and time again Cro—Magnon hunters, probably with the aid of fire, stampeded throngs of wild horses off the cliff's edge. Those that survived the fall were no doubt dispatched by hunters who had been stationed below to complete the task.

This is an extreme example of early man's propensity for wholesale butchery in his eternal quest for time— and labor—saving methods. The amount of food and clothing material obtained from such carnage would have been minuscule in value compared with the number of animals that were slaughtered. Scientists refer to these events as overkill, a technique that seems to have been used by man the hunter wherever he has settled.

Overkill was clearly indicated in a Colorado site that was discovered during the prolonged drought of the 1950s. Wind blowing over the dry soil in a field near the town of Kit Carson laid bare most dramatic evidence of a hunt that had taken place about 10,000 years ago. It is known as the Plano kill site. Here a group of hunters drove a herd of bison into a ravine twelve feet wide and eight feet deep, killing no fewer than 193 of the herd. The evidence uncovered during the excavation was so rich that the scientists easily reconstructed the hunt in glaring detail.

On that day many thousand of years ago a group of ancient Native people surrounded a herd of bison and, creaming like banshees and waving spears and skins, drove the animals into a panic. The bison immediately closed ranks and stampeded toward the long, open ravine that lay to the south, the only direction away from the hunters. They surged into the dry ravine, which was deep and broad enough to trap a good many of the frightened animals. Falling on top of each other, they completely filled the ravine and became a flailing mass of animal flesh. The bodies of the trapped bison served as a bridge over which a fortunate few from the last of the herd crossed and escaped. Ten thousand years later the story was brought to light by concentrated excavation of the kill site. Based on the fact that a significant number of bones were from very young calves, which are usually born in the spring of the year, the dig revealed that the hunt must have taken place in late May or early June.

Numerous stone points found among skeletons at the easternmost end of the death trap indicated that a number of skin—waving spearmen had been stationed to the north and west. Their noisemaking activity keep the bison from wheeling around and escaping. The ambush was indeed cleverly planned. The hunters doubtless had a field day as they rushed up to the mass of struggling, helpless beasts and exercised their spearing arms. The bison on the bottom of the pile never felt the pain of the spear entering their body, as they were simply crushed to death by the weight of those atop them.

The butchering and skinning that followed must have continued for days. The scientists who worked the site estimated that no less than 60,000 pounds of meat must have been butchered there. Considering that there were probably no more than one hundred people in the entire tribe, this is an incredible amount of meat. Surely much of it would have gone to waste, and many of the carcasses on the bottom of the pile were never even touched by the hunters!

This dismal but excellent example of overkill remained almost unchanged for thousands of years. It didn't take the Native Americans long to realize that the hunt could be more productive with the jump method, such as the stampeding of bison over a cliff or into a deep gully. There was certainly plenty of prey, and game killing was perfected to a truly grand operation. This method, along with surrounding the game, was to persist among Plains Indians into historic times. Such a hunt was witnessed and described by Lewis and Clark in 1805.

The Plains Indians, mounted on horseback, were certainly quite efficient in stampeding herds over cliffs, for several sites have been located. Charles M. Russell, the artist who re—created life as he observed it in the pioneer West of the 1800s and 1890s, was the creator of the painting The Buffalo Drive. It illustrates a tense moment as a couple of braves, mounted on fast ponies, wave skins and drive a small herd of buffalo over a cliff. Two women are crouched at the edge of the cliff in full view of, but away from the action. They too appear tense in response to the exploits they are witnessing and possibly in anticipation of the hard labor and feasting to follow.

There are, of course, few examples of overkill of wildlife at the present time, simply because very few game animals still exist in sizable herds. Exceptions are canned hunts such as the pigeon shoot in Pennsylvania and Colorado's raccoon hunt. In fact, for several thousand endangered species, the killing of a single specimen could be regarded as overkill. Perhaps present destruction most closely related to overkill is the ravaging of forests by clear—cutting and slash and burn.