Deadliest Predator: Humans Wiped Out Ancient Mammals, Study Finds

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By Devin Coldewey

A decades-old scholarly dispute over what killed off huge ancient animals like mammoths and giant armadillos may have finally been settled, and the answer isn't surprising. Some scientists argued that climate change caused these "megafauna" to die out, while others claimed early humans drove them to extinction. Researchers at Exeter and Cambridge universities had a good hard look at the data and detailed their conclusions in a paper published in the journal Ecography.

So whodunnit? Us, of course.

Related: Bumblebees Are Being Bumped Off by Climate Change, Scientists Say

"As far as we are concerned, this research is the nail in the coffin of this 50-year debate — humans were the dominant cause of the extinction of megafauna," said lead study author Lewis Bartlett in an Exeter news release. "It debunks the myth of early humans living in harmony with nature."

The data show clear links between the spread of humanity and the extinction of large creatures. Climate change may also have contributed by limiting habitats and destroying niches, the study suggests, but the fact that the die-outs just happened to occur whenever humans showed up is no coincidence.

Related: 'Racing Extinction' Sounds Alarm on Ocean's Endangered Creatures

One thing the statistics don't show, however, is why the animals died.

"What we don’t know is what it was about these early settlers that caused this demise," Bartlett said. "Were they killing them for food, was it early use of fire, or were they driven out of their habitats?"

Humans are the cause of plenty of extinctions today, of course, and we're not doing it with rocks and spears any more. It's just possible, though, that we might be able to undo some of the damage we've done and revive a species — whether it disappeared 50,000 years ago or last week.