What if we are our worst enemy? Two professors explore the biological and cultural roots of extinction.
Before Truganini, a Tasmanian aboriginal woman, took her final breath in 1876, she was widely believed to be one of the last remaining full-blooded Tasmanians, or Palawa, as she and her people called themselves.
Her death marked the end of a chapter that began in 1803 when the British created a penal colony on Tasmania, an island off the south coast of Australia, and ended with the extinction of the Palawa people seven decades later. Born in 1812, Truganini watched her people be wiped out under a policy of capture, relocation or murder that resulted in the death of thousands.
By 1833, she and the 100 remaining Palawa had been forcibly removed to Flinders Island, some 20 miles north of their home. When Truganini died at age 64, the native Tasmanian language almost all but died with her.
“All of the major genocides have been horrific, but Tasmania was one of the worst,” says Paul Shankman, CU-Boulder anthropology professor. “Within about three-quarters of a century they [the British] were able to eliminate virtually every single Tasmanian.”
Extinction is a big word, a sprawling concept and more complicated than it may first seem. That’s precisely why Shankman and anthropology professor Michelle Sauther co-created their 2013 graduate-level seminar, “Extinction: Biological and Cultural Perspectives.”
In the course Shankman, Sauther and their students have explored various modes of extinction — evolutionary extinction, genocide, cultural and linguistic extinction, apocalyptic scenarios and the ongoing catastrophic loss of species known as the “sixth extinction,” a modern sequel to the “big five” prehistoric events that completely reconfigured life on Earth.
Sauther brings expertise in biological anthropology and years of research on how primates on Madagascar are adapting to natural and human-induced biological change. Shankman’s studies on the peoples of Polynesia and his longstanding courses on the Nazi Holocaust and nuclear apocalypse offer a more cultural perspective.
“Obviously, species extinction is different from cultural extinction is different from linguistic extinction,” Shankman says. “But there is enough in common that we are looking at them all under the same rubric.”
Extinction, while devastating, is seldom complete. The infamous fifth extinction, commonly known as the Cretaceous-Paleocene event, wiped out 75 percent of all species some 65 million years ago. But that event had a silver lining for us humans. With Tyrannosaurus rex, ocean-going plesiosaurs and flying pterosaurs out of the picture, mammalian life flourished — and headed down the path of evolution.
“It was catastrophic,” Sauther says. “But if it hadn’t happened, the human species wouldn’t be here.”
The idea of extinction, understandably, holds negative connotations for many people. But sometimes it’s just the ticket. Most species today — sharks being one notable exception — are the descendants of other species that long ago went “extinct.” Horses today, for example, are not the horses of millions of years ago. Those species are long gone, but their genetic ancestors survive.
The same goes for humankind. Long mocked as a species of hominid too dense to survive, the Neanderthal was
believed to have gone “extinct” eons ago. Yet we now know some Neanderthal genes live on in today’s Homo sapiens. Using DNA extracted from fossilized bones, scientists have discovered that some of our descendants interbred with Neanderthals.
Neanderthals “are not totally extinct. In some of us they live on, a little bit,” professor Svante Paabo told the BBC in 2010. Paabo is director of genetics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, which has been at the forefront of Neanderthal DNA research.
“Extinction,” Shankman agrees, “isn’t always as absolute as we thought.”
Shankman and Sauther are careful not to assert there is any kind of equivalence between the “natural” disappearance of the dinosaurs or Neanderthals and the deliberate genocide of Truganini’s people or the attempted annihilation of Jews by Nazi Germany.
In genocide, “killing people is an end in and of itself. The idea is to eliminate, to annihilate, to exterminate,” Shankman says.
In April 1945, when U.S. and Soviet troops pulled back the curtain on Nazi Germany’s brutal network of killing camps, the world saw the horrific results of Adolf Hitler’s attempted “final solution.” There were shriveled bodies stacked like cordwood and ovens blackened with the bitter smoke of massacre. Haggard survivors of hell revealed Hitler’s coldly calculated attempt to rid the world of Jewish people.
More than 1.1 million people were killed at Auschwitz in Poland; some 800,000 at Treblinka in Poland. The end result was an estimated 6 million Jews murdered, along with millions of Gypsies, Slavs and members of other religious, cultural or political minority groups.
“Hitler was able to kill about two-thirds of Europe’s Jews,” Shankman says.
Yet genocide was more common in the 20th century than most Americans realize, he says. In 1994 more than 800,000 Tutsis and Hutu sympathizers in Rwanda were killed during three months. Between 1975-79, more than 2 million Cambodians died from execution, disease, starvation and exhaustion under the rule of the Khmer Rouge. During the 1930s, Joseph Stalin’s forced collectivization of agriculture in the Soviet Union killed from an estimated 3 to 7 million citizens and the Ottoman Turks slaughtered more than 1 million Armenians during the early 1900s. In addition, the U.S. government’s orchestrated efforts to destroy American Indians extended into the 20th century.
But there are subtler ways to destroy a people than out-and-out slaughter. Missionaries and settlers in North America and Australia removed children from their parents and sent them to schools where they were not allowed to speak their native tongues. Language is the key to culture.
“The basic idea is to annihilate them not physically but culturally to make them assimilate into the dominant culture,” Shankman says.
Yet there are examples of languages being resurrected after falling into almost complete disuse. In 1896 Hawaiian was banned by a government closely allied with the United States, but it was resurrected in 1949 when the territory of Hawaii commissioned the writing of a new Hawaiian dictionary. Today, about 10,000 people speak the language, and the number is growing.
Hebrew had not been a spoken language since the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C., but it was resurrected in the 19th century by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. Born in 1858, Ben-Yehuda spent much of his life promoting Jewish nationalism after being inspired by European nationalist movements. In his mind Jews needed to return to Israel, as well as speak Hebrew, which had existed primarily as a written language. Before dying in 1922, he authored the first modern Hebrew dictionary. Today Hebrew is the official language of Israel and is spoken by millions of people around the world.
Of course, nothing lasts forever, be it language, a species or a culture. Change is the only constant, and part of change is destruction. Of the 4 billion species estimated to have existed on Earth over the last 3.5 billion years, some 99 percent are gone.
Yet the assertion by one group of another’s extinction is itself complicated, depending on who is making the claims. Jennifer Shannon, assistant professor of anthropology and curator of cultural anthropology at the CU Museum of Natural History, recalls an almost comical example from her time working at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Irving Auguiste, former chief of the Kalinago people — often called Island Caribs — had viewed with interest an exhibit pronouncing his people extinct.
“Yet there he was,” Shannon says, “looking at the exhibit.”
When it comes to human-caused extinction, Shankman and Sauther agree humanity has a duty to respond, whether it’s intervening in genocide or being mindful of habitat destruction.
“We always have a choice,” Shankman says. “Extinction is not inevitable. To say it’s inevitable is to make a choice to say we can’t — or won’t — do anything about it.”