Even 400,000 Years Ago, the Loss of Animal Species Took a Toll on Humans

A mammoth is depicted on the walls of the Rouffignac cavesin France.
A mammoth is depicted on the walls of the Rouffignac caves in France. Wikimedia Commons [public domain]

When animals go extinct, humans pay a price in more ways than one.

In fact, research published recently in the journal Time and Mind, suggests even our ancient ancestors missed a species they hunted when it disappeared or migrated elsewhere.

That's because their relationship with animals was much more nuanced than a simple sustenance-based dynamic. Animals were not only hunted, but revered.

"The disappearance of a species that supported human existence for millennia triggered not only technological and social changes but also had profound emotional and psychological effects," the authors note in the study.

To reach that conclusion, Tel Aviv University researchers looked at hunter-gatherer societies at various points in human history — from as far back as 400,000 years ago to the present — and noted the complex "multidimensional connection" between humans and animals. In all, 10 case studies suggested that bond was existential, physical, spiritual, and emotional

"There has been much discussion of the impact of people on the disappearance of animal species, mostly through hunting," the study's lead author Eyal Halfon explains in a press release. "But we flipped the issue to discover how the disappearance of animals — either through extinction or migration — has affected people."

An animal's sudden absence, researchers noted, resonates deeply — both emotionally and psychologically — among people who relied on those animals for food. The researchers suspect understanding that impact could help brace us for the dramatic environmental changes happening today.

"We found that humans reacted to the loss of the animal they hunted — a significant partner in deep, varied and fundamental ways," Halfon notes in the release.

"Many hunter-gatherer populations were based on one type of animal that provided many necessities such as food, clothing, tools and fuel," he adds. "For example, until 400,000 years ago prehistoric humans in Israel hunted elephants. Up to 40,000 years ago, residents of Northern Siberia hunted the woolly mammoth. When these animals disappeared from those areas, this had major ramifications for humans, who needed to respond and adapt to a new situation. Some had to completely change their way of life to survive."

A Siberian community, for example, adapted to the disappearance of wooly mammoths by migrating east — and becoming the first known settlers in Alaska and northern Canada. In central Israel, researchers noted, the change from elephants to deer as a hunting source brought physical changes to the humans who lived there. They had to develop agility and social connections, rather than the brute strength required to take down elephants.

But an animal's disappearance from an environment also created powerful emotional ripples.

"Humans felt deeply connected to the animals they hunted, considering them partners in nature, and appreciating them for the livelihood and sustenance they provided," Halfon explains. "We believe they never forgot these animals — even long after they disappeared from the landscape."

Indeed, researchers cite engravings of mammoths and seals from the Late Paleolithic period in Europe as compelling examples of that emotional connection. Both species were likely long gone from that region by the time the engravings were made.

"These depictions reflect a simple human emotion we all know very well: longing," Halfon notes. "Early humans remembered the animals that disappeared and perpetuated them, just like a poet who writes a song about his beloved who left him."

Those feelings may even involve a sense of guilt — and maybe even a lesson for a society that lost an animal species.

"Indigenous hunter-gatherer societies have been very careful to maintain clear rules about hunting. As a result, when an animal disappears, they ask: 'Did we behave properly? Is it angry and punishing us? What can we do to convince it to come back?'" explains study co-author Ran Barkai. "Such a reaction has been exhibited by modern-day hunter-gatherer societies as well."