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The Call of Distant Mammoths: Why the Ice Age Mammals Disappeared Paperback – 9 Oct 1998

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Product details

  • Paperback: 264 pages
  • Publisher: Copernicus; Softcover reprint of the original 1st ed. 1997 edition (9 Oct. 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0387985727
  • ISBN-13: 978-0387985725
  • Product Dimensions: 15.5 x 1.5 x 23.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,327,673 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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"Carefully intelligent and compelling book." The Olympian (Seattle, WA)

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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 17 Mar. 1999
Format: Paperback
Mr. Ward's book was an interesting and quick read. It was written in terms that non-scientists can understand yet covers the breadth of the current extinction debates with a fair amount of detail. The history of life on earth between 40,000 years ago until the dawn of civilization tends to be overlooked by the flashier dinosaur eras. This book gives us a glimpse at this crucial not so distant time in our past. While I had hoped that the book would be more specific about the Pleistocene fauna I would recommend it.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Nick Candoros on 18 Feb. 2003
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Although the author focuses on the megafauna extinctions in late Ice-Age America, the book is really a general warning - and a very sombre one at that - about species extinction in general, and the factors affecting or even producing it. And if, in the case of Ice-Age big mammals, humans are shown to be only partially responsible - the other culprit being the abrupt climate changes, after the ice retreated - the author reminds us that species extinction is very much alive and well today, all over the world. And this time, we are the only guilty party.
The book is written with passion and eloquence, and some may be tempted to question its scientific value or integrity. I am no palaeontologist myself, so I really cannot argue about this point. I can only say that what Mr.Ward offers, cold scientific facts and educated guesses - you cannot avoid those in palaeontology - or passionate comments on behalf of prehistoric mammoths and modern elephants alike, it convinced me and moved me. By all means read the book as it is, an elegy for worlds lost forever and a warning for other worlds, soon to follow them.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 13 reviews
19 of 23 people found the following review helpful
A murder mystery 15 Jun. 1999
By Duwayne Anderson - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Peter Ward writes his book, The Call of Distant Mammoths, like a murder mystery (a metaphor he uses several times). The victims are the large mammals that disappeared after the last ice age. The perpetrator? Who knows? Peter Ward's thesis fingers early hunters who came across the Asian land bridge as a major, perhaps the major, cause of extinction.
Like any good mystery book, Ward starts before the beginning by taking the reader on an imaginary trip in a time machine through past eras, periods and epochs as he revisits the major extinction events in earth's history and reviews their causes. The most recent, and perhaps best-known, extinction event is that at the K/T boundary that saw the extinction of the dinosaurs. In all his examples, Ward makes the point that extinctions are rapid (at least on geologic time scales) events. I tend to agree, though I'd probably define rapid in terms of the speed with which organisms evolve.
Ward gives some good background information regarding general points related to evolution. I especially enjoyed his clear but brief summary of human evolution, as well as the evolutionary history of elephants. With this introduction (which takes up about 1/3 of the book) Ward begins to make his case by examining the period of time around the last ice age. Ward finds more than coincidence in the emergence of human society and extinction of the large mammals at the end of the last ice age. As he puts it:
"The time of the Ice Age is of utmost importance to humanity, for it is the time of our origin. We began this interval as australopithecines, ape-like forms living and dying among the other wildlife of Africa. We ended the ice Age, only 10,000 years ago, as humans, living on every continent except Antarctica. For humanity, the Ice Age was the crucible of evolution."
I remain fascinated by the idea that the ice age may have somehow precipitated a crucial event in human evolution, and in doing so led both to our emergence as a species, and to the extinction of many ice-age mammals.
I found chapter 5 particularly interesting. This chapter, titled "Wheel of Fortune," illustrates the problems with viewing evolution as strictly survival of the fittest, partly because the terminology is somewhat circular and self-referencing. Many organisms that seem perfectly fit for survival end up extinct because of pure, dumb, blind luck. Things like errant meteorites and other rapid changes to the environment make the process of evolution something like a roulette wheel. From another point of view, what constitutes "fit" today may constitute "unfit" tomorrow, given significant changes in the environment.
It's not until the latter sections of the Book that Ward gets down to business and describes how our species precipitated the ice-age extinctions. In one explanation, human-caused fires were a major contributor. I must admit, I found this explanation wanting. Even today (with billions of our species on the globe and millions of urbanites seeking outdoor recreation) lightning-caused fires far outnumber those caused by people. Perhaps these primitive societies started the fires deliberately? At any rate, it seems that climatic changes that led to drying out, with more dry lightning would precipitate more fires than our early primitive ancestors would. But that's just intuition - right? Perhaps our ancestors were more destructive than I think they were. What seems equally hard to accept is that a few million hunters managed to cause the entire extinction of the mammoths and other large North-American mammals that went extinct at the end of the last ice age.
Perhaps the strongest point Ward makes is the correlation between the appearance of people in other areas (notably Australia) and local extinctions there. I found this particularly persuasive. I must admit to being skeptical about the proposed reasons, but the fact of a positive correlation cannot be casually dismissed. The presence of our species seems to correlate well with the extinction of lots of species - then and now. There remain, however, exceptions to be explained. After all, our species emerged from Africa, and Africa today has the world's largest assortment of large animals.
I believe the weakest area of Ward's thesis remains the (nearly) simultaneous extinction of literally dozens of other large animals at the same time as the mammoths. While ancient cultures, armed with obsidian spears, might have had a penchant for mammoth flesh, and caused their extinction, would (could) they have been such voracious hunters as to do the same thing to horses camels, and rhinoceri? These other species remain relatively anonymous in Ward's book, and I think the argument Ward makes would have been far stronger had he proposed how those animals also went extinct at the hands of primitive hunters.
I found Ward's results of computer simulations, showing that even relatively minor hunting can lead to extinction in a population that is already under stress, very interesting. It wouldn't be the first time our species has caused another to go extinct. Indeed many scientists would argue that people are currently precipitating the largest extinction event since the one that killed all the dinosaurs.
Having read Ward's book was an enriching experience. For me, this book illustrates the thrill of science. Unanswered questions and the thrill of the chase are what make science such a rewarding enterprise. If natural science is your bailiwick, you'll find lots to like about The Call of Distant Mammoths. I highly recommend it.
Duwayne Anderson June 15, 1999
25 of 31 people found the following review helpful
The real elephant graveyards...... 7 Aug. 2001
By Roger McEvilly (the guilty bystander) - Published on
Format: Hardcover
The extinction of ice age mammals and other megafauna is not just a periphereral topic. It is important because, as Mr Ward duly points out, in a sense WE are Ice age megafauna. The mammoths and mastodons and their extinctions are particularly interesting, not just from their romantic appeal, but because they are indeed representative of much that we can learn about what happened to other megafauna at the same time, and indeed about ourselves. A selection of both the probiscideans (elephant line) and hominids wandered out of Africa during the last few million years. Both hominids and the various probiscideans are large and adaptable to varying environmental conditions, including ice ages. Both seem wanderers by nature. Both are intelligent and social animals. Both have few natural predators. Both were very successful during climatic change, including the Ice Ages. Emphasis on WERE. What happened to the mammoths, and other megafauna? This book seeks to answer such a question- the causes, and moreover, the lessons we can learn from this about our own selves.
Their extinction is not simple. Overhunting by humans is considered the most likely and significant cause, although there may well have been other contributing factors. Mr Ward contends that the end of the last ice age(s) created stress for mammoths and some other megafaunal species, which humans were then able to push over the edge through overhunting. It is true to say that without humans, they never would have gone extinct, as they survived many other climatic changes. However, the stress that was created by these climatic changes reduced their natural 'immunity' to such predators as humans in the first place, making it easier for humans to drive them to extinction. Basically, we kick other species when they are down.
There are interesting discussions on wave front (killings), species threshhold and the like, stress, environmental change, elephant-and by correlation-suspected aspects of mammoth behaviour and nature, including gestation, rate of birth, mortality and its causes, and so on. Studies on modern elephants help us gain insight into what the mammoths might have been like, and so this book is also a good read for those who are interested in elephants in general. Some snippets include how elephants increase birth rates under stress, neglect their young in times of drought, the problems of poaching, their eating habits, and why they survived in Africa (they are already extinct in the wild in India).
The basic thrust of the book concerns the debate between overhunting and the Clovis hunters which are suspected to account for their demise, and environmental causes. There are also some discussions on the extinction of other Ice age megafauna such as the diprotodon of Australia-a very large extinct elephant-like marsupial herbivore (there is a skeleton in the Coonabarabran Information Centre in NSW, Australia, recently found, which I have seen, with what looks like a spear point in its ribs), and others. There are overviews from various studies on Quaternary extinctions in general, throughout the world, although Mr Ward focuses primarily on mammoths.
It is a very readable and entertaining book, neither long-winded nor self-congratulatory. However one criticism is that perhaps Mr Ward could have discussed other megafauna in more detail, especially in places like Madagascar, New Zealand and Australia. He does mention these places and their extinct megafauna, but only really in passing. (There isn't much on Australia Mr Ward!). But of course the book is about *mammoths*, I suppose.
The book is quite readable, entertaining, and anything but dry. And I also think it gets better as it goes along, towards the end he introduces some interesting possible twists to the tale of mammoth extinction, and about ourselves, but you will have to read them yourself. Suffice to say those ice ages we have come through may have had more influence on human prehistory than we have formerly given credit.
It really is an excellent book which thoroughly deserves more circulation, full of rare insights and romance. For science enthusiasts, animal and murder mystery lovers, put it on your shelf. I doubt you will regret it.
14 of 19 people found the following review helpful
Some problems but Ward seems to know his stuff 3 Jan. 2001
By Peter Gulutzan - Published on
Format: Hardcover
I have to agree that Ward sometimes strays from topic, and gets in too much about himself -- but I read it all without getting bored, and apparently so did the more critical reviewers here. In other words, he can hold our interest even when he irritates a bit.
The question in the title is: why did the ice age mammals disappear? Ward can point to a "smoking gun". I wondered about the detail, thrown in as an aside, that other predators crossed the Bering land bridge at the same time as humans: why then are humans the only possible suspects? Nevertheless, the analogy with the K-T extinctions is a compelling pointer.
The anecdotes about scientific conferences and personal experiences are integral to the story, because they show why we should regard Ward as a trustworthy guide. For similar reasons, I applaud the speculative scenes where Ward describes what a time traveller might see while witnessing important turning points. As with a museum display, we lay folk know the scenes are fanciful, but generations of museumgoers will attest that this is the sort of thing that makes a story live. It would be easy to cram pure facts in, and others have done that; however, this style matches what the general public asks for.
I find myself wondering at the end about other ice-age mammals, especially the sabre-tooths. I look forward to reading other Ward books now that I know he's a man with some answers.
14 of 19 people found the following review helpful
A real disappointment. Has been done better elsewhere. 29 July 1998
By John Anderson - Published on
Format: Hardcover
I grabbed this book in spite of the title & am sorry that I did. The subject is fascinating, but the author simply doesn't do it justice. We get far too much personal anecdote (often without any real conclusion) and far too little real meat. Especially given the controversy (and topicality) of the Pleistocene extinctions & the possible role that early humans played one would hope for something that would inform the educated layperson while energizing the serious student. Ward is definitely capable of this as shown by his earlier book on living fossils, but somehow he loses his way here. After reading the book I really had to wonder just who it was intended for, it seems to fall between two stools -too technical for the non-scientist & not serious enough (nor with a sufficiently useful list of citations) for the professional. A real pity & one hopes that someone else rises to the challenge.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Strangers in a Strange Land! 12 Nov. 2012
By LastRanger - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
While I don't agree with all of Ward's theory's on extinction he's still one of my favorite science writers. In this book he not only reviews the Ice Age die off but covers some of the other extinction events as well. On the KT event Ward recounts going to a lecture in which Robert Bakker questions the whole impact scenario by saying "If all this is true, why do we still have amphibians?". Ward thought this was a good point but then does not mention amphibians again for the remainder of the book. For me this was not the best book that Ward's ever written but he does cover a wide range of subjects in a entertaining manner. He brings up a good point on the extinction of mammoths and mastodons; because of the fragmentation of their environmental range, slow rate of reproduction and a long childhood they were extremely vulnerable to predation. The Human Overkill Theory is poplar but has many problems so Ward covers both sides of the argument. In spite of my disagreement on some points I did enjoy the book. Maybe that's what science is all about. I had no technical problems with this Kindle edition.
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