Caribbean Animal Extinctions Began With The Conquistadors, Says Study
The beautiful, inhabited archipelago of islands in the south of the Caribbean, called Guadeloupe, was sighted by conquistador Christopher Columbus, in 1493, and the Caribbean became part of the “New World.” A recent study shows that Caribbean animal extinctions were non-existent until Europeans began “cultivating” their new territories. And by extension climate change also began when Caribbean animal extinctions got started, as the Westerners turned huge forests into fertile fields of crops to export to Europe and elsewhere.
The latest study on Caribbean animal extinctions shows that indigenous human beings were not the only ones impacted by European activities in the Caribbean and, by extension, Latin America. The study published in Sciences Advances magazine, “revealed a massive extinction of 50 to 70% of Guadeloupe’s snakes and lizards following European colonization.”
An organic banana plantation in Guadeloupe today. The commercialization of land on the 6 inhabited islands of Guadeloupe was consistent with the first evidence of Caribbean animal extinctions. (daumy / Adobe Stock)
New World Colonialism and Caribbean Animal Extinction Evidence
The authors, from all over the globe, led by Professor Corentin Bochaton from the legendary Max Planck Institute for the Sciences of Human History, studied 43,000 bone remains across Guadeloupe. They discovered that indigenous populations coexisted with snakes and lizards for thousands of years, without affecting the diversity. The focus of the study was to assess the “severe impacts of humans on Earth’s ecosystems,” and the Caribbean animal extinctions was a measurement of this impact.
Using a methodology of carbon dating the remains and the surroundings sediments, the focus of the Caribbean animal extinctions study was centered around the Anthropocene epoch, especially the last 500 years.
"What we found is that we have massive biodiversity in the past record, with several species we were unaware were present there in the past, and also several species that were never described before," lead author Bochaton, also from the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique told AFP.
Animal groups across 31 sites were analyzed, across 16 animal types, on all of Guadeloupe’s islands. While Columbus arrived in Guadeloupe in 1493, French colonization started in 1635 and led to a disappearance of Guadeloupe’s indigenous people within 20 years. Bochaton added that, “we observed no extinction in the Amerindian time.”
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Forest Landscape Integrity Index 2019 map of the Earth. Forest condition measured by degree of anthropogenic modification. 0 = Most modification; 10 = Least. And as you can see large parts of the urban world are basically “black.” (PhnomPencil / CC BY-SA 4.0)
The Anthropocene and Habitat Destruction
The Anthropocene is a proposed geological epoch that commences with the impact of human beings significantly altering the Earth’s climate and ecosystems, and ultimately causing modern-day climate change. Human impacts on “nature” accelerated significantly during the Industrial Revolution, but the era of mercantile trade and exploration by Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries is when the pace of climate change really started to speed up.
Existing pre-colonial records show that the native populations lived harmoniously with snakes and lizards. In fact, the snake and lizard populations actually blossomed during this long history of untroubled-by-European existence. No extinctions were recorded during this period, and 2 new lizard species were recorded, according to the release by Max Planck Institute.
"The long-term data from Guadeloupe are concerning," notes Professor Nicole Boivin, Director of the Department of Archaeology at the MPI in Jena.
"Snakes and lizards persisted through a broad range of climatic, environmental and human-induced changes on Guadeloupe over thousands of years. They do not appear to be sensitive animals. Yet in the last few hundred years, their diversity has plummeted."
One of the main takeaways, which has always been prominent throughout history, is that the coming of Europeans also heralded the advent of large-scale forest clearing for commercial agricultural land. This was combined with soil degradation on a massive scale, causing the decimation of local insect populations, and, by extension, many species in the food chain.
"Our research strongly advocates for the study of past biodiversity to address current conservation issues and for the study of less charismatic animals like reptiles, which are an essential part of tropical ecosystems," says Bochaton.
Habitat destruction in the current stage of the Anthropocene era is visible in some places and invisible in others. But either way, biodiversity has suffered huge setbacks in just the last 70 years, since the advent of the atomic bomb. (lassedesignen / Adobe Stock)
Indigenous Human Beings Versus The “Modern” Colonizers
"In recent years, recognition of early human impacts has led to a kind of acceptance of humans as this inherently destructive species," says Professor Boivin. "Yet the Guadeloupe data clearly show that Indigenous lifeways were supportive of snake and lizard biodiversity, whereas European ones were not. This provides us with important information for future management and sustainability initiatives, and calls into question some of the ways conservationists deal with Indigenous communities globally."
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It wouldn’t be unfair to argue that there is a definite link between colonialism and habitat destruction. In fact, early and later European mercantile trade, slavery, and the establishment of European bases in Asia, Africa and Latin America resulted in tremendous environmental losses across the globe, as these dominant powers pushed to establish monopolies over certain products. The ensuing result was a massive loss of native species, many gone forever.
Top image: Caribbean animal extinctions, according to the latest study, were most noticeable in reptiles like snakes and lizards but by extension this also impacts the entire food chain. Source: mahendra yanu insuwarso / Adobe Stock
By Rudra Bhushan
AFP. 2021. European colonists drove mass reptile extinction on Guadeloupe Islands: study. Available at: https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/european-colonists-drove-mass-reptile-extinction-on-guadeloupe-islands-study/article34605187.ece.
Bochaton, C., Paradis, E., Bailon, S., et al. 2021. Large-scale reptile extinctions following European colonization of the Guadeloupe Islands. Available at: https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/7/21/eabg2111.
Science Daily. 2021. Half of Guadeloupe’s snakes and lizards went extinct after European colonization. Available at: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/05/210519163650.htm.