A Paleoeconomic Theory of Co‐Evolution and Extinction of Domesticable Animals

AuthorErwin Bulte,Richard D. Horan,Jason F. Shogren
Publication Date01 May 2003
Date01 May 2003
Richard D. Horan*, Jason F. Shogren** and Erwin Bulte***
One Pleistocene mystery is why early North Americans eradicated their large,
potentially domesticable animals (e.g., horses), whereas early Europeans did not.
A commonly-held hypothesis is that European species were evasive due to co-
evolution with hominids, whereas North American animals were naı¨ve and unable
to adapt quickly enough when experienced human hunters arrived from Eurasia.
We explore this hypothesis with a paleoeconomic model of co-evolution that
integrates human hunting investments and wildlife population responses. We find
that investments in hunting ability, based on the relative scarcity of prey species,
could have mattered more than wildlife ‘naivety’ in explaining the extinction.
I Intro ductio n
Archaeologists, paleontologists, paleobiologists, and anthropologists have
identified several unsolved global puzzles including the origins of civilization,
agriculture, modern humans, the colonization of early humans, and why human
overkill might have caused a mass megafauna extinction (e.g., mammoths) at the
end of the Pleistocene (see Gamble, 1998; Brook and Bowman, 2002; Roberts
et al., 2001; Alroy, 2001; Choquenot and Bowman, 1998, Beck, 1996; Smith,
1975). And while many hypotheses have been put forth to address these puzzles,
no story has been universally accepted. Researchers have responded to the
challenge by turning to more formal analytical models to investigate various
aspects of these mysteries (Dark, 1995). A common feature of these models,
however, is their tendency to abstract away from behavioural responses to
economic stimuli. These models have largely focused on biological explanations
(e.g., in the case of the Neanderthal extinction; see Flores, 1998), or on results
from mechanistic models of human-environment interactions that lack
Michigan State University
University of Wyoming
Tilburg Univeristy, Netherlands
Scottish Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 50, No. 2, May 2003
rScottish Economic Society 2003, Published by Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ,
UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA
fundamental behavioural components (e.g., in the case of megafauna extinction;
see Mosiman and Martin, 1975; Alroy, 2001).
But these paleo-puzzles have a common threadFthey all depend on human
While primitive in terms of their technologies, early humans are
believed to have had the same analytical capacities as modern humans
(Tattersall and Schwartz, 2000). One can envisage without apology that these
early humans responded to economic stimuli with some degree of rationality (see
Smith, 1975; Nerlove, 1991, 1993; Robson, 2001; Mithen, 1998). Since economic
forces have played integral roles in shaping societies through recorded history,
there is no reason to discount the influence of economic incentives in the pre-
historic dawning of humanity.
And while some economists have recognized the potential contribution that
economics might offer in addressing paleo-puzzles (Smith, 1991), research into
these behavioural underpinnings has been lacking.
In this paper we examine
whether an explicit accounting of economics matters in addressing one
important paleoeconomic puzzleFwhy did early North Americans eradicate
their large, potentially domesticable animals such as horses and camels, whereas
early humans preserved a similar group of animals in Europe? This question
matters because its final outcome has had global implications. Biologist Jared
Diamond (1992, 1997), for instance, argues that current patterns of power and
control of natural resources can be traced back to the question of domestication
of large animals. Domesticated animals facilitated agricultural production to
feed a growing population (cattle, horses), enabled countries to create powerful
armies (horses), and allowed people to develop resistance to germs and bugs that
animals carry. These factors explain why people who first domesticated large
mammals gained an advantage over the restFparticularly in the Americas
where the horse went extinct along with the vast majority (70–80% or more) of
the continents’ large mammals (e.g., the mammoth, giant ground sloth, camel
and dozens of others) (Diamond, 1992). Had Americans preserved these
animals, today’s world might look different.
Understanding the underlying behavioural forces that led to the extinction of
domesticable animals in America becomes important. One behavioural
The exception is the case of the evolution of certain traits possessed by early humans, as
developed in the economics literature.
The possible exception is the case of hominid origins.
The interaction between economic and biological systems is now known to be critically
important, as it must have been long ago when humans depended more on their environment
for survival. See for example Shogren and Crocker’s (1999) discussion on the lack of and need
for better integration of economics into the biology of environmental risk assessment; and
Crocker’s (2001) critique on how economic circumstances affect biological definitions of
resilience and biodiversity.
Smith (1975) and Nerlove (1993), for instance, suggest economic models might help explain
megafauna extinction. And in a related vein, Brander and Taylor (1998) develop an economic
model to explain cultural decline on Easter Island. Another exception is the area of human
evolution. Several studies explore how biological, economic, and environmental forces may
have affected the natural selection of certain human traits such as preferences and associated
economic behaviours (e.g., Robson, 2001, Rogers, 1994; Hansson and Stuart, 1990; Bergstrom,
1996) and inter-personal relationships (Bergstrom, 1996).
rScottish Economic Society 2003

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