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Economic and Social History Blog

49. Paradise Lost (25-5-2020)

Paradise Lost (25-5-2020)

Written by: Jan Luiten van Zanden

Paradise is a myth, a story, and you probably do not believe there has ever been a real paradise on earth. I hope I can convince you that you are wrong. Paradise did exist, and Reyer Cornelisz. wrote about it. He was helmsman of De Swarte Leeuw, which visited Mauritius in 1603. He documented the richness of the sea life around the island: ‘and we caught water turtles, sting rays, mullets, flatfish such as bream, and also salmons, and also we caught very large fish with hooks […] there is so much fish that it is difficult to believe’.  On land it was no different:  ’And from the animals on the land, as turtles, dodo’s, flamingo’s, geese, ducks and fowls large and small, Indian raven, and pigeons, there are also red-tailed pigeons, of which many became sick, and there are also many grey parrots, and green ones with long tails, of which a few were caught’.

In Dutch it reads even better: ‘Ende noch vinghen wij alhier waeter schiltpadden, rochen, harders, platte visschen gelijk als brasem, en de oyck salmenetten, ende noch vinghen wij met hoecken seer groote visschen […]somma hier is soo overvloedich van visch dat het qualyck is om te geloven’, ‘Item van de gedierten dy er haer opt land onthouden, als schildpadden, walchvogels, flamenchus, ganssen, endtvoegelen zoo velthoenderen groot en kleyn, Indiaenschen ravers, oyck duyven, daer syn oyck roostarte duyven, daer menich man sieck aff geweest is, hier syn oyck menichte van grauwe papegaeyen, ende oyck groene met langhe starten, waarvander sommighe gevanghen wordden’.

The sailors were overwhelmed by the abundance of wildlife and by the ease with which fish and fowl could be caught. The animals did not recognize humans as predators; the famous dodo could for example be caught simply by grabbing the birds by hand – and the sailors caught much more than they could consume. The extinction of the dodo – the most famous bird of Mauritius – between 1680 and 1690 symbolizes what happened to this paradise – this land of abundant food that could be harvested without hard work (the palm wine that could be extracted from the palm trees was another major attraction, which made residents extremely lethargic – such were the temptations of paradise). For the VOC Mauritius – on the route to Java – was an ideal refreshing station, where plenty of supplies could easily be acquired. The Dutch (and other visitors) not only hunted many species perhaps to extinction, but also introduced exotic species, such as pigs (to increase the meat supply) or rats (by accident), which did great harm to the indigenous ecosystems. Not only the dodo became extinct within about a century, many other species which had been typical of the island, disappeared.

What happened on Mauritius after 1600 is one of the few well-documented cases of homo sapiens conquering completely new, ‘heavenly’ eco-systems. Some 70,000 years ago this new species started to exit Africa and spread over the entire globe (an amazing achievement in itself). In many cases she was the first hominid to settle somewhere – in Australia and New Zealand, Japan, The Americas, and many islands in the various oceans. Often, usually, the arrival of this smart hunter gatherer coincided with the extinction of what has been called ‘mega fauna’ – the giants birds of New Zealand and Madagascar, the Giant Sloths of South America, the Saber-Tooth Tigers of North America (well-known from the Flintstones), the Mammoths of EurAsia and many, many more. Already in the 1960s Paul Martin hypothesized that the disappearance of megafauna in various parts of the world was caused by the spread of an apparently very smart and well organized hunter, homo sapiens. And this hypothesis has gained strength over the years and is now confirmed by much research – although it is difficult to understand how the very few people that inhabited the earth at the time could have such a huge impact. The ‘naive’ behaviour of animals not used to humans, which made it possible to slaughter entire populations, is probably a large part of the story – it is also well-known from other historical ‘paradises’ (such as the first whale hunting expeditions to Spitsbergen).

How wonderful, exciting, amazing nature would have been with the Giant Sloths of South America, the giant Marsupials from Australia or the Mammoths of Wrangel? Our ancestors hunter gatherers probably caused a huge wave of extinctions, perhaps even worse than what is happening now due to population growth and industrial Revolution. And perhaps our sisters the Neanderthalers were among the victims as well.

Continue reading: Claiming Easter Island (26-5-2020)


Ross MacPhee, End of the Megafauna, Norton 2019.

Paul S. Martin,’Prehistoric Overkill’, in P.S. Martin and H.E. Wright, Pleistocene Extinctions. New Haven 1967, pp. 75-120.

Parmentier, J., Davids, K., Everaert, J. (2003). Peper, Plancius en Porselein. De reis van het schip Swarte Leeuw naar Atjeh en Bantam, 1601-1603. Zutphen, Walburg Pers.