History holds the answers to many of our modern problems. It’s also the reason for many of today’s problems. At the root of it? White supremacy, racism, and colonialism. Just look at the ecological crises we face: environmental racism, biodiversity loss, and global heating. You’ll find that European exploitation is the foundation.
A new study released last week finds further evidence that European colonization was the beginning of the end for the planet. Though the study zoomed into a specific region—the Guadeloupe Islands in the Caribbean—its findings are in line with previous research showing how disastrous colonization has been for the world’s ecosystems. The study doesn’t just assess the past; it offers lessons for the future, too.
Welcome to The Frontline, where fossils and bones will help us tell the story. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. On the Guadeloupe Islands, snakes and lizards were largely unaffected by Indigenous peoples. They only began to suffer after Christopher Columbus sailed ashore in 1493.
43,790. That’s how many bones of snakes and lizards—also known as squamates—researchers had to sift through to assess historical extinction rates throughout the Guadeloupe Islands, which sit in the Caribbean Sea just north of eastern Venezuela. They’re a perfect place to explore historical reptile extinctions; suitable fossil remains are bountiful.
Scientists published a study last week in Science Advances using the fossil record to measure the deadly impact of European colonization on snakes and lizards, which make up most terrestrial fauna on the islands. They found what you’d expect: Colonization was detrimental to many species—deadly, to be exact. The Guadeloupe Islands would look a lot different today if it weren’t for colonization; much of the world would.
“This is an extraordinary fossil dataset that takes us from the Late Pleistocene all the way through the European era,” said study author Nicole Boivin, director of Germany’s Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. “It involved the careful, painstaking analysis of many thousands of individual bones from numerous individual archaeological sites in the Guadeloupe Islands. Such long-term, focused, systematic studies are actually exceedingly rare.”
Europeans brought over predators like mongoose, cats, and rats with them. They also engaged in intensive agriculture methods, which often involves deforestation, habitat fragmentation, and soil quality erosion. The analysis shows that this likely caused the loss of at least 80% of medium-sized animals. Reptiles that lived on the ground—rather than up in trees—mainly disappeared, suggesting that these new ground-dwelling predators may be to blame. Up to 70% of squamate populations went extinct, according to the fossil records.
“A really fascinating part of the study is the little clues it provides that allow us to reconstruct exactly what it was about Europeans that made them so much more destructive of reptile species than earlier inhabitants of the islands,” Boivin said in an email.
These findings are only the latest to show just how destructive colonialism is for the natural world—and the people who rely on it. The Taíno, the Indigenous peoples who inhabited Caribbean islands from South America, had arrived potentially as far back as 3000 B.C. Most were wiped out by the mid-17th century by colonizers who followed Columbus. In fact, previous research has suggested that so many Indigenous people died at the hands of European colonizers—90%—that the planet cooled as a result of all the vegetation overgrowth following the collapse of their communities.
“With the colonizer, the aim was clear. The aim was to make money.”
Before these colonialist horrors, the animals were fine: The soil layers from when only Indigenous people lived on the islands didn’t show any squamate extinctions. Though the Indigenous peoples brought two lizard species to the islands with them (whether on purpose or by accident is unknown), these creatures actually increased species diversity.
“The aim of the American Indian exploiting the environment is completely different from the colonizing society,” said study author Corentin Bochaton, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Bordeaux in France who spent years studying the animal bones. “The American Indian used the environment to add food for their own group. They used the environment to live their normal life. They do not aim to make money or export goods to the other half of the world. With the colonizer, the aim was clear. The aim was to make money.”
That’s the thing about Indigenous communities—their relationship to the environment isn’t so extractive. It’s about receiving and giving without harming. It’s a worldview scientists are trying to bridge into the conservation and sustainability space.
“The study is not surprising,” said Dina Gilio-Whitaker, a lecturer of American Indian Studies at California State University of San Marcos who wasn’t involved in the paper. “It just confirms the overwhelming evidence that we already know of what defines Indigeneity. The reason these cultures are sustainable is because they have a very different philosophical orientation to the natural world compared to Europeans.”
Though Gilio-Whitaker didn’t read the study at length, she didn’t need to. As amember of the Colville Confederated Tribes in Washington state, she knows intimately the way Indigenous peoples have historically interacted with their land. She also knows that the forces that have historically threatened her people with extinction are the same ones pushing humanity closer to its tipping points. Kinship and reciprocity need to guide humans toward solutions, she said.
“The lessons to learn are these underlying values that Indigenous people live by,” Gilio-Whitaker said. “That’s what really needs to change. And how we imagine our way out of climate change is by understanding the underpinning philosophical foundations.”