The University of Arizona

Paul S. Martin, Pleistocene Extinctions Expert, Dies

By Mari N. Jensen, College of Science | September 16, 2010

Paul S. Martin developed the idea that early humans had hunted North America's Ice Age big game, including ground sloths, camels, mammoths and mastodons, to extinction.

Paul S. Martin
Paul S. Martin

Paul S. Martin, the University of Arizona geoscientist who developed the idea that overhunting drove North America's large Ice Age mammals extinct, died Sept. 13 at his home in Tucson, Ariz. He was 82.

"More than 40 years ago, Paul framed a scientific question: What was the role of humans in Pleistocene extinctions? It's the greatest "whodunit" in science," said Karl W. Flessa, a UA paleontologist and a long-time colleague of Martin's.

Martin insisted that early humans had hunted North America's Ice Age big game, including ground sloths, camels, mammoths and mastodons, to extinction.

"The issue has engaged generations of scientists, students and the general public ever since," said Flessa, professor and head of the UA department of geosciences. "Paul warmly welcomed both supporters and dissenters. I've never seen anything quite like it.  It wasn't just a matter of disarming his opponents with kindness. Paul really wanted to see things the way his opponents saw them, in order to understand even more about his favorite topic–Pleistocene extinctions."

Vance Haynes, a UA professor emeritus of anthropology and geosciences, reiterated Martin's desire to learn from people with different viewpoints and his thirst for knowledge: "Unlike so many people who get infatuated with their own theories, he spent his professional career inviting criticism. He put together two critical conferences about Pleistocene extinctions, and the volumes that came out of those were pace-setting."

Martin's wide-ranging interests made him an interdisciplinary researcher before interdisciplinary was a buzzword. Martin's work bridged ecology, anthropology, geosciences and paleontology in a way that had not been done before.

A native of Allentown, Penn., Martin earned a bachelor's degree in zoology from Cornell University in 1951. He earned his master's degree and doctorate in zoology from the University of Michigan in 1953 and 1956, respectively. He was a postdoctoral researcher in biogeography at Yale University from 1955-56 and at the University of Montreal from 1956-57. He joined the UA as a research associate in the Geochronology Laboratories in 1957. He became an assistant professor in 1961 and rose through the ranks, becoming a professor of geosciences in 1968. He retired from the University as an emeritus professor of geosciences in 1989.

In addition to his studies of Pleistocene extinctions, Martin is also known worldwide for his and his students' research on the long-term ecological and climatic records contained in packrat middens. He and his students also studied paleoecology and paleoclimate using other natural records, including pollen, tree rings and the vegetation preserved in fossilized ground sloth dung. The center of those studies was the UA's The Desert Laboratory, three buildings perched atop Tumamoc Hill, then just outside of Tucson and surrounded by desert.

The interdisciplinary nature of Martin's own research fueled a spirit of collaboration and creativity in the students from zoology, botany, geology and anthropology who gathered and conducted research on "The Hill," as people called it.

Former graduate student David W. Steadman said, "There were graduate students with highly varied backgrounds who did lots of fieldwork together and ate lunch together. ... All of us up there truly appreciated what we had. Nobody had to tell us that we had something special going."

The importance of going into the field to study the natural world was a crucial component of Martin's approach to research. His wife, Mary Kay O'Rourke, said, "A thing that is most remarkable about Paul's life is his vast array of field experience. ... He was all about the field work."

Martin's field trips were legendary because he inspired people to explore, enjoy and study the natural world. Steadman said, "I look back on those days with euphoria. He knew the best places to go, the neatest regions to explore. ... He made everybody, no matter what your background or your educational level or expertise, feel welcome and that they could contribute."

Martin's interest in the natural world started in childhood and was encouraged by his parents, Steadman said. Martin attended Cornell University to study zoology and fell in love with Mexico while on a bird-collecting field trip.

The trip began Martin's life-long interest in Mexico and in how tropical flora and fauna came to be. "He was smitten by the lifestyle of rural Mexicans and by the Mexican countryside," said Steadman, now associate director for collections and research at the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida in Gainesville. "There was something about Paul that put him in a really special good mood once he was south of the border."

Martin's devotion to field work and love of remote places was particularly notable because he had contracted polio in the early 1950s and often needed a cane or crutches to get around.

Once Martin and his wife visited Steadman at a remote field camp in the Galapagos accessible only by boat. Camp was a two-mile hike over lava and up a cliff.

"I questioned whether Paul could make it," Steadman said. "He said, ‘I'm going to make it, don't wait for me.' ... After I don't know how many hours, here shows up Paul. Bloody – there wasn't a place that wasn't cut. Bloody, sweaty and grinning from ear-to-ear."

Haynes said, "He was a remarkable person, and I thank my lucky stars that I was associated with him. He's going to leave a big hole in the profession."

Martin is survived by his wife, Mary Kay O'Rourke, an associate professor of public health at the UA; his sons Andrew, Neil and Thomas; two nieces and four nephews; and two granddaughters.

No services are currently planned. Donations can be made to the Paul S. Martin Quaternary Studies Fund to support field work in Quaternary anthropology, ecology, geology and paleontology. Mailing address: Paul S. Martin Fund, Department of Geosciences, Gould-Simpson Building, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ 85721. Checks should be made out to "Department of Geosciences, University of Arizona."