Guest Commentary

The death of desert giant: Paul S. Martin, 1928-2010

The thing I learned from Paul is that every day can be an adventure if you are open to it.

Dr. Mary Kay O'Rourke, wife of Paul S. Martin

Years ago, there was a T-shirt floating around featuring a hairy, thuggish-looking Neanderthal carrying a club, with the words "Back to the Pleistocene" scrawled across the bottom of the shirt. It was usually worn by Earth First!-ers and other environmental types who longed for the bad old days of 10,000 to 1.8 million years ago.

While Paul Martin never blew up any dams or stood in front of any bulldozers waving a monkey wrench, he did spend his distinguished career demolishing other types of barriers: Intellectual rigidity, flawed arguments and a failure to consider the big picture all crumbled to dust under his slow and steady assault. He used nothing flashier than pure logic, solid facts, well-considered arguments, good science, a boyish grin and his indefatigable good humor.

One of the most original and brilliant scientific minds of our time has died. Dr. Paul Schultz Martin was 82 when he passed away at home in Tucson on Sept. 13.

Paul Martin was best known for his work on the Pleistocene overkill hypothesis, the idea that prehistoric big-game hunters drove all the large Ice Age mammals (mammoths, mastodons, giant ground sloths, camels, saber-toothed cats and other amazing critters) into extinction by overhunting.

His pioneering research studying prehistoric pollen from ancient lake sediments, packrat middens and caves containing the dried poop of extinct mammals led to important discoveries about prehistoric climate change and the movements of plant communities. He was studying climate change before studying climate change was, well, cool.

He was born in 1928 in Allentown, Penn. A hard-core birder by age 14, he graduated from Cornell with a bachelor's degree in zoology in 1951. He earned a master's (1953) and a doctorate (1956) in zoology, both at the University of Michigan. He did postdoctoral research in biogeography at both Yale and the University of Montreal. Arriving at the University of Arizona in 1957 as a researcher in the Geochronology Laboratory, he became an assistant professor in 1961. He was promoted to full professor of geosciences in 1968 and was a long-time researcher at the University of Arizona's Desert Laboratory on Tumamoc Hill. He retired from the UA in 1989 as professor emeritus in Geosciences, retaining what he called his "wonderful office on the Hill, with windows into the desert on three sides." He published several major books and dozens of scientific papers. Despite a bout of polio in 1950, he still managed to travel the world doing research and visiting sites in Africa, South America, Australia and especially the backcountry of Mexico.

He was midwife to a vast cadre of students and researchers who got their start at the Desert Laboratory. His field trips were famous. He was a top-flight researcher, teacher and mentor. His approach to science was truly interdisciplinary; he was an expert in multiple fields, and he actively encouraged opposing viewpoints, because what mattered to him was the answer, not the glory.

Most recently, he proposed the controversial idea of introducing large African megafauna—such as elephants and giraffes—to North America to refill the empty ecological niches left after the Pleistocene die-off, and to assist the conservation of these threatened animals.

His book Twilight of the Mammoths opens with: "Imagine ... ." Paul Martin's life and work took us "back to the Pleistocene," and the breadth and depth of his scientific imagination leaves many of us with a sense of awe and wonder at the contributions of this brilliant man.

Joe McAuliffe, the director of research at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, recently went to Baja to revisit a community of weird Sonoran Desert plants called boojums. Years before, he'd identified an individual plant he believed to be the tallest in the world. Checking up on his old friend, he discovered it had recently fallen over. His wordsin his Sonoran Quarterly (fall 2009) article "Where the Desert Meets the Sea: Research Adventures in Amazing Baja California"—might as well have been about his colleague Paul Martin: "The most magnificent of boojums was gone. I sat there with the old giant's remains until well after sundown, contemplating life and death. I was deeply saddened by the loss, but I felt so fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet the giant when it was still alive ... ."

So long, Paul. RIP.

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