Lucy—the fossil skeleton of a young female hominid who lived 3.2 million years ago. (Used by permission of Institute of Human Origins)

found by Richard Leakey (son of Louis and Mary), who is not only a world-renowned paleoanthropologist but a giant in the field of wildlife conservation and the Kenyan political scene. The younger Leakey commenced a dig at Lake Turkana, Kenya, and disinterred the famous "Black Skull." This mineral-stained cranium is the most extreme example of the robust branches on the family tree found so far. Although no teeth accompanied the Black Skull, it's estimated that the molars for this individual were four to five times the size of a modern human's teeth.

The elder Leakeys also discovered the earliest member of our own genus, Homo habilis (baptized "handy man," although a penchant for dreary labor hardly seems the case for any of the Olduvai residents). Evidence in the form of simple stone tools at the gorge left clues of this early human who lived about 2.3 million years ago.

During our whirlwind tour of early hominids we must not forget the very first of the African hominid fossils to be discovered—the one that should have thrown the world of anthropology into a tailspin in 1924 but didn't. Raymond Dart, a young anatomy professor at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, had issued a standing request to the foreman at a limestone quarry called Taung (the Setswana word for "place of the lion") to bring him anything that might be a fossil. When Dart gleefully utilized his wife's knitting needles to chip the breccia (cemented limestone, sand, and bone) off a putative fossil, the brain and face of a young (but obviously not human) toddler appeared—the "Taung child" (Australopithecus africanus)—and the modern era of paleo-anthropology began. Until Dart's breakthrough, the human lineage was assumed to have been European or Asian in origin. None other than Charles Darwin had suggested that the African residence of gorillas and chimpanzees might be the key to human evolution, but great skepticism greeted all who thought of African human origins during the racist colonial nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

This might be a good time to mention that there has always been a lot at stake in concepts of human ancestors—more than objective science, more than impartial pursuit of truth. Especially in the late 1800s and early years of the twentieth century, we—humans and our ancestors— had to be on the top of the species heap. We had to be the smartest species. We had to be special and powerful and above other animals. And very importantly, humans had to be ranked in a hierarchy of races with European humans at the apex. With the development of the theory of evolution through natural selection, Darwin put humans in their place with the rest of the animal kingdom, subject to the same laws of nature. However, in so doing, even Darwin visualized a spiritual and intellectual gap between humans and their closest living relatives, the apes. As he stated: "There can be no doubt that the difference between the mind of the lowest man and that of the highest animal is immense."2 What separated the biology and behavior of all humans from other animals was the presence of a large brain. Late nineteenth-century theorists took the amount of gray matter residing in our modern brains as the truly "human" aspect and looked for early human fossils that fit the big-brained expectations.

Slipping forward past the tangled morass of inchoate relatives, our evolutionary tale gets a little clearer with what may be an immediate predecessor of modern humans, Homo erectus. In 1891 this early representative of our genus, initially known as Java Man, was stumbled upon by a Dutch physician named Eugene Dubois who was stationed in Indonesia on military duty. He thought the island of Java was a logical place to look for fossils since Asia at that time was hypothesized to be a possible site of origin for the human species. Later in the 1920s more H. erectus fossils were found in a cave outside of Beijing, China.

Java Man was an acceptable human ancestor to the late Victorian fossil hunters—certainly more than anything from Africa—but nothing would be as satisfying as a European origin for humanity. The English scientific establishment found what it desired in "Piltdown Man." In 1912 an amateur fossil hunter discovered pieces of a cranium and jaw in England. The greatest men in British science put the puzzle pieces together and marveled over the extremely large brain case combined with a primitive jaw. This was hard to explain, but explain it they did in a burst of chauvinistic pride. Their explanation? Encephalization (increase in brain size) was the forerunner for all other hominid features in ancient Europeans.

As with all scientific shrines built on ideology alone, this one had a spurious foundation. About 40 years later, it was revealed that Piltdown Man was an utter hoax. If practical jokes were awarded the Nobel Prize, than surely Piltdown's perpetrator deserves the honor. The best minds in the field of anthropology did not recognize that the wonderfully brainy fossil was an amalgamation of a modern orangutan jaw and a modern human skull, both stained to look ancient.

A Messy Bush

You may at this point have a surreal feeling of drowning in names, places, and millions of years ... of sinking down, down, down into a bottomless pool of anthropus—this and pithecus—that . . . and, omigosh, we've still got millions of years to go! You have every right to suffer the headache of how untidily complex our family tree is growing; you are not alone—the experts are often just as confounded by the constantly fluctuating nature of this branch of science.

Ian Tattersall of the American Museum of Natural History has been a prestigious fixture in the analysis of paleoanthropological finds for several decades. So when Tattersall suggests the need for a mental paradigm shift concerning our hominid past, people tend to listen. There has been a tendency to portray the human ancestral line in a neat linear diagram—one early hominid with primitive features slowly evolving into a more human-like successor and so on and so on.

Tattersall, instead, sees our hominid past as that of a messy bush— branches and twigs sprouting in all directions. That is, he sees in the fossil record a great diversity of hominid species, many of them living at the same time, if not in the same place. The human "family bush" contains many dead ends—extinctions—mostly because of environmental changes. In fact, extinctions are the rule rather than the exception, with the result that there is only one hominid—modern humans—alive today.

Another eminent authority, Bernard Wood of George Washington University, postulates that the ancient fossils being found now in Chad and other places are just the tip of the metaphorical iceberg. He thinks that fossil ape-like creatures were diverse and prolific—and that there will be evidence of wide proliferation of numerous ape-like creatures, including the common ancestor of humans and chimps, in a bewildering array that cannot be imagined today.3

And on the messy bush occurs one branch that managed to survive as the only still-living hominid—anatomically modern humans. As Tattersall eloquently states: "In pondering our history as human beings we should never forget that we are simply the sole surviving twig on this ramifying bush, rather than the products of a slow, steady, and single-minded process of perfection."4 Where did all the other branches on the messy hominid bush go? Smallish, bipedal primates came and went for possibly 7—10 million years. Some were successful— consider the 1-million-year-plus reign of H. erectus—but nothing in our history points to a starring role for one branch over another. A fascinating question that science ponders endlessly is why so much diversity existed in our past and yet now only one hominid species inhabits the earth.


One last example of how important it is to keep a flexible attitude toward our ancestors involves our eventual exit from Africa. Previous to 2002 it was accepted as fact that no hominid emigrated from Africa until we arrive at the relatively large-brained direct predecessor to humans, Homo erectus. As mentioned earlier, H. erectus fossils have been found in China and Indonesia for over a century. The large leap in cranial capacity between H. habilis (the first known member of our genus) and H. erectus is substantial: a jump from under 700 to over 1,000 cubic centimeters (cc) of brain mass. The length of the leg bones and, therefore, of walking stride between the short-limbed H. habilis and the long-legged H. erectus is also significant.

In an example of the exciting and unpredictable twists and turns in the world of paleoanthropology, habilis-like fossils were recently uncovered in the Republic of Georgia, overturning the theory that hominids stayed put in Africa, the continent of origin, until H. erectus' long strides and larger brain carried him/her out sometime after 1.75 million years ago.5

At some point the size of the brain must have reached a critical mass that enabled more and more manipulation of the environment through complex communication and tool making. At such a point it seems feasible that early humans would begin their colonization of the world. Nevertheless, the pioneers who traveled thousands of miles to decidedly different biomes may have been small, short-legged ho-minids with cranial capacities of 680 cc. Hardly the imagined progenitor of our human wanderlust.

Man the Hunter?

The question "Why is man man?" has been posed since literal biblical origins gave way to scientific inquiries. "Because man evolved as a meat eater" is one answer to the question. Robert Ardrey stated in one of his series of immensely popular books of the 1970s, The Hunting Hypothesis:

If among all the members of our primate family the human being is unique, even in our noblest aspirations, it is because we alone through untold millions of years were continuously dependent on killing to survive.6

There are several misconceptions included in this proposal of human hunting singularity. First, we are not the only primate that hunts for living prey. Hunting is a common feeding strategy throughout the primate order. Baboons are adept at capturing infant antelope; chimpanzees, especially, excel in hunting and eating monkeys. Even different methods and approaches toward hunting have been observed in different chimpanzee populations. At Jane Goodall's field site, Gombe Reserve in Tanzania, the male chimps hunt as lions do—the more individuals involved the greater the success rate, but no coordinated team effort is manifested. In the Tai Forest of Côte d'Ivoire the chimps hunt like wolves, each individual playing a key role in a team effort.7

Whether hunting could have been the main food-procurement venture for early hominids is also subject to anatomical constraints. We need to look carefully at teeth and digestive systems, the critical parts of human anatomy that lend themselves to answers about early hominid dependence on hunted meat. Intestines do not fossilize, but teeth make up a good portion of the fossil remains of australopithecines and their dentition is not that of a carnivore.

So, where did the Man the Hunter idea come from? When did the certitude that humans were too busy killing to be killed arise? Who were the proponents of the myth of fierce and dangerous hominids? When you consider the reality, what a public-relations coup!—a fangless, claw-less, smallish bipedal primate gets a reputation for being Godzilla wielding an antelope jawbone!

Raymond Dart with his discovery, the Taung child, the first of many early hominid fossils to be found in Africa. Dart initially described this fossil in 1924. (F. Herholdt)

In some sense the Taung child is the key to the Man the Hunter theme. Taung child was the first fossil in a series of australopithecine finds. It is somewhat ironic that Raymond Dart's painstaking reclamation of this fossil—probably the young victim of a predator—was so instrumental in creating a trend toward "killer-ape" status for human ancestors.

To view the inception of Man the Hunter's forceful accession and acceptance, we need to go back and fill in the people who inhabited the rather small and esoteric world of paleoanthropology in the 1920s. As emphasized earlier, Africa was not then the important arena for fossil humans. The English had their Piltdown Man, reassuring the white European experts that large brains came before flat faces. The Neanderthal finds in Europe were augmented by Java Man and Peking Man from the Far East. What did it matter if an obscure anatomy professor in South Africa had found a skull and fossilized brain that didn't look like a chimp but whose brain was way, way too small to be considered human?

In the atmosphere of the day it is no wonder that the Piltdown Man, with its ape-like jaw and large cranium, was immediately accepted as the earliest hominid ancestor, while the small-skulled, ape-like australo-pithecine discovered by Raymond Dart was considered a pathological specimen or a mere ape. While Piltdown supporters were busy explaining the intellectual endowments of our large-brained ancestors, Dart was convinced his small-brained creature was the first ape-man, and he developed a theoretical picture of the behavior of this transitional form. At first Dart believed that australopithecines were scavengers barely eking out an existence in the harsh savanna environment; a primate that did not live to kill large animals but scavenged small animals in order to live.

Few cared what Dart believed, however, because few took his ape-man seriously. In fact it was not until a quarter of a century later, with the unearthing of many more australopithecines and the discovery in 1953 that Piltdown was a fraud, that students of human evolution realized our earliest ancestors were more ape-like than they were modern-human-like. This led to a great interest in using primates to understand human evolution and the evolutionary basis of human nature.8 With these discoveries began a long list of theories attempting to re-create the behavior and often the basic morality of the earliest hominids.

By 1950 Dart had developed a wholly new and different view from his former scavenger model. His ponderings about strange depressions in the crania of fossil australopithecines eventually flowered into a full-blown theory about killers who murdered their own kind. Given the game animals with which australopithecine fossils were associated and the dents and holes in the skulls of the australopithecines themselves, Dart became convinced that the mammals had been killed, butchered, and eaten by the ape-men, and that these early hominids had even been killing one another.

Dart once believed that the australopithecines had been forced to scratch out a meager existence on the savanna once they abandoned the trees of the African forest. But Dart now saw that hunting, and a carnivorous lust for blood, actively drew man-apes out of the forest and were together a main force in human evolution. He stated more than once that "the ancestors of Australopithecus left their fellows in the trees of Central Africa through a spirit of adventure and the more attractive fleshy food that lay in the vast savannas of the southern plains."9 Dart was himself influenced by a University of London professor, Carveth Read, who suggested in 1925 that human ancestors were similar to wolves; they hunted in packs and lived off the meat of large game. Read suggested that the name Lycopithecus (literally, "wolf-ape") would be descriptive of early hominids.

The discovery of baboon skulls mysteriously bashed in on the left side of the skull inspired Dart to conclude that only the australopithecine ancestor of humans could have killed with such precision. Since no stone weapons or tools were found in the South African sites, Dart postulated that the unusually high frequency of thigh bones and jawbones from antelopes must have been the weapons of choice. His "osteodontokeratic" culture—that early man had used the bones, teeth, and horns of his prey to kill even more prey—provided the means by which these killer apes accomplished their bloody work.

In 1953 Dart published a paper entitled "The Predatory Transition from Ape to Man." In it he hypothesized that the dentition and geography of australopithecines precluded any type of diet other than heavy reliance on meat. And not only did they eat meat but they armed themselves with weapons to hunt large prey. None of the well-known journals would accept the article, so readership within the scientific community was sparse. Robert Ardrey, a successful playwright, visited Dart in South Africa and was convinced that this theory would revolutionize the science of anthropology. Ardrey spent 5 years between 1955 and 1960

Holes in the skulls of some early hominid fossils match perfectly with big cat fangs. (C. Rudloff, redrawn from Cavallo 1991)

researching and writing African Genesis—a popular account of our beginnings as killer apes.10 The book was a best-seller and had tremendous influence both on the general public and the scientific community.

By the mid-1970s Dart's claim that a hominid with a brain no larger than our ape cousins expertly fashioned weapons and went on the hunt because it was easier than scavenging was fully accepted. But, Dart's evidence for Man the Hunter was not good, and his particular vision of the human hunter/killer hypothesis did not stand up to rigorous scrutiny. C. K. Brain, a South African specialist in how fossils are formed by natural forces, was skeptical of the baboon-killing theory from the first. Upon examination of the evidence, Brain noted that the bones associated with the man-apes were exactly like fragments left by leopards and hyenas.11 He saw the holes in the baboon skulls and the similar indentations in A. africanus as oddly similar to the tooth patterns of living African carnivores. He set about measuring the distance between the lower canines of African big cats and found that the space between the lower fangs of leopards fit precisely into the fossil skull holes.

Round holes that match perfectly with fangs of leopards. It seems that the australopithecines were likely the hunted and not the hunters. Fossil bones of early hominid origin were found with baboon remains in South African cave excavations at Swartkrans, Kromdraii, and Sterkfontein, places that have become famous for their australopithecine remains.12 Brain hypothesized that baboons and early hominids slept in caves, providing an excellent opportunity for leopards to kill them and drag the carcasses farther into the caves for feeding.13 The Mt. Suswa lava caves in Kenya provide a current analogy to the paleontological record in South Africa and lend significant credibility to the hypotheses. Mt. Suswa is a favorite sleeping site for baboons, and leopards in the area subsist almost entirely on these primates.14

Man the Dancer!

The next widely accepted version of the recurring Man the Hunter theme was presented in the late 1960s by Sherwood Washburn (the father of American field primatology) and his colleagues. They claimed that many of the features that define men as hunters (more about why the other 50% of the species was not defined will be discussed later in this book) again separated the earliest humans from their primate relatives.

To assert the biological unity of mankind is to affirm the importance of the hunting way of life. It is to claim that, however much conditions and customs may have varied locally, the main selection pressures that forged the species were the same. The biology, psychology, and customs that separate us from the apes—these we owe to the hunters of time past. And, for those who would understand the origin and nature of human behavior there is no choice but to try to understand "Man the Hunter."15

Like Dart, Washburn related human hunting to human morality, both of which had their biological basis in our evolutionary past. What he

Using the nineteenth-century anthropological concept of cultural survivals, "Man the Dancer" explains early hominid behavior just as well as does "Man the Hunter." (C. Rudloff)

termed the "carnivorous psychology" of the australopithecines resulted in a human species that takes pleasure not just in the chasing, hunting, and killing of other animals, but in dark depredations on fellow humans. The public spectacles of torture and suffering in "most" cultures are for the enjoyment of all humans. This interpretation led him to the conclusion that only careful entraining of our natural drives can lay a veneer of compassion for others on top of naturally human "carnivorous curiosity and aggression."16

Again, much like Dart before him, Washburn did not amass a large amount of evidence to support his theory and seemed to have recognized that evidence to the contrary existed.17 Rather, he relied upon a nineteenth-century anthropological concept of cultural "survivals."18 These are behaviors that are no longer useful in society but that persist as leftover survival mechanisms from a time when they were adaptive. Washburn saw a connection between the ease with which modern sports (including hunting) are learned and the pleasures they confer, and the survival mechanisms of a bygone age. Because successful ancestral humans were those who hunted best, their genetic legacy is an easy and pleasurable acquisition of huntinglike behaviors.19

Using a similar logic, we have developed an alternative (sarcastic, yes—but no less feasible) theory to challenge Man the Hunter. We call our theory "Man the Dancer." After all, men and women love to dance, it is a behavior found in all cultures, and it has less obvious function in most cultures than does hunting.

Although it takes two to tango, a variety of social systems could develop from various types of dance: square dancing, line dancing, riverdance, or the funky chicken. The footsteps at Laetoli might not represent two individuals going out for a hunt but the Afarensis shuffle, one of the earliest dances. In the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, it was wrong to depict the first tool as a weapon. It could easily have been a drumstick, and the first battle may not have involved killing at all but a battle of the bands. Other things such as face-to-face sex, cooperation, language and singing, and bipedalism (it's difficult to dance on all fours), even moving out of the trees and onto the ground might all be better explained by our propensity to dance than by our desire to hunt. Although we are being facetious with our Man the Dancer hypothesis, the evidence for dancing is certainly as good and no more preposterous than that for hunting.

We Were Not "Cat Food"!

Between 1961 and 1976, the playwright Robert Ardrey popularized the then-current version of the Man the Hunter myth with a number of best-sellers. Ardrey believed that it was the competitive spirit, as acted out in warfare, that made humans what they are today: "the mentality of the single Germanic tribe under Hitler differed in no way from that of early man or late baboon." Because of a lack of a competitive territorial instinct, gorillas—Ardrey believed—had lost the will to live and with it the drive for sex. He argued that gorillas defend no territory and copulate rarely. And their story "will end, one day, not with a bang but with a whimper."20

African Genesis may well have been the starting point for the public popularity of Man the Hunter, but the prominence brought to paleo-anthropology by the patriarch of the Leakey family was the strong suit that clinched the public's acceptance. The great Dr. Louis S. B. Leakey, a larger-than-life personality, was the premier paleoanthropologist of the mid-twentieth century and the personification of the fossil-hunting field scientist. His dynamic personality and exciting ideas took the quest for human origins to the heights of media coverage, catching the public's imagination. Inquiring minds finally did want to know about our origins! Along with his wife, Mary, who accomplished much of the actual discovery and reconstruction of the fossils, the Leakeys became worldwide celebrities. From their home base at the Kenya Museum of Natural History, they made Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania synonymous with human origins. Leakey also gave the world an eventual look at our closest relatives through his support for Jane Goodall's research on chimpanzees, Dian Fossey's work on mountain gorillas, and Birute Galdikas' study of orangutans. He was particularly thrilled when Goodall identified hunting and meat-eating in chimpanzees.

And Leakey's endorsement of Man the Hunter gave it the academic credentials that Ardrey's popular books lacked. In a famous defense of Man the Hunter as fearless and bellicose, Leakey stated that we were not "cat food," and the ramification was a change in perception of human origins for the entire Western world.21

The designation of early humans as Man the Hunter rapidly attained axiomatic status. Our ancestry as fearless hunters and remorseless killers of our own and other species has been the generally accepted perception now for nearly 50 years. And not just the layperson, but academics as well, fall easily into using this paradigm. Here's a common example from an evolutionary psychologist, Charles Crawford of Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia. Crawford lamented in an article about human evolutionary adaptations gone awry in modern times: "I used to hunt saber-toothed tigers all the time, thousands of years ago. Now I sit in front of a computer and don't get exercise."22

We think it's time to put this particular myth to rest. Tweaking Charles Crawford's theme, our hominid ancestors probably got plenty of exercise from desperately trying to avoid saber-toothed cats, not from blatantly suicidal attempts to hunt them. Instead of Man the Hunter, we contend that Man the Hunted is a more accurate snapshot. For smallish bipedal primates, we envision a whole host of predators were licking their chops with anticipation.

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