Just Another Item on the Menu

On the second day of January 2001 something occurred that has happened uncountable times before . . . something that has been happening, in fact, for millions of years . . . something that has influenced the way we humans act and the way we evolved.

A woman was cross-country skiing along a popular lake trail near her home in Alberta, Canada. Rangers say a 132-pound cougar lay hidden under an evergreen. It watched her pass, then stealthily zigzagged behind her for nearly 150 feet. The woman was probably totally unaware of the cat until just moments before it killed her.1

Man-eater! The word conjures up a latent human nightmare. It shocks us; it scares us badly. It seems to frighten us down to some deep collective subconscious. It's gruesome . . . macabre . . . downright ghoulish when a human being is killed by a predator. Newspapers report the event, books are written, movies are made, eyewitnesses are interviewed for more snippets about such an aberrant deed.

A quick browse of the internet comes up with over a hundred websites connected to the word "man-eater." There is even a book entitled Maneaters that "explores the wide world of man-eaters—creatures who regard Homo sapiens as just another noon-day snack."2

During the relatively short period of written human history—with weapons ever more efficient and living areas secured behind barriers to the natural world—we have come to think we should be exempt from attacks by carnivores, birds of prey, and reptiles. Those of us living within the rarified atmosphere of Western civilization presume that our superior position in the hierarchy of the animal kingdom is unquestionable. And, truth be told, modern humans in the industrial world have suffered relatively little at the claws and teeth of predators.

The human species excels in duality of thought. This comes as no surprise to anyone who has read the work of the famous anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss.3 He theorized that all human cognition was based on dealing with binary contrasts or oppositions—left versus right, low versus high, night versus day, them versus us. We also seem to carry this duality into our feelings about predators. On the one hand, we humans— or at least those of us in Western cultures—have a conception of ourselves as superior entities who exist on a plane above the rest of the animal inhabitants of our world. And yet—and here is the duality—we worry ceaselessly that inferior beings, such as predators, may harm us.

Modern humans, with the help of technology, are able to ward off predation effectively, and mask our vulnerability as a species. As cited at the beginning of this chapter, there are times when people meet their demise from predators: The solitary jogger or cross-country skier attacked by a cougar ... a tiger or leopard that preys on villagers in India . . . the two lions, made famous in the film The Ghost and the Darkness, that savaged railway workers . . . newspaper reports of crocodiles consuming humans from West Africa to Indonesia.

The bizarre realization that humans get eaten comes hard to the Western mind. However, much current ethnographic evidence points to the fact that large predators are often a major and well-recognized problem in regions of the world where villagers are in near contact with big cats or large reptiles. Perhaps there's more truth than we in the Western world would like to acknowledge that "the ultimate horror of being eaten alive is very real [by] sharks, lions, leopards, tigers, bears, wolves . . . jaguar and puma."4

In South Asia—India and Bangladesh, in particular—there is a long history of dealing on a daily basis with predation by tigers and leopards. Before World War II and prior to independence for India,

British colonial records listed 1,500 human deaths from tigers per year, and these statistics excluded the numerous Princely States. One tigress was responsible for an incredible 436 human predations.5

The Sundarbans delta of the Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers—a huge area of over 3,800 square miles of mangrove forest and islands that spans both India and Bangladesh—is notorious for its man-eating tigers. John Seidensticker, tiger expert at the Smithsonian Institution, commented in a speech he made at an academic meeting: "Tigers kill people. They don't kill people in every part of their range and that might be interpreted as great restraint on the part of the tiger considering the abundance of this very vulnerable potential prey species. One area where tigers do eat people on a regular basis is the Sundarbans."6

During one decade near the end of the twentieth century (between 1975 and 1985) 425 people were killed by tigers on the Indian portion of the delta and another 187 on the Bangladesh side.7 Plastic face masks—constructed to be worn on the back of the head—have been distributed by the Indian authorities. Locals wear them as a deterrent to tiger predation while they are boating through the swamps in the Sundarbans delta. These masks help reduce tiger attacks because big cats like to stalk prey that are unaware of impending danger. The wide-eyed, staring mask on the back of a human head is interpreted by the tiger as a fully aware prey and, therefore, not a potential meal. Dummy humans set in boats and wired with electric shocks are also used to deter tigers from the enticement of human flesh. The theory is that once a tiger has been literally and figuratively shocked by pouncing on an electrified "human," that particular item will no longer be so appealing. Some of the other, more traditional Indian and Bangladeshi means to counter tiger attacks include fireworks, special shrines, and priests.8

Why specific animals become predators on humans is complex. Predators are after the simplest avenue to a meal, and modern humans— even those in the undeveloped world—are usually dwelling in villages, inside houses, with weapons, and seldom make a simple target. We do not in any way want to portray carnivores (or reptiles, or birds of prey) as rapacious fiends that must be eliminated for the good of humankind. All predators are critical and necessary parts of healthy ecosystems. If we are going to save any of the wild places on earth, predators are the keystone species that must be protected.

Sundarbans Ghost Stories

In the Sundarbans delta, India, local inhabitants wear masks on the back of their heads to deter tiger predation. (Ragui Rai/Magnum)

Fossil Evidence and Living Primates

Having noted that (outside the West) predation on humans happens— and not all that infrequently—we are confronted with a number of questions: Was this always the case? What about the 99% of human evolution from which we have no written records? Does the occasional unsettling instance of an attack by a predator accentuate the long history of humans as simply one more link in the food chain?

Were early humans bold hunters or were they fearful prey? Has Homo sapiens' evolution been molded by hunting ability or by survival techniques developed to avoid being eaten?

We only have two sources to draw on if we want to fill in the millions of years before historical times. These are the paleontological remains—a sparse but fascinating fossil record—and the living primates—who are our closest relatives.

There are caves in South Africa where bones of early hominids (humans and their ancestors) lie in piles. Researchers study how bones came to be buried in the earth and preserved as fossils, thus shedding light on how these ancient humans lived. Early hominids, using rocks and branches as weapons the way many living primate species do, had (presumably) the same ability as other primates to ward off predation—that is, not much except a slightly larger brain—body ratio than other mammals and the ability to communicate between group members when danger was sighted. These were not superb weapons if the predator managed a surprise ambush or just outran or outclimbed its hominid prey.

Paleontological evidence supports the conclusion that both hominids and other primates, such as baboons, were frequent meals for ancient predators. Both australopithecines (one of the groups of early hominids) and baboons are found together in the prey-remain assemblages of true saber-toothed cats, false saber-toothed cats, hunting hyenas, spotted hyenas, and leopards. Fossil evidence from South Africa supports theories of extensive predation by leopards on both early hominids and baboons between 1 and 2 million years ago.9

One skull of a fossil hominid found in a South African cave has a set of puncture marks. Two round holes about the size of dimes are spaced several inches apart on the skull. If a leopard caught one of the australo-pithecines and dragged the prize up a tree for eating, the cat's upper

Ancestors Leopards
Fossil evidence from South Africa documents prédation by leopards on our early ancestors. (C. Rudloff, redrawn from Brain 1981)

canines would have drilled deep into the frontal part of the brain directly above the eyes, and the lower canines would have grasped the prey on the back of the skull. When paleontologists reunited a fossil of this ancient cat with the fossil hominid skull, there was a perfect matchup between the two puncture holes in the skull and the two huge lower fangs of the cat.

The famous "Taung child," a two-million-year-old Australopithecus africanus skull, was discovered in 1924 by Raymond Dart, an early and influential paleontologist. Dart had an arrangement with a limestone quarry in South Africa; all intriguing fossils were extracted intact and shipped to him. One of these boxes of limestone rubble contained a veritable jewel of paleontology—the skull and mineralized brain of a very young child, a child that died 2 million years ago. Were violent circumstances involved in the child's death? Unlike the other skull from a different site in South Africa, the Taung child did not bear the marks of carnivore teeth but instead exhibited deep rakings. More oddly, the mandible, or lower jaw, of the Taung child was still attached.

(The remains of carnivore meals most often have detached mandibles. Big-cat fangs tearing away at small hominid skulls would rarely result in a still-attached jaw.)

What was going on? If not ancient cats, then what might have caused the death of the Taung child? It took another 70 years for an answer to this mystery. In 1995 paleontologists Lee Berger and Ron Clarke published their detailed findings about the predator who killed the Taung child.10 Birds of prey, technically called raptors, include living species of eagles with enormously robust feet and talons. These adaptations enable the eagles to kill antelopes and monkeys many times the birds' own weight. Berger and Clarke found that marks on the Taung child were identical to the marks that modern African eagles leave on the bones of their prey. The Taung child was no doubt the prey of a very large and very strong extinct eagle.

Leopard With Prey Hominid
Two million years ago, the Taung child was no doubt the prey of a large eagle. (C. Rudloff, redrawn from Zihlman 2000)

The most exciting fossils of early true humans—individuals who can be classified in our own genus, Homo—were uncovered beneath a medieval town called Dmanisi in the Republic of Georgia within the past few years. Besides astounding the world of science with the age of Homo specimens found outside of Africa—a whopping 1.75 million years old!— the remains of six individuals include another verification of hominids as prey.11 Again, telltale round holes were found in one of the skulls. This time saber-toothed cat fangs fit neatly and perfectly into the two punctures.

David Lordkipanidze is the Georgian scientist who worked the Dmanisi site. He has speculated that simple chopping and scraping tools unearthed with the fossils may indicate that these ancient humans sometimes scavenged off kills of the big cats. The idea of early hominids as scavengers, rather than the more traditional vignette of humans as biggame hunters, also has been advanced by Pat Shipman at Johns Hopkins University. Shipman suggests that Man the Scavenger is not nearly as attractive an image as Man the Hunter, but hominid-made cut marks that overlay carnivore-made tooth marks occur on the same fossil bones.12

We propose that a choice lies not between hunting man and scavenging man at all—the reality is more likely that hunted man took advantage of predator kills. Recent research by John Cavallo suggests that early hominids (adults, at least) were able to protect themselves from predators fairly capably during the daylight hours. But when nightfall came, it was a different story altogether. Leopards, especially, ruled the night. Early hominids may have been in competition with leopards to scavenge tree-stored kills during the day, while they themselves became leopard prey at night.13

If we look at the behavior of other primates today, such as baboons, we see the same phenomenon of day—night shifts in primate—predator clashes. Male savanna baboons bare their teeth and rush at predators during the day. Actually, there are even quite a few cases in which male baboons have killed predators. Out of eleven aggressive retaliations against leopards by baboons that are written up in scientific papers, the leopard was killed in four instances. One scientist even observed a single dominant male baboon maim or kill four large dogs when they attacked his troop.14

But baboons retreat to trees and cliffs at night where they are virtually helpless after dark to protect themselves and their young when lions or leopards are on the prowl. After primatologist Curt Busse switched to nocturnal observations in his study of baboon populations at Moremi, Botswana, he saw an entirely different picture of primate defensive skills. Based on night observation hours during which Busse followed the screams of his terrified baboon subjects, he calculated that at least 8% of the baboon population was killed annually due to predation by lions and leopards.15

Predation and Primate Studies

Busse feels strongly that primatologists may get a skewed and misinformed representation of predation by studying primate behavior and ecology only during daylight hours. To accomplish an accurate appraisal of predation, Busse has challenged his fellow researchers to make significant changes in field methods, such as including night observations, as well as studies of the predators of primates (along with the primates themselves).

Predation is acknowledged to be an issue of fundamental importance in the study of primates. However, while predation has been discussed in broad theoretical terms, little quantified data have existed on the subject. There has been little attempt to recruit research carried out on various predators as an aid to understanding the impact of predation on primates. In this book we have combined the research of primatologists with the findings of their colleagues who study large and small predatory mammals, raptors, and reptiles to assemble both empirical and anecdotal overviews of primate deaths due to predation. Perhaps combining these data may sound like a natural, very standard process. However, the mul-tidisciplinary approach had not been extended previously to merge the world of primatology with the world of predator research. When we did combine data from both primatologists and predator researchers, we found that a clear picture emerged of primates as prey.

Current examples of predation on primates can be used to infer the rates of predation on our hominid ancestors. Because paleoanthropolo-gists have been unaware of the extent of predation on living primates, they have tended to analyze hominid fossils and construct theories without integrating predation as an important factor in human adaptations.16 Some of the past analyses of fossil assemblages require reinterpretation using this approach.

An Accurate Appraisal of Predation

A continuing academic debate concerns whether primates, in general, are important as prey species. Furthermore, the debate has now entered into the scientific literature on hominid evolution. Our premise is that primates, including early humans, have been the prey of many carnivores, reptiles, and even birds of prey and that being hunted is integral to our hominid lineage. In this book we propose that much of human evolution has to do with the fact that we—along with other primates— are prey species.

This aspect of human evolution and its implications for modern humans is a controversial departure from more traditional theories. We are not the first nor the only ones to arrive at this theory. Well-known pa-leoanthropologists have drawn the same conclusions as we have about early humans and predation, for example C. K. Brain, Lewis Binford, and Matt Cartmill.17 (Brain, in fact, coined the phrase "Man the Hunted.") But combining the fossil evidence regarding levels of predation on early hominids with comparisons to predation on living primates has not yet been done. By merging the two kinds of evidence, we hope to accomplish a long-overdue synthesis of the theory we call Man the Hunted.

Our theory on human evolution is based on the only two sources of information there are—fossil evidence and living primates. We will present the case for a radically different view of human prehistory, one that places us squarely in the animal kingdom as a smallish bipedal (walking on two legs) primate without many defenses except a brain that was being stimulated to increase slowly in size. We will present the evidence for predation as an evolutionary force, a force that may well have been one of the prime stimulators to that increase of brain and even to our need to stay in groups and be a social animal. Not getting killed is a powerful force to deal with each day—it stimulates evolutionary adaptations that no scientist or layperson ever questions, such as the swiftness of the gazelle and the protective armor of the turtle. Why then would it not have as deep an impact on a smallish bipedal primate?

Our contention is that for 7—10 million years of hominid evolution, predators were a factor shaping evolution—and remnants of those predator-prey interactions still occur. They occur where "civilization" has not swathed the landscape in asphalt and concrete, preceded by a century of purposeful extermination of predators. And they occur psychologically every time we feel the primitive chill up our spines because one of our species has succumbed to a wild animal.

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  • arabella
    Is there any truth in using a mask on the back of the head to ward off big cats?
    8 years ago
  • penny
    Who kill The Taung skull?
    2 years ago

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