Dr. Fred Bortzbooks

Review of Man the Hunted: Primates, Predators, and Human Evolution

by Donna L. Hart and Robert W. Sussman

(Westview Press, 352 pages, $27.50, March, 2005)

Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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Lions and tigers and bears!
Reptiles and raptors! Who dares
Enter their venues
Where we're on the menus?
"Man's the Hunted," this volume declares.

Do a reviewer's predilection for writing limericks and a reader's propensity to enjoy them reflect their mutual good taste? Or is something more appetizing than humor at work here?

If one accepts the thesis of the Saint Louis-based coauthors, wildlife conservationist Donna L. Hart and Washington University Professor of Anthropology and Environmental Studies Robert W. Sussman in the enticing and thought-provoking book Man the Hunted: Primates, Predators, and Human Evolution, humans owe their intellectual talents and dominant position in the animal kingdom to their species' natural status as prey.

We humans may view our brain as the reason for our superiority, and we may savor the delicious thoughts it produces. But to large predators, it is not the mind, but rather the organ from which it springs, that is delectable.

The authors begin with the usual questions: What circumstances caused hominids to branch off the primate family line and follow a path that led to modern humans? What traits set our species apart, and what environmental and ecological forces influenced their development?

Their research differs from that of many other modern anthropologists because of their willingness re-examine the conventional presumption of "Man the Hunter." On the opening page, with skilled use of the ellipsis, they introduce their argument by taking readers back to hominids' "more ignominious beginning [as] smallish beings, not overly analytical because their brains were not huge, possessing the ability to stand and move in a vertical plane, spending millions of years as...basically, meat walking around on two legs. Meat on the plantigrade foot...bipedal edibles...sabertooth cat cuisine...giant hyena chow...crocodile comestibles...plain, unadorned food for predators."

Disconcerted but fascinated by such a description, readers will eagerly proceed through chapters about the interaction of primates with felines and canines, reptiles and raptors, even sharks. Those are far from dry scientific presentations. The writing is rich with well-crafted stories drawn from the fossil record and from modern observations of predation on our fellow primates-and humans.

Among the many examples of the authors' skillful storytelling are accounts of ancient encounters between human and hyena ancestors and of a modern mauling of an Alaskan geologist by a black bear.

Piles of bones found in European caves "tell many stories about a time when lots of whopper-chopper hyenas were bringing home bipedal hominids for dinner-not as guests but as the main course." And those hyenas were small compared to their lion-sized East African cousin, Pachycrocuta, that lived 3.5 million years ago in proximity to the famous "Lucy."

The discovery that fang-like hyena teeth matched holes in hominid skulls changed the answer to "one of paleoanthropology's greatest fossil mysteries." What appeared to be a cannibalistic massacre of one group of hominids by another was simply this: "Pachycrocuta preyed on hominids in the area, and then brought pieces of their prey home to the cave. There they chewed up the facial skeletons to obtain marrow and broke open the skull vault to get at the fatty brain tissue."

Cynthia Dusel-Bacon was more fortunate than those ancient hominids, but not by much. One morning in August 1977, her helicopter pilot dropped her off to obtain rock samples in an uninhabited area about 60 miles south of Fairbanks. She was "wilderness savvy and practiced good bear keep-away behavior, including yelling every so often to let bears know they should clear out of her space." But one bear was not deterred. It dragged her "by the arm into thick underbrush. She then tried the play-dead advice; the bear started to eat her right arm and the flesh under it."

The authors then quote part of Dusel-Bacon's narrative but skip the part that "gets pretty powerful when she relates the sensation of the bear biting at her head and tearing at her scalp, hearing the sound of the bear's teeth cracking into her skull.... She managed to keep her cool through all of this and get a radio out of her backpack with her uneaten arm while the bear was taking a break...."

"Cynthia's is a long narrative," they continue, "and we wish that we could say that...rescuers arrived quickly. They didn't. Her good arm was eaten...before noise from a helicopter scared the bear away from its prize."

Not all the stories are as gruesome as these accounts, which are simultaneously repulsive and vividly compelling. Others stories are surprising, fascinating, even humorous. Each serves its purpose, which is to draw readers deeper into the scientific narrative and detail. Then, in the penultimate chapter, "Gentle Savage or Bloodthirsty Brute?", the book takes an academic turn. Here, the authors describe and challenge "the recurrent theme of Man the Hunter," which they say "has more to do with the myths of Judeo-Christian culture than with objective science."

In that chapter, the writing becomes more ideological and political as they leave hard science for the less firm ground of sociobiology. Fortunately, the prose never becomes overbearing. It allows readers to challenge the authors' point of view without necessarily disputing their conclusion, which is laid out in the final chapter. There they describe Man the Hunted and, appropriately, close with a vignette.

It begins at sunrise at the dawn of "human time.... A group of hominids sees the light begin to fill the sky." Most days, their foraging is not interrupted by danger, but on this morning hyenas attack. The predators kill a few individuals and quickly consume most of their bodies of within half an hour, leaving precious little for the jackals and the vultures. Most of the troop survives, and by evening their life has returned to near normality.

The authors do not write the obvious conclusion. Those hunted hominids survive and breed. Under pressure of predation, their species evolves rapidly, and some of their remote descendents, who look very much like us, read and write books and limericks.

Physicist, science book critic, children's author, and frequent scribbler of verse Fred Bortz has recently become wary of lunch invitations.