About that “Killer Ape Theory”…

I wouldn’t count it out too fast. According to an article in the Grey Lady’s Science section,

As early as 3.4 million years ago, some individuals with a taste for meat and marrow — presumably members of the species best known for the skeleton called Lucy — apparently butchered with sharp and heavy stones two large animals on the shore of a shallow lake in what is now Ethiopia.

Far be it for me to issue any pronunciamientos about the scavenger vs hunter debate on my little blog, but, to judge from this article, the preponderance of evidence is inclining to the latter side. For example, the author suggests that early hominids had “a taste for meat and marrow,” not just a taste for marrow. Primary predators and more efficient scavengers than the australopithecines would have accounted for virtually 100% of the meat, so the only way they could have tasted meat in significant amounts is by hunting it. The large animals were “butchered,” which also implies predation.

Indeed, any number of proponents of the scavenger hypothesis seem to be getting wobbly as evidence like this keeps accumulating.  Even the formerly orthodox scavengerite NPR is starting to cave, as attested by this article whose title proclaims, “Meat-based Diet made us Smarter.” (Check out the comments. The article appears to have inspired a good deal of frothing at the mouth among NPR’s loyal vegan fans.) Can you say, “Hunting Hypothesis,” anyone?

One can find the same paradigm shift in the scientific literature. Signs thereof began turning up in increasing numbers about a decade ago.  For example, as noted by  an article published in the Journal of World Prehistory in 2002 by paleontologist Manuel Domínguez-Rodrigo,

During the last 25 years, there has been a shift towards the belief that early humans were scavengers instead of hunters. This revisionist interpretation has brought a reconciliation with the Darwinian paradigm of gradual progressive evolution that has traditionally guided (and very often, misled) an important part of anthropological thinking. However, empirical support for the scavenging hypothesis is still lacking. Recent data based on bone surface modifications from archaeological faunas suggest, in contrast, that hominids were primary agents of carcass exploitation. Meat seems to have been an important part of Plio-Pleistocene hominid diets. Passive scavenging scenarios show that this kind of opportunistic strategy cannot afford significant meat yields. Therefore, the hunting hypothesis has not yet been disproved. This makes the hunting-and-scavenging issue more controversial than before, and calls for a revision of the current interpretive frameworks and ideas about early human behavior.

To get a firsthand glimpse of what the author is talking about, go to Google Scholar and check out the latest by paleontologist C. K. Brain, one of the pioneers of the emerging field of taphonomy and an expert on the evolution of predatory animals. In 1969 Brain published an article claiming that fellow South African Raymond Dart had been wrong in his assertion, based on statistical analysis, that an assemblage of fossil bones discovered at the Swartkrans limestone cave formation demonstrated predation by early australopithecines.  Basing his conclusion on tooth marks apparently left on the bones by leopards, Brain concluded that the early hominids, had been the prey, not the predators.  However, his more recent publications (see, for example, here, here and here) evince a distinct tacking in the direction of early hominid predation.  Perhaps Brain has noticed the increasingly detailed observations of predatory behavior by chimpanzees, including kills of animals as large as wild pigs and small antelopes.

The debate about the role of predation during the evolutionary transition from ape to man is far from over, and skepticism is in order about any pronouncements that it has been “proved” one way or the other.  Confirmation bias is bound to play as big a role in the future as it has in the past in controversies touching on human origins, because the topic is ideologically loaded.  For example, in an article published in the Sunday Times in 1997, journalist Brian Deer wrote,

Dart, an Australian working in Johannesburg, made his name during apartheid’s construction. The Leakeys have been prime exponents of white settlers controlling the sites. Even American expeditions in Ethiopia have had a peculiarly imperialist feel. The killer ape narrative appealed to such folk, for whom the most sophisticated scientific techniques were deployed on fixing their beloved Land Rovers.

 Even before Dart’s message became entrenched as orthodoxy, Louis Leakey had in 1957 installed Jane Goodall, a 23-year-old secretary from England, to report on the common chimpanzee population at Gombe River – maybe a day’s drive to my south-west, near Lake Tanganyika. In what was considered science for the period, the former waitress had arrived at Gombe, ordered the grass cut and dumped vast quantities of trucked-in bananas, before documenting a fractious pandemonium of the apes. Soon she was writing about vicious hunting parties in which our cheery cousins trapped colubus monkeys and ripped them to bits, just for fun.

One can find many similar political rants in the writings of both specialists and lay commenters on the left.  Of course, their own narrative features them as disinterested seekers after truth, who are combating the lies and distortions of “conservative ideologues.”  These “conservative ideologues” were supposed to have come out of the woodwork in droves in the 60’s and 70’s after Dart published his papers and his work was popularized by Robert Ardrey, Desmond Morris, and several others.  My question is, who were they?  I consider myself reasonably well read, but I am not aware of a single “conservative ideologue” of any intellectual heft who was ever relied heavily on the works of the likes of Dart and Ardrey in defense of some recognizably conservative premise, other than, perhaps, the rather self-evident premise that Communism doesn’t work.  I would be more than happy to believe in their existence if someone could tell me who they were.

There is no reason to fear the results of continued scientific research and discovery regarding human origins, unless we fear the truth.  What we do need to fear is the suppression and distortion of the results of research and investigation by ideologues.  It should never be forgotten how effectively they were able to suppress any discussion of innate human behavior for several decades in fields such as psychology and anthropology, replacing science with quasi-religious “blank slate” orthodoxies, and shouting down anyone who objected as “Nazis” and “fascists.”  The same thing could easily happen again in this era of rampant political demonization and villification.  As we expand our understanding of human nature, we had best not forget that it is also important to understand how whole fields of science could have been hijacked by ideologues in these “enlightened” times.  Otherwise the pattern will surely repeat itself.

Leave a Reply