Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Killer Ape Part II
The Fossil Evidence 
Australopithecines at Home

In a previous posting I discussed the idea of man being a “Killer Ape” and pointed out the rather obvious fact that the idea owed much more to the concept of innate human depravity and the notion of man has some demonic, luciferian fallen angel than it did to any actual evidence.1

Also this notion was allied to the idea of man has innately not just fallen but sinful and wicked and that this innate evil exists in man to the present day. Thus in both the works of Dart and the works of Ardrey there exists a strong moralizing tendency and moralizing. In the case of Ardrey he does not just conceive of man as originating as a carnivore but has a demonic carnivore, almost godlike in his murderousness, cruelty and bloodlust. That this owes something to the clichés of horror movies, with werewolves attacking fair maids is obvious. Dart also, like Ardrey indulged in purple prose about innate human depravity, although not Ardrey’s well written but drawn out pseudo-philosophical musings.2

In 1925 Dart found the first specimen of what he named Australopithecus africanus. This discovery basically made his reputation. Sometime later he turned his attention to the bone remains of several caves and subjecting them to analysis he made the following speculation. From a local cave Dart was given some bones that he thought had been blackened with fire and he named the skull of a creature found in the cave, located at Makapansgat South Africa, Australopithecus Prometheus, after the Greek legend of Prometheus the fire-bringer. It turned out that Dart’s discovery of fire using Australopithecines was wrong.

Dart and his discovery -
The Taung Baby

It turned out that the blackness of the bones was due to manganese dioxide and not burning. No samples of “free” carbon that results from burning were found at Makapansgat, or for that matter anywhere else associated with Australopithecines. Any carbon found in the bones was likely introduced after. For Makapansgat was at a mine site were high heat was present.3

Dart analyzed the bones and noted that there was some curious patterns turning up. Dart found that most of the bones were of antelope, but that the humerus bone of that animal while fairly common it was noted by Dart that the distal end was ten times more common than the proximal  end. Further that when other animals such as baboons and other Hominids were present it was very common for only the skull to be present and nothing of the rest of the skeloton.4

Dart then concluded that the Australopithecines were responsible for this and that they were proficient hunters of all sorts of dangerous game. That they brought back choice cuts of meat and trophy skulls to their cave dwellings.

Thus Dart wrote:

They were also callous and brutal. The most shocking specimen was the fractured lower jaw of a 12-year-old son of a man-like ape. The lad had been killed by a violent blow delivered with calculated accuracy on the point of the chin, either by a smashing fist or a club. The bludgeon blow was so vicious that it had shattered the jaw on both sides of the face and knocked out all the front teeth. This dramatic specimen impelled me in 1948 and the seven years following to study further their murderous and cannibalistic way of life.5

Dart’s vision of man has a fallen demonic angel can’t be more graphically outlined.

Dart alleged that the reason for the disproportionate survival of antelope bones with the distal end intact was because such bones were useful has tools in hunting. More specifically because that end had a double ridged aspect making it ideal has a bludgeoning tool. Thus Dart theorized that the australopithecines had what he called an osteodontokeratic culture. In other words they heavily used bone as tools.

Thus Dart went on to analyze 58 baboon skulls and he concluded that the depressions in the skulls which were found at various sites in South Africa, (Makapansgat, Sterkfontein and Taung.), were the result of intentional blows delivered by australopithecines armed with antelope leg bones.6

Before I get into how valid was Dart’s interpretation here is a little more about Dart’s osteodontokeratic culture. Dart postulated that aside from probably using fire his australopithecines had a variety of techniques for making bone tools. Thus they would hit a bone shaft and then twist both ends in opposite directions. This would create a perforating tool and pounders using the ends of the bone. They would batter a bone with a stone to create scoops that could be used for digging. They would split bones by shoving smaller bones into them thus making sharp cutting blades. They would make composite tools by butting bone flakes into other bones making cutting implements. They would use shoulder blades to split antelope skulls so they could be used as saucers, platters, bowls etc. They would use bone blades to create skin and tendon thongs. They would use jawbones and teeth as saws and horns as daggers. Dart thought that the tibia bone etc. of antelope were preserved because they were of cultural significance to the australopithecines.7

Regarding the diet of Australopithecus africanus (Prometheus) Dart said:

The taste of mankind for flesh was shared by his remote ancestors. Venison constituted the chief food of Australopithecus prometheus at Makapansgat; 92 per cent of the bones found there are the broken bones of antelopes.8

Dart faced two challenges to his assertions concerning the alleged predatory habits of man. Several scholars allege that the supposed tools were in fact the remains of bones brought there and worked on by porcupines and or hyenas.

Dart contended that most of the bones showed no signs of porcupine gnawing and that even so the porcupine’s could have been gnawing on already australopithecine modified bones. In regards to hyenas Dart wrote that the idea of Hyenas as a bone collector was a myth which went far back and had little evidence to support it. He further gave considerable weight to the fact that modern humans use bone tools such as scrapers and scoops and even bone flakes. Strangely enough Dart said very little about the possible role of big cats in the modification of bones.9

Robert Ardrey was if anything even more dismissive, ridiculing the idea of hyenas etc., could have been responsible for the bone accumulations.10  

Both Ardrey rand Dart postulated the only reasonable or rational explanation for the pattern of bone finds in the caves was the purposeful action by Australopithecines, i,e., "Killer Apes" . That would explain such things as the skulls without other body parts etc.  Strikingly they said very little about man and man’s ancestors being prey items.

And of course both Dart and Ardrey used arguments from man’s history to make the argument that of course man had a dark, bloody past as a predatory species.

Well it turns out that the “evidence” was in fact not evidence of man and man’s ancestor has the apex predatory species.

Both Dart and Ardrey assumed for example that Australopithecus africanus was mainly a carnivore and in fact Dart seems to have thought that until the Neolithic revolution and the discovery of agriculture that man’s chief source of food was in fact meat:

These predaceous carnivorous habits of man and his forebears during the last million years have stocked caves and rock shelters and lined the sea coasts from Cape Town to Alaska and from Denmark to Tasmania and Tierra del Fuego with a prodigious array of bone deposits and kitchen middens. The steadily diminishing supply of animal food has diverted the rapidly augmenting population of the world during the last six thousand years from hunting to fishing and from fishing to agriculture and so increased its dependence upon vegetable nourishment for existence. Today the capacity of even the cereals to keep pace with human fecundity is doubtful.11

That an Anthropologist can make so fundamental a mistake is annoying. The simple fact is aside from a few extreme environments. Like the Arctic the vast majority of humans who have ever lived including those who lived the hunter gather way of life, the majority and usually over 2/3rds majority of their diet has been plants.12

Also the study of Australopithecine teeth has revealed that their diet was largely, indeed almost entirely, plants, roots and such like. And this includes Australopithecus africanus.13

As for the bone tools allegedly used by Australopithecus africanus this idea has been largely refuted.

There is a branch of bone studies which today has a few experts who work in it is called Taphonomy. Briefly this is the science of discovering and analyzing what happens to the bones of a creature after death and before fossilization, (assuming that happens.). A rather macabre discipline it has few practitioners but the results of the studies have been illuminating.

Basically the study examines what happens to kills, or dead animals in situ, over time. And then compares, in this case what such study reveals with what was found in the various caves analyzed by Dart.

Well the results of the studies conducted by Brain are pretty conclusive. Basically Dart’s and Audrey’s vision of man’s ancestor the demonic, predatory ape is a myth. Instead we get the picture of man as prey to big cats.

Brain examined how the bones of prey animals were “processed” after death. He noted that the bones that survived exhibited the selective bias that Dart had noted. More especially the tendency of skulls to survive detached from the rest of the body. Also in antelope’s the survival of antelope tibia bones. Even the survival of the distal ends of bones over proximal ends was explained in this manner. As Brain says:

When I started to analyze other ancient and modern fossil bone assemblages, it soon became apparent that skeletal disproportions were widespread and the inevitable result of the fact that some skeletal parts survive destructive treatment better than others. As an example, in a sample of modern goat bones discarded by Nama Hottentot peoples around their Namib Desert villages of Namibia and then chewed by their dogs, I found 87 distal humerus pieces, but not a single proximal end. The reason was clear: while the distal humerus is a solid, dense piece of bone with a relatively high specific gravity, the same was not true of the upper end. This is a fragile, spongy When I started to analyze other ancient and modern fossil bone assemblages, it soon became apparent structure with a much lower specific gravity, and is easily destroyed for the nutrients it contains.14

Thus the actions of scavengers and chewing explained much of the way bones were cut up, broken and shattered. Brain also verified that hyenas do indeed in some cases “collect” bones in lairs and that yes porcupines do chew on bones.

However the real source of the bones was probably various cats, including some who are now extinct. In some cases what can only be described has definitive evidence of killing by cat was achieved has when the bite mark of a cat was found in a child’s skull. Further cats do have lairs and burrows, places where they can drag meat to store or eat later. The so called “tools” were simply the detritus and remains of cat meals and other scavengers etc. So that all of Dart’s comparisons with modern human use of bone tools was moot.15

As for the alleged compression injuries on the skulls and other bones, Brain found out that the process by which bones were fossilized in breccia, (The accumulation of stone debris and drippings from cave roofs that accumulate over time.), would create deformations and compressions of bones especially skulls. Further the effects of movements of the cave floors would sometimes shear the bones causing deformations that way. So it appears that Dart’s “evidence” for injuries inflicted on baboon skulls was little more than the effect of the fossilization process on skulls. For example if a skull was buried in breccia up right a cavity would exist in the braincase once the brain had rotted away. The weight of the breccia on top could cave in the skull. If the brain case was filled in prior to being buried this would help prevent it from caving in.16

Now Brain did find some bones at Makapansgat (60), that he considered to be after analysis and comparison to be digging tools. So if Australopithecines did use bone tools it wasn’t for hunting but for digging roots. Even so the overwhelming majority of the bones at Makapansgat seemed to be the bones used by the stripped hyena.17

But the big threat to Australopithecines was from terrifying, large cats, some of whom as mentioned above are now extinct. Thus the following was what was actually going on in various caves examined:

The detailed taphonomic analysis of the fossil assemblages from Swartkrans Members 1 and 2 suggested that hominids and baboons came to shelter within the entrance area of the cave on cold winter nights and that they were preyed upon there by leopards and sabertooth cats. The predators took their victims to the lower parts of the cave and ate them: what scraps survived their attention, and that of the scavengers such as hyenas—whose coprolites in the deposits testify to their visits—contributed to the fossil assemblage.18

Thus instead of man the hunter viciously hunting down prey and greedily devouring the flesh and blood we have man the root eater, who occasionally ate game but who lived in utter terror of the ferocious predators that preyed on him. And instead of a varied and lethal tools kit perhaps a few digging tools made of bone. The rest of the “tool kit” being nothing more than the accumulated and worked on detritus of the meals of big predators and not man or his ancestors.

And of course if man was prey we now have to understand just in which way this selective pressure, encouraged in man, things like bipedalism, intelligence, how and what we ate etc. I strongly suspect that avoiding getting eaten was vastly more germane to human survival than hunting ever was or that hunting was even compared to predation even a moderate evolutionary force.19  

As it is the idea of man the killer ape is not supported by the evidence instead it is man the terrified prey species. Man the scared shitless just doesn't have the same cache as man the killer ape does however. But it does have one thing going for it; it is probably true.

So it appears that man is neither a demonic Angel or an angelic Angel he is instead a banal prey animal that used his intelligence to turn the tables on those who preyed on him. 

Sometime later I will look at other aspects of the killer ape notion.

Leopard with Australopithecine Snack

1. See Hart, Donna, & Sussman, Robert W., Man the Hunted, Expanded Edition, Westview Press, New York, 2009.

2. Dart, Raymond, The predatory transition from ape to man, International Anthropological and Linguistic Review v. 1, n. 4, 1953, pp. 201–217, Ardrey, Robert, African Genesis, Dell Publishing Co., New York, 1961, The Territorial Imperative, Dell Publishing Co., New York, 1966, The Social Contract, Dell Publishing Co., 1970, The Hunting Hypothesis, Bantam Books, New York, 1976.

3. Brain, C.K., The Hunters or the Hunted?, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago ILL, 1981, pp. 54-55.

4. Dart, Raymond, The Makapansgat australopithecine osteodontokeratic culture, Proceedings of the third Pan-African Congress on Prehistory, Chatus and Windus, London, 1957, Brain, C.K., Do We Owe Our Intelligence to a Predatory Past?, American Museum of Natural History, New York, 2001, p.2.

5. Dart, Raymond, Cultural Status  of the South African man-apes, Smithsonian Report No. 4240, pp. 317-338, 1956a.

6. Dart, The predatory implemental technique of Australopithecus, American journal of Physical Anthropology, n.s., v. 6 pp. 259-284, 1949, and The Bone-bludgeon hunting technique of Australopithecus, South African Journal of Science, v. 2, 1949, pp. 150-152.

7. Brain, 1983, pp. 5-6.

8. Dart, Raymond, The Myth of the Bone-Accumulating Hyena, American Anthropologist, n.s., v. 58, no. 1, 1956b, pp. 40-62, at p. 40.

9. Dart, 1956b, pp. 44-53, and Bone Tools and Porcupine Gnawing, American Anthropologist, n. s., v. 60, no. 4, 1958, pp. 715-724.

10. Ardrey, 1961, pp. 288-320.

11. Dart, 1956b, p. 40

12. See For example: Leakey, Richard E., & Lewin, Roger, Origins, E.P. Dutton, New York, 1977, pp. 159-174, Harris, Marvin, Murders in Eden, in Cannibals and Kings, Fontana, London, 1977, pp. 17-28.

13. Lewin, Rodger, Human Evolution An Illustrated Introduction, 5th Edition, Blackwell, Oxford, 2005, pp. 135-138, Sponheimer, Matt, Some Ruminations on Australopith Diets, in Editors, Reed, Kaye E., Feagle, John G., Leakey, Richard E., The Paleobiology of Australopithecus, Springer, New York, 2013, pp. 225-233, at 226.

14. Brain 2001, p. 3-4.

15. Brain, 1981, pp. 56-117, 138-144, 266-274.

16. IBID, pp. 134-137.

17, Brain, 2001, p. 4-5.

18. IBID, 2001, p. 17.

19. See Hart et al, and Ehrenreich, Barbara, Blood Rites, Holt Paperbacks, New York, 1998.

Pierre Cloutier

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