Friday, December 6, 2013

The Ghosts of Evolution - The Terrors of Natural History

"Another insight into this came to light at Swartkrans when we found that the back of the skull of a child  had two small round holes in its parietal bones. I noticed  that the distance between these holes was matched very closely
by that of  the lower canines of a fossil leopard from the same part of the cave. My interpretation was that the child had been killed by a leopard, probably by the usual neck-bite, and then picked up with the lower canines in
the back of the head and the upper ones in the child’s face. It was then carried into the lower parts of the cave, and consumed there. The Swartkrans Cave story, that gradually developed as my excavation progressed, was that both our early human ancestors [Homo ergaster] and our relatives…[Paranthropus robustus] were living in an open savanna environment there between two and one million years ago and that they regularly sought shelter near the cave’s entrance, probably on cold winter nights. Here they were preyed upon by leopards and sabre-toothed cats, that consumed them in the deeper parts of the cave."
Travis Rayne Pickering

What dreams may come? What nightmares have been? The fear and terror that move the human being and its consciousness is rooted in the past evolutionary baggage. It was not ghosts and demons that harmed our ancestors but big cats, birds, and reptiles.  The present horror movies with its ghosts and demons are very similar though in their presentation as the big cats and reptiles that terrified our ancestors. The leopard which is known as a great primate killer hunts at night in the darkness when the prey is most vulnerable. The primate human fears the night and the darkness. It was advantageous to be alert to every shadow and sound in the night, to imagine what is lurking around the corner or what is behind that stone or tree. That baggage is still with us and now at times we imagine creatures that are a hybrid of our past killers with spirits and ghosts.  The leopard is stealth at night and with its claws and teeth the primate is a prime target. Many of the eyes, claws, and teeth of our past hunters have been moved to terrify us in horror movies attached to spirits and ghosts.
  If you notice in horror movies the ghosts or demons are often making noises similar to big cats. Growls, roaring, mouth opening, fangs, and hisses. Something that our ancestors would take notice of in their natural habitat. The haunting ghosts or demons climb on the wall or move on the ceiling like a big cat or poisonous spider or reptile.

The nightmares of the evolutionary past make for good horror movies of the present. The fear is to be attacked at night. The terror is to be eaten. The fear of the night when one is most vulnerable to the animals that could kill our primate ancestors and cousins.  Do ghosts and demons need to kill and eat for food to keep their metabolism rate going? And yet we humans attribute the same features to these fictional beings because what terrifies us in our primitive core is what terrified us before the rise of technology and civilization. The superstition and fear of demons and ghosts is the imaginary world of our present that flows from our real evolutionary past. Present horror is steeped in the evolutionary past.  Of course human beings  in different situations on this rock are still getting maimed and killed by other animals just not at the same level of vulnerability as our ancestors. But at those times that a shark, big predator, or crocodile takes us down it should remind our species that we are part of nature and despite the wonders of technology or the myths of our gods we are still subject to its cycle of consumption. Do not be concerned with the imaginary ghost or demon but the real and natural killers including human on human. 
The Skull-Crushing Hyenas of Dragon Bone Hill
The Homo erectus heads, however, presented the hyenas with a unique problem. The jaw muscles and the tongue were the only easily-available parts worth eating, but inside the skull was the large, fatty brain. It would have no doubt been a delicacy for hyenas, and given what is known about the way living hyenas eat Boaz and colleagues attempted to reconstruct how Pachycrocuta opened Homo erectus skulls.
The hyenas probably started with what was most easily available. After stripping the jaw muscles from the skull they would have easily been able to crack off the lower jaw and eat the tongue. By this point a catastrophic amount of damage would have been done to the Homo erectus head, thus explaining why the faces of the skulls found in the cave are missing.
Getting at the brain, however, was a little trickier. As reconstructed by the scientists, the hyenas clamped onto the front of the skull, braced the bottom against the ground, and pressed downward. With enough pressure this would have cracked open the skull so that they brain could be extracted, and whatever scraps of bone survived this ordeal would be left to litter the cave.

The individual hominins we once considered to be our proud, if murderous, ancestors were really “food refuse” of giant hyenas. How so many Homo erectus fell prey to the hyenas over thousands of years is unknown, but it is possible that the cave was a sort of natural trap. The hyenas would simply have to wait for some animal to fall or injure itself at which point they could dine at their leisure. The presence of scorched bones and tools suggest that
Homo erectus inhabited the cave at some point for some period of time, but for much of its history it appears that the cave was a hyena den.
 Man the Hunted

The Top Ten Deadliest Animals of our Evolutionary Past
Even where we have beaten back our ancestral predators, we bear their mark.  Our brains are wired for fight and flight because of predators. We are anxious.  We readily fear what used to threaten us, such as snakes. We are who we were,  but more so than that, we are what we wanted to escape. Our first words may have been uttered to warn our family of cats, snakes or eagles. Even our screams,  those wordless sounds we make when we are afraid, are an echo of the ghosts of  our pasts. Whether we notice or not, our bodies remember those days in which the wolf in Grandma’s bed may really have been a wolf; they remember the species we ran from, screaming as we tried to flee.
Rob Dunn is a biologist at North Carolina State University. His new book, The Wild Life of Our Bodies It tells the stories of our changing relationships with other species (be  they worms, bacteria or tigers). In doing so, it considers questions such as  what our appendix does, why we suffer anxiety, why human babies tend to be born  at night and whether tapeworms are good for us, all from an ecological  perspective.

"There was also the threat of predators in the grassy  woodlands. These were the home of browsers and grazers and also the predators  that eat them, like hyenas, leopards, and lions. This was a danger to the small  and slow bipedal Australopithecines. They were not as talented in trees as apes  or as facile on the ground as us. However, adaptation must have served them well, since the anatomical stability of the group over millions of years attests  to this. The very first  Australopithecine discovery of a juvenile appeared to have been a victim of a  giant eagle. At another site, there was convincing evidence that hominid remains  were the remnants of leopard meals. At the
site of  Swartkrans, there was direct evidence that at least some of the South African  early hominid fossils were victims of leopards. An immature skull was found with  twin puncture marks, indicating a leopard bite mark."

"Damn nature, you scary." - Family Guy

No comments: