The Myth of Man As Hunter

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It must seem odd to the duck and deer populations that Americans have paid more than $255 million this summer for the experience of being prey. In Jurassic Park we had the supreme thrill of being hunted for food by creatures far larger, faster, and -- counting teeth and claws -- better armed than we are. With the raptors closing in, we saw how vulnerable the human body is -- no claws, no exoskeleton, no blinding poison sprays. Take away our guns and high-voltage fences and we are, from a typical predator perspective, tasty mounds of unwrapped meat.

If the experience resonates to the most ancient layers of our brains, it's probably because we spent our first million years or so not just hunting and gathering, but being hunted and gathered. T. Rex had been gone for 60 million years when our progenitors came along, but there were saber-toothed tigers, lions, cougars, leopards, bears, wolves and wild boars waiting at the edge of every human settlement and campground.

The myth of "man the hunter" has flatteringly obscured our true prehistory as prey. According to the myth, "man" climbed down from the trees one day, strode out into the savanna with a sharpened stick in his hand and started slaughtering the local ungulates. After that, supposedly, the only violence prehumans had to worry about was from other stick-wielding bipeds like themselves. Thus some punctured australopithecine skulls found in Africa were at first chalked up to "intentional armed assault" -- until someone pointed out that the punctures precisely fit the tooth gap of the leopard.

Humans didn't even invent effective action-at-a-distance weapons until a mere 40,000 or so years ago. Only with these new tools, like the bow and arrow and the spear thrower, could our ancestors begin to mimic the speed and sharpness of a big cat's claws. Even so, predator animals remained a major threat. As late as the 7th century B.C., a stela erected by the Assyrian King Assurbanipal recounts the ferocity of the lions and tigers after torrential rains had flushed them out of their lairs; the great King, of course, stamped out the beasts.

Our collective memory of the war against the predator beasts is preserved in myth and fairy tale. Typically, a mythical hero starts out by taking on the carnivorous monster that is ravaging the land: Perseus saves Andromeda from becoming a sea monster's snack. Theseus conquers the Minotaur who likes to munch on Athenian youth. Beowulf destroys the loathsome night-feeding Grendel. Heracles takes on a whole zoo of horrors: lions, hydras, boars. In European fairy tales it's the wolves you have to watch out for -- if the cannibal witches don't get you first.

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