Tuesday, February 17, 2004

The cat Dinofelis, known as a false saber-tooth, was a specialized hunter of hominids. It seems to have enjoyed eating baboons and most likely, early humans.

The paleontologist C.K. Brain, in his book Hunter or the Hunted?, suggests that early man was more often prey than predators. Our move to predator status was a modern thing. We constructed fire and weapons and reversed an old power structure.

The writer Bruce Chatwin, a fascinating figure of his own, was drawn to Brain's theories. For Chatwin, Brain had discovered the ultimate fabled beast that lurks in our imaginations. Nicholas Shakespeare, in his biography of Chatwin, writes:

For two days Bruce engaged Brain in conversations which he described as "the most stimulating discussions in my life"... If the leopard-like cat had preyed on our ancestors, then man in his origins was not necessarily aggressive. He lived his life in fear, dinofelis watching him from the shadows.

Bruce--who called the cat "the Prince of Darkness"--amused the older man. Brain says, "He understood 'the Prince of Darkness' as a psychological necessity. He thought we had lived so long with prowling nocturnal predators they had become part of our make-up. When we no longer had these animals in bodily form, we invented dragons and heroes who went off to fight them." Discussing, for instance, Uccello's painting of St. George in the act of lancing the dragon, Bruce seemed to think this was an illustration of what had actually happened.

Brain had misgivings about this nostalgia for "the Beast we have lost". Nevertheless, it excited him to watch Bruce take his work and run with it. "Chatwin was like a nineteenth-century synthesiser," says Brain. "There is a place again for that kind of generalist, someone who can wander among specialised fields and pull things together. Otherwise it's very compartmentalised and syntheses don't really occur." The two men talked late into the night and on the following day they drove to the cave at Swartkrans.

Swartkrans is where Brain discovered the earliest use of fire by man. It is thus, in Brain's account, the epic place where the battle was turned.

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