Animal Predators Stalking Prehistory and the Human Mind
BY DAVID S. LEWIS
Imagine a world, if you dare, where huge vicious predators of differing and fearsome varieties constantly prowled the night (and day) in search of prey, in search of food, and you were on their menu of delectable appetizers.
Quite a stressful scenario. Consider, to put this in a modern context, that you decide to take a day hike up to the M in Bozeman, or to Pine Creek Lake in Paradise Valley, and on the way you get that sneaking feeling you’re being watched. Then, lo and behold, a pack of huge deadly cats, each one the size of your Subaru wagon, with fangs the size of your forearm, descends on your terrified party and tears all of you limb from limb in a feast of blood and gore, ruining your outing.
Now, imagine such threats and occurrences were not the exception in your life, but common, and you begin to understand humanity’s prehistoric reality as laid out by Paul Trout of Bozeman in his new book Deadly Powers, Animal Predators and the Mythic Imagination (Prometheus Books).
Such was life for our ancestors, Trout tells us, before the great extinction that wiped from the face of the earth hundreds of species, many of them quite large—the huge saber-toothed cats that prowled the earth (and Montana) just 9,000 years ago, including three other species of mega cats, one of which Trout tells us survived until relatively recently.
Numerous other huge predators stalked our ancestors —enormous bears that stood 11 feet tall and weighed up to 2,000 pounds, giant lizards 30 feet in length, giant snakes of similar length (and 18 inches around), and huge monster birds with 18-foot wingspans capable of whisking away small humans (birds that, by the way, lived in the Americas just a few thousand years ago.)
So, there you are, minding your own business on the savannah, or upon the prairies of Montana, hunting and gathering or whatever it was you did back then to make ends meet, and at every turn huge beasts cross your path, some traveling in packs, and against which you were virtually defenseless except for perhaps a spear (given the lack of retail outlets for semi-automatic weapons in those days), or great birds of prey circled overhead in holding patterns, waiting for just the right moment to swoop down and carry off those in your party weighing less than, say, 50 pounds, which meant your kids.
Suffice to say, it was an often gruesome existence, hardly the romanticized lifestyle (by comparison) as portrayed by Daryl Hannah in Clan of the Cave Bear or Raquel Welch in One Million Years BC. The point is, early humans lived in constant fear, if not terror, for the predators of which Trout speaks were many (the remains of over a thousand saber-toothed cats having been found in the La Brea Tar Pit in Los Angeles), and the prospect of losing one’s life, or seeing a family member lose his or her life in the most horrific and agonizing way, would have been common.
Dealing With It
Trout explains that such a tormented state of mind and heart began in the days before humans fully developed speech and continued until relatively recently, just several thousand years before the present. The fear and emotional trauma involved (not to mention the physical trauma, which must have been ghastly) required an outlet, a means of coping, that comes to us as mythic tales from the world’s many cultures, Trout proposes, within the body of work created by mankind in the distant mists of anti-quity referred to as the mythological record. Thought to be mere subcon-scious imagin-ings by some, this record has proved most edifying over time, having been validated, for example, by Heinrich Schliemann’s 19th century discovery of Troy (once thought to be merely mythical, but shown by Schliemann to be historical) and the more recent discovery of a civilization of ancient mythical India by underwater exploration in the Gulf of Cambay and satellite imagery.
Trout’s examination of the mythological record though, goes to motivation as much as history, in the sense that all of early man’s terror, awe, heartbreak, and angst required expression, and so, therapeutically, as it were, stories were passed down in paleolithic cultures relating to beastly gods and entities that humans would rather appease, trick, or even co-opt. These beasts and their effect on humans form the basis for Trout’s Deadly Powers—the core mythic components of the human psyche related to ferocious carni-vores that seem to have taken root in the subconscious and genetic make up of the human family.
Fear of the dark, for example, and its progeny fear of the unknown (with all its bizarre permutations that we find expressed in movies, novels, and horror stories of many kinds), may be understood as a universal human trait through the mere contemplation of prehistory as proposed by Trout—a nocturnal landscape filled with packs of hungry saber-toothed cats, enormous dire wolves and cave lions, and other stealthy predators of the night (think giant lizards and snakes), the specter of which (let alone the experience) brings to mind fangs, ripping flesh, pain, and death from a source lurking behind a curtain of darkness. Imagine the terror living in such a world, one that played upon early humans for millions of years, and then the subconscious or cellular memory passed along from generation to generation.
This prehistoric reality then, of man as prey, as food for angry monsters of land, sea and air, and humanity’s methods of coping with that, would be foundational to human psychology and exists inside of us to this day, which would in turn explain a lot about why we are the way we are—though not necessarily in a good way.
The Predator Face
We asked the author how he came upon the premise for Deadly Powers. Formerly a professor emeritus at MSU in Bozeman (where he taught English for 38 years), Trout told us that late in his career he was given the “enviable assignment” of teaching a world mythologies course. While preparing the course, he noticed a Chinese wood carving from the 17th century featuring a yin-yang symbol above “the snarling face of a charging tiger.” Intrigued, Trout consulted the work of the great mythologist Joseph Campbell to see if he dealt with such an image, but found nothing. He then noticed that everywhere he looked, and across cultures, were images of dangerous animals and monsters with essentially the same threatening expression, a countenance he came to call the predator face. Were these merely imaginary beasts, he asked himself, or rooted in human experi-ence? And so began his five-year quest into the Pleistocene (2,588,000 to 11,700 years ago) and through numerous scholarly writings, until he believed he could offer a reasonable explanation of “how dangerous powers got inside our heads and our myths.”
Predators Then and Now
Trout does not deal solely with prehistoric predators. To support his premise about the man-eating nature of prehistoric beasts, he notes the prevalence of humans being devoured in more recent times by lions, tigers and crocodiles in India and Africa, including 1,000 to 1,500 people torn to shreds by the lions of Njombe in the 1940s. He also cites the writings of James Clark who in his book Man Is the Prey describes wolves terrorizing entire European cities and villages in Siberia with deadly results (counter to recent denials of the risk posed to humans by wolves). And on a lesser scale but with the same deadliness as other predators, grizzly bears in the Yellowstone area killed two people in the last year alone (with 12 attacks nationwide), much as their stone age forebears must have. Mountain lions too, over time, have stalked or killed children in Montana and nearby regions, as this publication has reported in recent years.
Humans being killed by predators in our backyard, though, Trout told the Pioneer, is hardly new. Exactly when humans entered North America (most likely across a land bridge from Siberia) is a subject of debate, he told us, but would have occurred when huge animal predators filled the landscape (along with a host of huge mammals that were not predators but still very dangerous). That includes the area now called Montana, where predators included several forms of cats, the monstrous short-faced bear, the dire wolf, the dhole (a highly predacious dog-like creature), and saber-toothed cats that were abundant, Trout said. Another fearsome predator was the bear dog, a 200 pound beast with the hind legs of a large cat and the teeth of a wolf, remains of which have been found in California.
Trout noted the aforementioned remains of over a thousand saber-toothed cats (the species Smilodon) found in the La Brea Tar Pit in Los Angeles, a cat that roamed what is now North America. “This species went extinct only nine thousand years ago,” he said, “so this predator greeted the first humans who migrated to the New World.”
“The scimitar cat,” he went on to say, “weighed six hundred pounds, and hunted in the open forest and grasslands of the New World. It survived until just a few thousand years ago. A third form of saber-tooth is called Dinofelis, which means ‘terrible cat.’ It was seven feet long but could climb trees with the agility of a modern leopard and was a specialist in killing large primates, including humans.
Dinofelis hunted throughout North America, and other parts of the world. This beast has been described by scholars as our ancestors’ worst nightmare.
Consider, as well, the Pleistocene lion, and one gets an idea of just how dangerous the world was in those days. It has been described by scholars as gigantic, possibly one of the largest cats that ever walked the earth. “This creature was the most wide-ranging wild mammal of all time,” Trout said, “inhabiting the deserts, mountains, Arctic steppes, woodlands, and grassy savannas of Africa, Europe, Asia, China, and the Americas as far south as Peru. The American version survived until ten thousand years ago, affording it an opportunity to prey on—and certainly terrify—the first immigrants to North America, including paleolithic Montanans.
Another cat that roamed North America, as it does today, was the puma, or mountain lion. It first appeared, Trout said, about thirteen thousand years ago. “The Pleisto-cene version weighed as much as the African leopard,” he said, “about one hundred and fifty pounds. Nowadays, the puma, because it can live close to cities, makes headlines by attacking hikers, joggers, and bicyclists out to enjoy a bit of nature.”
The “most powerful predator of the American Pleistocene,” scholars say, was the short-faced bear. It stood taller than the now-extinct California grizzly, Trout told us, a full five-feet six inches from foot pad to the top of its head (on all fours) and weighing more than two thousand pounds.” Trout said that when it walked on two legs, it stood an amazing eleven feet tall. To put the creature’s size in perspective, think of a predator standing a foot higher than a basketball hoop—larger than any living bear, even the polar bear. “This formidable predator,” he said, “ranged throughout Europe, Asia, and the Americas. The largest land predator in North America during the Ice Age, it survived until about eleven thousand years ago. It has been suggested that it was only when this species went extinct—caused perhaps by the extinction of the prey animals it fed upon—that humans could migrate into North America.”
The dire wolf ranked as one of the most common predators of North America, given the evidence discovered at the La Brea Tar Pit. Of all the remains found at that site, those of the dire wolf were the most abundant. It weighed about one hundred and fifty pounds, Trout said, making it one third larger than the wolves that today roam Yellowstone, and it hunted in packs of up to fifty animals, a daunting prospect, and dire wolves stalked prey in North America as recently as eight thousand years ago.
In the early Pleistocene, a much more distant time, the dog family had evolved into several large beastly breeds—cat-like dogs, hyena-like dogs, and bear-like dogs. The bear dog, remains of which have been unearthed in California, weighed two hundred pounds and was a bizarre hybrid, having the hind legs of a large cat and the teeth of a wolf (yikes). In North America, a dog-like creature called the dhole (not technically a dog because of the animal’s teeth formation) was as large as a full grown wolf, and though now extinct in North America still exists in parts of Europe, India, and Africa.
“Nothing is sacred to a pack of dholes,” Trout quotes experts as having written, “not even the tiger, which it tears to pieces from time to time.” In Siberia today, Trout said, dholes are much feared as man-eaters.
“Although the humans who immigrated to the New World would have been armed with throwing spears and the bow and arrow,” Trout said, “they probably lived in fear of encountering any of these animals, particularly the pack animals.” (Imagine being hunted by dozens of enormous wolves or cats.)
“Even today, the Masai of Africa dread having to spend the night on the open savanna,” Trout continued, “and surround themselves with camp fires in an effort to stave off night predators—and their own fears.”
Citing myths of ancient Greece to those of Native Americans, and many others from cultures across the globe, Trout gives the universal scenario encoun-tered by early man apparently encoded in their storytelling—getting eaten alive by various animals, and monsters (mythic hybrids of various Pleistocene creatures). “Regardless of their different features and forms, monsters have one trait in common,” Trout writes, “—they eat humans.”
Storytelling and mythmaking then, Trout told us, “emerged to help our ancient ancestors deal with the potentially handicapping fear evoked by having to live amongst a numerous array of dangerous animal predators.”
To deal with the threat these extremely aggressive and ravenous animals posed, day and night for a couple of million years, Trout said, our ancient ancestors warned one another at first through reenact-ments (because early humans would not yet have had speech), then through storytelling that depicted the presence and behavior of the predators, and “to enact encounters in which dangerous animals could be symbolically driven off, subdued, domesticated, or killed.” With the emergence of language a million and a half years later, these perfor-mances (imitating real life experi-ences) were bolstered with oral narration, and the first myths came into being.
Over time, Trout explained, in order to deal with the fear evoked by predators (still felt in Third World countries), we mythologized them in four basic ways—as monsters to be fought by a hero (or baffled by a trickster); as gods to be worshipped and satisfied with human sacrifice; as a kin member and benefactor subject to the reciprocal morality that controlled humans; and as role-mod-els and objects of envy to be emulated, so we could embody the deadly powers of the predator and thereby overcome our fears.