Bears: A Brief History

Bears: A Brief History

by Bernd Brunner

A delightfully illustrated history of the complex relations between people and bears around the world


A delightfully illustrated history of the complex relations between people and bears around the world

Editorial Reviews

Philadelphia Inquirer

"A fascinating exploration of how many cultures see bears as almost human."—Philadelphia Inquirer
Marc Bekoff

Bears is a much-welcomed book about the shared and surprising connections between two amazing animals. Bernd Brunner covers numerous matters—ursine-human—in an easy to read and compact work. Packed with facts, stories, and light humor, this book will have global appeal because bears appear universally in history, science, literature, religion, ritual, culture, and myth.”—Marc Bekoff, author of The Emotional Lives of Animals and Animals Matter
Ben Kilham

"Bernd Brunner's book Bears: A Brief History is engaging and accessible. This book reminds us how poorly we treated bears in the past. Let's hope we can do better in the future."—Ben Kilham, Author of "Among the Bears"

Good Book Guide

“From the era of cavemen and cave bears, the author takes us on a well-informed romp through history and around the world, with some lovely illustrations of the discovery of the panda and hibernating polar bears. Bearly putdownable!”

Good Book Guide

Library Journal

Brunner's comprehensive book on the history of humans and their encounters with bears is one of the most complete that has been written. As with his The Ocean at Home: An Illustrated History of the Aquarium, Brunner describes in great detail the natural life of bears, their different breeds, and their interaction with humanity from prehistoric times until now. He also includes the folklore and stories surrounding these strong, intelligent animals. The readable text is accompanied by lively illustrations that include sketches, photographs, and wood carvings. Unfortunately, in some areas the captions of the illustrations are in German, but there are labels nearby describing the total group of illustrations to help out. Even though this book is understandable and quite informative, its scholarly, narrow focus recommends it only for academic and larger public libraries where the author's previous books circulate.
—Joyce Tallman

Product Details

Yale University Press
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4.75(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)

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By Bernd Brunner
yale university press
Copyright © 2007 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-12299-2

Chapter One
Tracking the Paths of Bears

Most scientists today recognize eight species of bears worldwide. The brown bear (Ursus arctos) is identifiable by its furry coat of blond, brown, or even black hair-sometimes with silver tips-and by a large hump of muscle above its shoulders. It is the most widely distributed bear in the Northern Hemisphere. The polar bear (Ursus maritimus) lives in and around the Arctic and has white or cream-colored fur and a thick layer of blubber to protect it from the cold. The much smaller American black bear (Ursus americanus), or baribal, is the most common bear species in North America. In contrast, the spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus) lives only in the Andes tropical basin. Its name derives from the distinctive light markings across its face. These light patterns can also appear on the animal's chest, making the spectacled bear only one of several types of bears with distinctive markings there. The Asian black bear (Ursus thibetanus), which can be found along a line that stretches from Iran to Japan, sports a large, white crescent. The sloth bear (Melursus ursinus), which inhabits southern Asia, has long fur and a white, V-shaped mark. Thanks to long, curved claws and a specially shaped mouth that enables it to eat insects, the sloth bear was indeed first mistakenly identified as a giant sloth. The sun bear (Helarctos malayanus), with its short, sleek fur and a yellow marking in the shape of a horseshoe, is the smallest member of the bear family and lives in the tropical rainforests of Southeast Asia. Finally, the great panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), a native of central and southern China, has a distinctive black-and-white coat. He is most different from all other modern bear species.

ALL BEARS LIVING TODAY have descended from a common ancestor known as Ursavus, or "dawn bear." This animal, which lived about twenty million years ago, was about the size of a small terrier. Even at this early point in evolutionary history, however, Ursavus had a jaw already markedly different from that of a dog. Over time, groups of this early bear species split off and wandered into different habitats, where they adapted to new and better environments and to available sources of food. Each group underwent its own course of evolution.

One of the earliest to evolve from one of these groups-about ten million years ago-was the giant panda, while another group ultimately produced the spectacled bear (which arrived in South America long before the brown and black bear). Several million years later, during the Pliocene, a bear known as Ursus minimus first appeared. Before this ancestral bear further evolved into Ursus etruscus, additional groups split off and ultimately became the American black bear, the Asian black bear, the sloth bear, and the sun bear. Ursus etruscus, however, which lived about one and a half million years ago, was the progenitor of both the cave bear and other bears that would become the brown bear and the polar bear. This bear migrated from Europe deep into Asia. The mighty cave bear, an ursine giant that shared the earth with early humans, disappeared only about ten to twenty thousand years ago. Polar bears, in turn, are considered to be the youngest bears of all. Scientists long believed that brown and polar bears evolved at widely different times, but genetic analysis has since demonstrated that the two are close relatives: between two and three hundred thousand years ago, the first polar bears evolved from North American brown bears.

ALTHOUGH TO US THE concept of "bear" seems self-explanatory, the search to identify exactly what it is that makes a bear part of a particular group (and what distinguishes each one from the others) constitutes a long and convoluted chapter in the history of science. Of course, this quest to categorize the bear species is also part of the history we share with these animals. Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), the first thinker to attempt to classify the animal kingdom, conducted his research by questioning hunters, fishermen, sailors, shepherds, and farmers about animals they had seen. While he founded the discipline of taxonomy with his resulting work, History of Animals, his classification system was rudimentary. He divided the animals into those with and without blood, corresponding to our distinction between vertebrates and invertebrates. Bears belonged to the first group, of course, and to the "viviparous quadrupeds," or mammals, but Aristotle, who probably knew only the brown bear, did not further subdivide this category into different types. Such distinctions did not emerge until bears from other countries and continents became known to scientists in the course of the great voyages of discovery. However, this diversity sowed considerable confusion. Who could possibly have the perspective and authority necessary to distinguish between different groups of bears?

Throughout human history, each scientist could base his classification scheme only on the limited knowledge he possessed at a particular point in time. Albertus Magnus (1200-1280) recognized three kinds of bears: black, brown, and white. Conrad Gessner (1516-1565) introduced a division encompassing "primary bears" and "stone bears." Johann Elias Ridiger (1695-1767), a German painter of animals known for his precision, took a completely novel approach by claiming that all differences in the appearance of bears were due solely to the animals' ages.

The great French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788), in turn, was more specific in that he distinguished between a brown bear; a black bear, Ursus americanus; and two white varieties, ours blanc terrestre and ours blanc maritime-in other words, the polar bear. Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778), the "father of taxonomy," recognized only the varieties Ursus arctos and Ursus maritimus. These examples merely illustrate the range of creative solutions scientists proposed to this taxonomic puzzle. For the German-Russian biologist Carl Grevé, who wrote a historical overview of bear classification just a few years before the dawn of the twentieth century, the time must have seemed ripe for sweeping away the past confusion and organizing the bears once and for all. He decided that none of the bears he had ever seen in the wild or in a zoo resembled one another, and he therefore proposed that all bears in Europe and northern Asia should belong to a single group-namely Ursus arctos. The many different kinds of bears that existed in this extensive region, he argued, were thus not genuinely distinct varieties but merely "local breeds."

One notable type of bear that features only briefly in Grevé's account is the grizzly. Grevé obviously didn't know that the grizzly's monstrous image had already been canonized in the zoological nomenclature by the naturalist George Ord in 1815, when he named the animal Ursus horribilis or even, in some instances, Ursus horribilis horribilis. Such a negative assessment in a taxonomic name was unusual, to say the least. This gap in the scientific knowledge about the species was later filled to overflowing by the mammal specialist Clinton (C.) Hart Merriam (1855-1942), who in the early twentieth century dedicated many years to working out a hairsplitting scheme to classify grizzlies.

Armed with a magnifying glass, he painstakingly investigated every bear tooth and skull in the Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Merriam proceeded to subdivide Ursus horribilis into no less than eighty-six separate subspecies, from the Absaroka grizzly (Ursus absarokus), found in Montana, to the Yellowstone Park grizzly (Ursus mirus), from Wyoming. As these names suggest, Merriam's designations generally indicate the regions in which the bears lived. He saw nothing grotesque in proposing such a vast number of subspecies and firmly believed that "it is not the business of the naturalist to either create or suppress species, but to endeavor to ascertain how many Nature has established." Merriam's classification scheme, however, has not withstood the test of time; it has come to be recognized as a classic example of taxonomic oversplitting. Today, the names Ursus horribilis and Ursus arctos horribilis are used only rarely; they remind us of how this animal was demonized and driven to extinction in many parts of North America. More recent classifications based on genetic analysis distinguish between two and seven subspecies of North American brown bears based on different body size, skull structure, and fur color. An example is the concept of three evolutionary significant units (ESUs) for North American brown bears-with implications for conservation and management to preserve the evolutionary history of the clades.

LET US RETURN TO THE giant panda, an animal that proved to be exceptionally difficult to classify. The species long remained somewhat unanchored between the great and small bears and was classified with its cousins, the much smaller, raccoonlike red pandas. At first glance, pandas resemble the great bears due to their size, but their skull is shaped like that of a raccoon, as are their jaws. The sounds pandas produce can be best described as hissing or bleating and have nothing in common with the brown bear's roar. In terms of evolutionary history, pandas are also the most distant relatives in the great bear family. Despite these factors, zoologists classify pandas as great bears, primarily because of their genetic characteristics.

IN OUR TIME, IT HAS often been the sad duty of scientists to document the disappearance of species, but the theory of evolution teaches that new ones can also arise. Could these developmental processes bring a new kind of bear into being? In the first edition of his epochal work On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin speculated that bears could one day evolve into completely aquatic creatures. Darwin based this remarkable hypothesis on a comment by the Arctic explorer Samuel Hearne, who traveled Canada's western coast at the end of the eighteenth century. Hearne reported how the region's black bears managed to find a meal in the early summer, before the berries had ripened in the forest: they would swim along the surface of the water with their mouths wide open and swallow the insects floating there in great numbers. Assuming the insect population remained constant, and no other animals were better suited to skimming them, Darwin argued, "I can see no difficulty in a race of bears being rendered, by natural selection, more and more aquatic in their structure and habits, with larger and larger mouths, till a creature was produced as monstrous as a whale." The father of evolution is said to have later bitterly regretted this flight of fancy. But is the idea of largely aquatic bears as unlikely as it seems? As the winters get shorter and the polar ice melts faster every year, polar bears will have to get used to spending more time in the water than on the ice shelf. But given the speed at which the environment is changing, it is uncertain whether the animals will be able to adapt fast enough.

Even if giant bear-whales are an unlikely development, bear evolution seems well under way. It has long been known that a grizzly and a polar bear can produce offspring-such crossbreeding has successfully occurred in zoos. The Department of the Environment and Natural Resources for Canada's Northwest Territories nevertheless took the scientific community by surprise when it announced in early 2006 that a hunter had killed a bear that was a cross between a grizzly and a polar bear in the Canadian Arctic. The bear had the grizzly's characteristic humped back and long claws, and its fur was neither pure nor yellowish-white like a polar bear's, but rather light brown. Hunter Jim Martell, who had a permit to shoot a polar bear, was surprised (and presumably concerned) by the bear's appearance. A genetic test proved that he had bagged the offspring of a polar bear and a grizzly. The existence of such a hybrid bear in the wild was especially surprising since both species tend to react very aggressively toward each other. Such an encounter would more likely result in a fight than in a mixed-breed bear.

Chapter Two

The almost tender names for bears collected by Irving Hallowell demonstrate that humans once considered themselves linked with bears (as well as with many other animals) in ways that today seem mysterious. For us, our ancestors' apparent connection to nature easily leads to all kinds of fanciful speculation about their interaction with individual animal species. Of course, many myths reinforce the impression that bears played an important role in the mental and spiritual life of early humans. But we should remember that these stories have been handed down over the course of millennia and certainly have undergone a number of changes in the process. Whatever the original form of these myths, it is clear that a worldview that considered humans to be one with nature is a thing of the past. Science's progressive demystification of nature-a phenomenon of the last few hundred years-is partly responsible, but Christianity played an even greater role by driving out the old nature religions of pagan peoples.

As the animal that, perhaps more than any other, embodied the pagan concept of a kinship between man and nature, the bear played a key role in early Christian legends. Saint Ursula, for example, received her name because she successfully defended eleven thousand virgins against bears-a feat that could represent the saving of these Christian innocents from the dangers of nature worship. Other saints, such as the missionary Korbinian, demonstrated their power by taming bears. After a wild bear killed his horse during a pilgrimage to Rome, the saint loaded his possessions on the bear's back as punishment and continued on his way. Once he reached Rome, the holy man released the bear from its servitude.

THE MANY SURVIVING stories about bears reveal the variety of roles that they have played in the human imagination, from enemies of mankind to their protective spirits. One of the most prominent and persistent threads of such tales is the assumption that bears and humans are intimately related. While this kinship sometimes appears to be merely symbolic, at other times one can sense a genuine belief underlying such accounts that bears are our not-so-distant relatives. From our modern perspective, of course, this distinction belongs to the apes. But when we realize that most peoples in the Northern Hemisphere have known of the existence of apes only for the past few centuries, we should not be surprised that many legends and myths speculate about a bear-human connection. Of all the animals early Eurasians and Americans could encounter, it was the bear that most closely resembled a human being. And the physical similarities seem to be the reason why humans have often considered the boundary between themselves and bears to be remarkably permeable.

One such story was handed down from ancient Greece, where female bears served as symbols of motherhood. The beautiful nymph Callisto had broken her vow of chastity to become one of the many lovers of Zeus. She became pregnant as a result of her liaison, and when her condition became apparent the furious Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, turned Callisto into a bear. In spite of her new form, Callisto gave birth to a human son, Arcas, who grew up separated from his mother. Years later, while hunting, Arcas happened upon the bear Callisto, whom he of course did not recognize as his mother. As her son took aim, Zeus decided to rescue Callisto and set her forever in the sky, where she is still visible as the "Big Dipper," the constellation known in much of the world as the "Great Bear." Zeus's illegitimate son Arcas, in turn, can be seen as the particularly bright star "Arcturus," which can be found by extending the line formed by the Great Bear's tail.


Excerpted from Bears by Bernd Brunner Copyright © 2007 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Bernd Brunner, a graduate of the Free University of Berlin and Berlin School of Economics, is an independent scholar, freelance writer, and editor of nonfiction books. He is the author of The Ocean at Home: An Illustrated History of the Aquarium. Lori Lantz received a Ph.D. in comparative literature from UCLA and attended the Free University of Berlin as a Fulbright Scholar.

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