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About the Author
Michael Bright is an executive producer with the BBC's natural history unit and has written scores of books about the natural world. He is the author of Man-Eaters. He lives in Bristol.
Michael Bright is an executive producer with the BBC's natural history unit and has written scores of books about the natural world, including Man-Eaters and The Pocket Book of Weather. He lives in Bristol, England.
Read an Excerpt
By Michael Bright
St. Martins PressCopyright © 2000 Michael Bright
All rights reserved.
We shudder understandably at the thought of being eaten alive, but it is not a new feeling. About 30 million years ago, our earliest recognisable ancestors were clambering about in the trees in what are now the deserts of north-east Africa. Their fossilised remains were discovered at Fayum in Egypt by Daniel Gebo and Elwyn Simons, of Duke University in North Carolina, but when the two anthropologists came to examine the skulls they found puncture marks that had been made by the canine teeth of creodonts (primitive mammalian carnivores that are now extinct). While our earliest primate anthropoid ancestors were plucking the odd insect from the branches, they themselves were being snatched from the trees by wily predators.
Many millions of years later, came a time when another group of early ancestors dropped down from the trees and were exposed to the dangers on Africa's grassy plains. But as we were on the way down, a significant predator was on the way up. It was the leopard, probably the most successful of the big cats and a known man-eater. It was consuming our early ancestors and their close relatives from the moment they hit the ground.
Robert Brain, director of the Transvaal Museum in Pretoria, has been studying robust ape-man fossils (Australopithecus) that were found in the limestone caves at Swartkrans in South Africa. These heavily built hominids were ancient plant-eating, gorilla-like apes that lived at the same time as our direct ancestors. He examined their skulls and found they had distinctive perforations. Some of the holes were clearly made by sabre-toothed cats, while others were ¼in (6mm) across and found in pairs, each hole about 1¼in (32mm) from its neighbour. At first, it was thought that blows from a pointed weapon were responsible, but more recent work has shown that they resemble the tell-tale puncture holes made by the large canine teeth in the upper jaws of big cats, in particular, those of leopards.
He compared the cave remains with the debris left behind by modern carnivores. The holes in the skulls matched exactly teeth marks in the skulls of baboons killed by leopards. Baboons regularly fall prey to leopards, especially at night in their sleeping sites. The leopards ambush them, just as they grabbed those ancient man-apes asleep in their caves 1.6 million years ago.
Remarkably, the Swartkrans caves have very few skulls of our direct ancestors (Homo). It seems, even one-and-a-half million years ago, we were already clever enough not to sleep where leopards were likely to attack. Indeed, at this stage in our prehistory we began to beat the large predators at their own game. When we turned to eating meat as a substantial part of our diet, we probably scavenged first on the kills of the big cats and hyenas and then went hunting ourselves.
By living together, co-operating and communicating, we became effective hunters. We also developed the wherewithal to be effective competitors. Hunting technology – first stones, and then slingstone, spear, bow-and-arrow, cross-bow, blowpipe, harpoon, bolas, boomerang, throwstick, rifle, shotgun and pistol – gave us the upper hand, but it has never removed the fear. Strip away our technology and the rest of our troop, and a person alone, becomes relatively weak and defenceless. In short, individually we are fair game for powerful predators, and in parts of the world where people rub shoulders with lions, tigers, crocodiles and sharks, it is we who are sometimes the prey.
Despite this conspicuous vulnerability, wild animals – even big and powerful ones – are curiously wary of people. Under normal circumstances, they avoid us. Attack, of course, is a successful strategy to adopt in defence. Many people have been attacked by cantankerous buffalo or elephants that just do not like us to be in their company, mother bears protecting their youngsters, or venomous snakes that have been surprised and lash out in self-defence. They might kill us but they do not eat us. Many are plant-eaters and have no dietary interest in people anyway, but on occasions some meat-eaters actually see us as food. So, what makes them turn to man-eating?
The most commonly accepted reason is simply 'old-age'. Old animals with broken teeth, arthritic limbs, and worn claws settle for an easy life. They take anything that requires the minimum of effort to catch. People are easy meat. We can't run fast enough to get away, even from a lame predator. We are easily taken by surprise and without weapons we cannot defend ourselves. But is that all there is to it? Healthy animals take to man-eating too, and almost everywhere in the world today, the reason is simple and clear to see. Predators are losing their living space. It is disappearing at an alarming rate and with it their natural prey. In some areas poaching has presented predators with direct competition. Guns, traps, snares and nooses take out game, and predators go hungry. Humans are a convenient alternative.
Roads, railways and expanding villages and towns mean that animals come into contact with people more often. Our wild neighbours lose their natural suspicion of humans, and triggered by hunger, go on a man-eating spree. And, having learned the ease with which we can be caught, adult predators pass the skill on to their offspring. Young predatory mammals, such as lions, tigers and leopards, might learn from their mothers that people are good to eat and easy to catch.
Some predators are introduced to man-eating after wars and natural disasters. At first corpses are scavenged but, when these have been devoured, living people are a convenient alternative. This happened in the Arakan district of Burma during the Second World War. Tigers scavenged the dead bodies of soldiers who were left behind during the retreat of 1942. Then, they took to attacking and eating the living.
There are also cases of mistaken identity, particularly if we find ourselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. Great white sharks, for example, may confuse people on surfboards for seals, and tiger sharks see people on body-boards as sea turtles. Ignorance in these situations is not bliss. Surfing near a seal colony in seas frequented by great white sharks or near a beach where turtles haul out to deposit their eggs is simply asking for trouble.
Indeed, careless behaviour by people is more than often the cause of man-eating incidents rather than aberrant behaviour on the part of wild animals. Take the case of three men who camped in the Serengeti National Park. Their tent was so small, their heads protruded from one end. Two inquisitive lions passed by, spotted the row of heads and went to investigate. One of the men woke up and, seeing the lion so close, screamed. The lion did what came naturally – it bit. The man died before he could be flown to hospital. His head had been crushed and his skull broken.
Some cases of man-eating are not that at all. Sometimes a person might stumble on a tiger or leopard with cubs, and the mother will naturally attack in defence of her young. She might take advantage of the unexpected availability of some fresh meat but she is not necessarily a compulsive man-eater, even though often as not she is labelled as such.
Then, of course, not all so-called man-eater attacks are due to wild animals. In Africa, secret societies of lion-men and leopard-men (the Aniotos) and, in Europe sects of human werewolves, were actually contract murderers or 'hit-men'. They wore animal skins and carried iron claws, and caused wounds on their victims that resembled attacks by wild animals. They settled old scores – for a price – and innocent animals were killed in revenge.
People, especially debtors, cheats and fraudsters, also conveniently disappear, the so-called victims of wild animal attacks. Strange, though, that they should turn up perfectly well many months or even years later. In the Bastar area of India, a woman was alleged to have been killed by a man-eating tiger but when police investigated the case fully they discovered that her husband was the murderer. He had wanted to marry another woman. In the meantime, the tigers of Bastar and their cubs were slaughtered – all declared 'man-eaters' before the truth was revealed.
In the wild, it is surprising perhaps that people are not attacked or killed more often. Given the number of people at any one time who bathe, swim, surf, wind-surf, kayak or immerse themselves in the world's seas, for instance, the shark-attack statistics should be far higher, that is, if sharks had a predilection for human flesh. But they do not. Sharks, like most predators, do not seek us out.
Compared to a big cat, bear or large shark, however, we are relatively weak and vulnerable. Our advantage is the ability to co-operate, communicate and look into the future or past, learning by our mistakes and planning to put things right. In effect, our 'intelligence' keeps us out of trouble. We also have the technological wherewithal to eliminate man-eaters. In this way, any genetic propensity to feed on people is less likely to be passed on to subsequent generations.
Nevertheless, there is an underlying fascination and fear for animals that could eat us, particularly those that actually do so occasionally. One way in which we deal with this fear of the wild is simply to eliminate it in what amounts to a ritualised display of superiority. Down the ages, people slaughtered millions of lions, leopards, tigers and anything else that seemed remotely dangerous. The 'bag' was used to inflate egos, and provide dinner-table tales for intrepid hunters. But, most of all it dealt with that fear.
The result has been that man-eaters have more to fear from man, than man has to fear from man-eaters. Since ancient times, people hunted the larger predators for sport. It was a pastime reserved for kings and other lesser nobles. Pharaoh Amenophis III, who reigned from 1405 to 1367BC, is reported to have slain 102 lions during his first ten years on the throne. Several centuries later, Ashurbanipal of Assyria split the heads of lions with his two-handed sword. At the time lions were breeding well, so well, in fact, they were running out of natural prey and turning to stock-killing and man-eating.
Lions – at least dead ones – also pleased the Roman general and dictator Julius Caesar in the first century BC. He had 400 killed ceremonially to consecrate the Forum, and when Germanicus Caesar was nominated as consul some years later, another 200 were ritually slaughtered. Brown bears and polar bears were also placed in the arena where they were pitted against dogs and gladiators. In one day in AD237 a Roman noble who later became Emperor Gordian I was responsible for a 'contest' in the Coliseum during which 1,000 bears were said to have been despatched by gladiators. The event successfully exterminated local bear populations and subsequently bears had to be imported from northern Europe and North Africa.
During the 19th century in California, bears were placed in arenas with bulls. The practice was thought to have been responsible for the demise of the California grizzly. Bears, lions and tigers were also to star in 'baiting' contests, a practice that continued until the mid-19th century in Europe. The captured predator was beaten, blinded and chained to a stake in the baiting pit where packs of dogs and men with whips goaded and harassed it until it was exhausted and killed.
The tiger was the unwitting plaything of Indian Maharajahs and British colonels. From 1821–8, no less than 1,053 tigers were shot in the Bombay Presidency. In the 1850s Colonel William Rice shot 93 tigers in four years, but the Indian princes notched up far more: during the 1920s, the Maharajah of Kotah shot 334 tigers, while the Maharajah of Rewa beat him with a tally of 364. The Maharajah of Udaipur almost made it to the top with a bag of 1,000 kills, but the top tiger killer was the Maharajah of Surguja who died as recently as 1958. Before he expired, however, he accounted for 1,707 tigers.CHAPTER 2
WOLVES AND WILD DOGS
Since time immemorial people in northern lands have had a deep inner fear of being attacked and eaten alive by wolves (Canis lupus), and it is reflected even today in the way we speak. In the English language, we have expressions such as 'wolf at the door', 'wolf in sheep's clothing', and 'to be thrown to the wolves'. The word 'wolf' became synonymous with evil, and often it has been associated with the villains in history. During the Second World War, Hitler's forest headquarters in East Prussia was the 'Wolf's Lair' and flotillas of Nazi submarines were known as 'wolf-packs'. Further back in history, Isabella of France, consort of Edward II had her husband murdered by the thrust of a red-hot poker into his bowels. The act earned her the title 'She-wolf of France'.
The word 'wolf' has crept into all manner of activities. In music, a dissonance in some chords is known as the 'wolf tone', in biology the voracious ground-hunting spider is a wolf spider, and in marine biology there are fish with ferociously big teeth known as wolf-eels, wolf-fish and wolf-herrings. Anyone cruel or lustful is said to be wolfish, and a diner might wolf down his or her food.
This deep fear and revulsion of the wolf led to myths, fairy tales and legends. The story of Little Red Riding Hood is probably the most commonly told, although the tale of the Three Little Pigs, immortalised in the song 'Who's afraid of the big bad wolf?', is the latest in a long line of children's stories to perpetuate the image of the wolf as a miscreant.
Even in these enlightened times the presence of a wolf in some parts of Scandinavia and the USA triggers the most extraordinary bouts of mass hysteria. It is as if society is exorcising some ancient demon. In due course, newspapers and television carry pictures of jubilant hunters standing over the dead animal. The inevitable consequence is that in many places, including the British Isles, the wolf has been persecuted to extinction.
Wolves, however, are not supposed to attack and devour people; at least, that's what a wolf conservationist will tell you. Scientists have looked long and hard at claims down the centuries, but still the official line is that there have been no substantiated or authenticated cases of wolves making unprovoked attacks on humans. Yet the history books and newspapers are full of accounts of wolves up to no good, and in parts of India, where village folk are subject to harassment from all manner of beasts, there seems to be a fatal attack almost daily. Whether these reports contain elements of truth or whether they are simply instances of mistaken identity, acts of cold-blooded murder, people mysteriously disappearing to escape paying old debts, or figments of a vivid imagination, we never seem to get to the bottom of them, but they certainly make harrowing reading.
The wolf appears to have earned its reputation as a people-killer some time after the fall of the Roman Empire. Wolves took livestock mainly, but according to ancient accounts, they killed and ate people too. Indeed, during the time of the Emperor Charlemagne (742–814), the populace was so worried about wolves that it established the first known formal wolf hunts. Wolf hounds were specially bred for the purpose and professional wolf hunters were employed to rid the countryside of its wolf population.
Wolves across Europe increased in numbers at this time because the forests in which they lived were recovering from the ravages and excesses of the Roman occupation. An increase in forest cover furnished wolves with more living space. But, in the early part of the Middle Ages, around AD1000, a renaissance in agriculture, with the introduction of the heavy plough and the three-field farming system, meant that the forests were cut down once more. Wolves inevitably came into close contact with the rapidly increasing human population. Livestock was taken and, if the reports are to be believed, so were people.
In many cases, the wolves were simply exploiting a source of readily available carrion. During the devastating pan-European epidemics of plague, such as the Black Death between 1347 and 1351, and the many wars of these times, human corpses must have littered the uninhabited countryside. They would have been left to rot – food for wolves and other scavengers. Maybe the wolves even dug up and ate recently dead bodies. It is, perhaps, significant that the Latinised Germanic word for a grave robber is wargus, the root word varg meaning wolf in northern European languages, such as Swedish. It dates from about AD500.
The problem for modern scholars who attempted to distinguish fact from fiction, however, was that the supernatural dominated popular thinking in the Middle Ages, and accounts at the time were more than tainted with a spoonful of myth and mysticism. Wolves were thought to be at one with the devil. It was the time of the werewolf, and other malevolent creatures of the night. Extracting the truth is understandably difficult, but the reports of people being killed and eaten by wolves are far too numerous to ignore.
St Francis of Assisi (1182–1226) was preaching at the town in the north of Italy when his attention was brought to the infamous 'Wolf of Gubbio'. It had been terrorising the town's inhabitants. They were terrified to leave the city for fear of being attacked. The legend tells that St Francis confronted the wolf, which tried to attack him, and persuaded it to give up its man-eating ways in exchange for being fed regularly by the townspeople.
Excerpted from Man-Eaters by Michael Bright. Copyright © 2000 Michael Bright. Excerpted by permission of St. Martins Press.
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Table of Contents
1. Why Man-Eaters?,
2. Wolvers and Wild Dogs,
3. Man-Eating Tigers,
4. Tigers of the Swamp,
5. Man-Eating Lions,
6. Cats: Silent Hunters,
7. The Three Bears,
8. Hyenas, Pigs and Eagles,
9. Man-Eating Crocodiles,
10. Dragons and Serpents,
11. Shark Attacks,
12. White Death,
14. Mini-Beasts and Bloodsuckers,
15. Cannibals, Sacrifices, and Man-Eating Trees,
Tear 'Em Up,
Praise for Man-Eaters,