The Predatory Transition from Ape to Man, by Raymond A. Dart International Anthropological and Linguistic Review, v. 1, no.4,1953.


"Of all beasts the man-beast is the worst
To others and himself the cruellest foe."

Christian Ethics
Richard Baxter (1615-1691)


"But if the earliest Gibbons were already able to walk upright, how is it" Elliot Smith asks "that they did not begin to use their hands thus freed from the work of progression on the earth, for skilled work, apart from tree climbing, of biological usefulness for these competent hands to do?"

It was not until Australopithecus africanus (Dart 1925a) was found that any secure answer could be returned to this rhetorical question. Up till then no evidence was available concerning confirmed bodily habits amongst anthropoids, other than tree-climbing and occasional bipedal movements, which they could adopt. But here was represented an ultra-simian group of creatures living in the deepest south of Africa on the unfriendly eastern fringe of the Kalahari desert in caverns on the cliffside of a plateau overlooking the widest possible expanse of open plain devoid of forests, fruits and nuts but abounding in a greater degree with dangerous beasts than any other country in the world.

In the breccia accompanying Australopithecus eggshells, crabshells and turtle shells, and bones of birds, small insectivores, bats, rodents, baboons and buck revealed evidence of the carnivorous diet of these creatures which appeared to be little if at all advanced beyond that of the baboons, which live today in the same locality. So I claimed from the outset and in 1929 that they were flesh-eating, shell-cracking and bone-breaking, cave-dwelling apes; and that in them the carnivourous habits of South African baboons (which, under stress of drought, as in that year, attack flocks of sheep and goats and carry off not only the young but adults for food and in coastal areas go down to the sea and eat shellfish) had already become stereotyped.

Elliot Smith (op. cit. 1926{ had immediately realized after the Taungs discovery that the determining factors in the separation in Miocene times, between Man's ancestor on the one hand and those of the Gorilla and Chimpanzee on the other, were the differential environmental and dietary conditions to which they became exposed after parting company. He said that in the group leading to man the brain growth had reached a stage where the more venturesome members--stimulated by some local failure of their arboreal food supply or by sheer curiosity--sought new sources of food on hill and plain wherever they could obtain the sustenance they needed; and that Australopithecus africanus. being found on the Kalahari Desert fringe at Taungs, provided objective evidence of fossil apes with habits in sharp contrast to those living arborealized anthropoids, who are tied down to a predominantly vegetarian diet amidst tropical forest conditions.

I had called the Taungs cave lair a kitchen-midden (1926) and Broom (1946) was inclined to agree with this opinion, because all the baboon skulls he had found had depressed fractures on the top of the head, such as I had demonstrated (1934). He suggested that the Austra1opithecinae could only have captured antelopes by hunting in packs, surrounding them at waterholes and killing them with sticks or stones. But neither Broom nor Schepers (1946) paid particular attention to the means whereby the man-apes had subsisted in South Africa; nor could the question be said to have arisen in an acute form before it had been discovered (1947) that the Limeworks site in Makapansgat Valley was an australopithecine and not (as I had presumed from the large size of the bones in 1925b.) a human deposit. It then became clear (Dart 1948 and 1949) that the animals slain by the Australopithecinae are neither small nor slow: they are huge and active, such as the grotesque and extinct tree-bear (or Chalicothere), the extinct horse (Hipparion), the extinct giraffe (Griquatherium), the elephant, the rhinoceros, hippopotamus, pigs and fourteen or more species of antelopes (eight of which appear to be extinct) from the largest like the kudu to the smallest like the duiker and gazelle, and even carnivores like the lion) hyaenas (two species), hunting dog and jackal.

Other principal features in which the Makapansgat deposit resembles those left by mankind are that these large bones are not gnawed but split and crushed to extract the marrow; and the double-ridge extremities of the arm bones (humeri) of antelopes are cracked and fractured through having been used as bludgeons. The broken ridge of these humeri correspond with double-furrowed fractures found in baboon (and even in australopithecine) skulls found at all three man-ape sites: Taungs, Sterkfontein and Makapansgat Thus the chief cultural tools of the Australopithecinae were clubs formed by the long limb bones of antelopes; but it is clear that small punctured, round and triangular holes in skulls have been formed by thrusting home the sharp ends of broken long bones, or the horns of antelopes, employed as daggers, or by smashing blows with the upper canine teeth of carnivores when using their upper jaws as picks. The lower canine teeth of carnivores and pigs have usually been wrenched out of the mandible as though they had been used as natural curved kukriblades. The angles of ungulate mandibles,are generally broken off and their rows of teeth chipped as though they had been damaged when employed as choppers and saws respectively. The upper jaws of ungulates are usually broken off so that they fit nicely in one hand while the chipped character of the teeth edges show that they have previously served the.role of scrapers.

The australopithecine deposits of Taungs, Sterkfontein and Makapansgat tell us in this way a consistent, coherent story not of fruit-eating, forest-loving apes, but of the sanguinary pursuits and carnivorous habits of proto-men. They were human not merely in having the facial form and dental apparatus of humanity; they were also human in their cave life, in their love of flesh, in hunting wild game to secure meat and in employing implements, whether wielded and propelled to kill during hunting or systematically applied to the cracking of bones and the scraping of meat from them for food. Either these Procrustean proto-human folk tore the battered bodies of their quarries apart limb from limb and slaked their thirst with blood, consuming the flesh raw like every other carnivorous beast; or, like early man, some of them understood the advantages of fire as well as the use of missiles and clubs. At any rate there are no known features on the cultural side other than the deliberate manufacture of tools and the systematic employment of fire, which separate these proto-men at the present time from early man.

The carnivorous dietary habits of the South African man-apes have shown the skilled work of biological usefulness, which their competent hands were called upon to do; and have demonstrated the direct relationship which exists between the carnivorous habit and acquiring the upright posture. The cerebral powers of these creatures were necessarily enhanced to carry out these striking, hurling and thrusting manual feats that are utterly beyond the skill of living apes; but it is absurd to imagine now that a large brain is essential to perform such berserk deeds.

Nobody knows what constitutes a human brain from the point of view of absolute size and weight. Individuals of apparently normal intelligence today need not have brains weighing more than 788 grams (i.e. the equivalent of a cranial volume of 830 cc. or only 175 cc. more then the greatest cranial capacity reported in a living ape). But human beings of subnormal intelligence can live long and fairly serviceable lives with a brain of anthropoidal dimensions. Keith (1928) reminded us of `Joe, ' the Lancashire shepherd, whose brain investigated by Cunningham weighed 500 grams (i.e. less than the Taungs infant) and had a fissural pattern simpler than a chimpanzee's. Yet 'Joe' was, and functioned as a human being! He was five foot nine inches high and died at the age of sicty; he could speak, having a considerable number of words and framing sentences; he knew a sixpenny from a fourpenny bit and could count his fingers but did not apprehend divisions of time. The latter part of his life was spent in the county asylum where he tended the sheep, keeping them within prescribed limits, with great vigilance for days together.

We do not transform such human brains as Joe's into simian brains by calling them anthropoidal, or microcephalic, or abnormal; nor do men and women possessing small brains necessarily have less capacity than larger-brained human beings for standing, walking, running, leaping, striking and hurling and carrying out the other physical and physiological activities) that distinguish human beings from apes. Such people may not be as clever or creative as other men: but they are men and not apes. Recently in the Northern Transvaal three such small-brained (circa 500 cc.) adults were found in a single Bantu family, discharging simple yet tolerably useful and definitely human roles in their local environment (Grieves,and Hughes 1953). As Keith (op.cit.) said such brains "represent in a disturbed and somewhat distorted manner, an actual stage in the evolution of the human brain".' The last quarter of a century has shown that that stage in the evolution of the human brain was the australopithecine stage. A micropcephalic mental equipment was demonstrably more than adequate for the crude, carnivorous, cannibalistic, bone-club wielding, jawbone-cleaving Samsonian phase of 'human emergence.

The carnivorous habit in mankind

Wherever found all prehistoric and the most primitive living human types are hunters, i.e. flesh-eaters. Human carnivorous habits have an omnivorous range extending from grubs and insects on the oneside to the most formidable of big game on the other. Secondly, man's taste for flesh is so great that human beings, whether in prehistoric (Pithecanthropus-Sinanthropus) or recent times and whether driven by need or not, have practised either real or ritualistic cannibalism. "One of the strongest reasons for considering anthropophagy' as having widely prevailed in pre-historic ages is the fact of its being deeply ingrained in savage and barbaric religions" (Encyc. Brit., 14 ed., art. Cannibalism)....

The loathsome cruelty of mankind to man forms one of his inescapable characteristics and differentiative features; and it is explicable only in terms of his carnivorous, and cannibalistic origin.

The blood-bespattered, slaughter-gutted archives of human history from the earliest Egyptian and Sumerian records to the most recent atrocities of the Second World War accord with early universal cannibalism, with animal and human sacrificial practices of their substitutes in formalized religions and with the world-wide scalping, head-hunting, body-mutilating and necrophilic practices of mankind in proclaiming this common bloodlust differentiator, this predaceous habit, this mark of Cain that separates man dietetically from his anthropoidal relatives and allies him rather with the deadliest of Carnivora.

Darwin (1871, p. 146) recognised this sinister aspect of human evolution to a degree when he said "The same high mental aculties which first led man to believe in unseen spiritual agencies, then in fetishism, polytheism and ultimately in monotheism, would infallibly lead him, as long as his reasoning powers remained poorly developed, to various strange superstitions and customs. Many of these are terrible to think of--such as the sacrafice of human beings to a blood-loving god; the trial of innocent persons by the ordeal of poison or fire; witchcraft, etc.,--yet it is well occasionally to reflect on these superstitions, for they show us what an infinite debt of gratitude we owe to the improvement of our reason. to science and to our accumulated knowledge". Yet, although he cited Roman gladitorial shows, scalping, head-hunting, infanticide, slavery, love of inflicting torture and indifference to suffering, as indications of a low-state of moral sense amongst civilized and primitive peoples, Darwin did not deduce from those observations, that man had arisen from a predaceous anthropoid stock. Still, whether cognizant of the wider implications of his comments or not, he made this statement (op. cit., p. 78) "If it be an advantage to man to stand firmly on his feet and to have his head and arms free, of which, from his pre-eminent success in the battle of life, there can be no doubt, then I can see no reason why it should not have been advantageous to the progenitors of man to have become more and more erect or bipedal. They would thus have been better able to defend themselves with stones and clubs, to attack their prey, or otherwise obtain food".

Thus Darwin dared to picture not merely early men but also their progenitors as hunters.' What is 'prey'? According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary (3d ed., 1934) it is "animal hunted or killed by carnivorous animal for food". The predaceous habit is therefore 'living by preying', i.e. hunting down and killing animals for food. On this thesis man's predecessors differed from living apes in being confirmed killers: carnivorous creatures, that seized living quarries by violence,battered them to death, tore apart their broken bodies, dismembered them limb from limb, slaking their ravenous thirst with the hot blood of victims and greedily devouring livid writhing flesh. Further, if Darwin's reasoning was correct, man's erect posture is the concrete expression of signal success in this type of life. It emerged through and was consolidated by the defensive and offensive stonethrowing and club-swinging technique necessitated by attacking and killing prey from the standing position.

This purposive industrial specialization of the hands in accurate hitting & throwing, as I pointed out (1949b), 'was the only persistent stimulus capable of transferring the body weight from the clambering knuckles and the sitting ischial tuberosities of apes to the only suitable base for such torsional work as man's body performs, namely, the bi-columnar-hexapodal mechanism of the completely extensible lower limbs, each linked to its tripodal foot by its powerful and exceedingly mobile ankle joint. . . . Man . . . makes such persistent use of his hands and his whole torsional bodily strength in the erect posture that he can use his fists deftly and accurately as weapons, either open as in slapping and cuffing, or closed as in boxing and pounding. He is the only fisted creature on earth. * * *

Before the ancestral bipedal brachiator there lie three courses in respect of evolving hands. If he stays in the trees like the gibbon and orang the upper limbs must become the chief body supporters and propulsants; so the arms become long and develop hook-like hands specialized for swinging from the branches. The elongated arms of the brachiating gibbon and orang are also shared by the partially-terrestrialized chimpanzee and gorilla. These hands can be adapted to ground support in the brachiating anthropoid only by the biological absurdity of using the dorsal instead of the palmar aspects of their hands in progression. Consequently during their temporary desertion of the trees the chimpanzee and gorilla are enabled to aid foot-walking by employing the knuckles of their hands as props. The third alternative before the brachiator in departing from the forest is to carry one or more pieces of the deserted tree with him, not to hang therefrom but to use them as props or crutches if necessary and to swing about himself in the club or bludgeon fashion adopted by our presumptive bipedal progenitors. At one extreme the gibbon has specialized in whirling himself about the branches of trees; at the other extreme man has specialized in whirling the branches of the trees about himself.

These bludgeon-whirling activities became significant when there was skilled work apart from tree-climbing of biological usefulness such as hunting for these competent hands to do; the seizing of victims, prey or quarry; the thirst for blood and the hankering after flesh for food; the carnivorous diet.

The carnivorous propensity--a primitive orimate characteristic

The recognition of the carnivorous habit as a distinctive australopithecine trait has developed so gradually that it is fruitful to analyse the probable reasons why this basic fact has been obscured and the widespread reluctance even today to accept its implications for the understanding of human nature.

In the first place the apparent preference of primates, generally for nuts, fruits and vegetable substances as food and their arboreal habitat has naturally led to the assumption that anthropoids were originally frugivorous. The primate stock was not originally frugivorous; as they arose from Cretaceous insectivorous ancestors, the need for animal proteins in primate diet has an extremely ancient history. The partiality of many primates for fruits has obscured the extent to which most of them are still omnivorous and thus to an appreciable extent carnivorous. * * *

The emergence of carnivorous food habits is therefore not singular but appropriate to a capable and discriminating omnivorous anthropoid ape. The habits of baboons show that the predatory tendency becomes seasonal and even systematic in a much less capable primate than Australopithecus in the exacting terrestrial environment of Southern Africa. We have seen that, despite the insectivorous origin of primates and the known carnivorous habits of terrestrialized primates such as South African baboons and of arborealized anthropoids such as the gibbon there has been a general reluctance to accept the repeatedly demonstrated facts that baboons spontaneously hunt wild game and to recognise the implications for human evolution of primitive man's multi-millennial dependence upon animal slaughter for his food. So complisive a characteristic could not possibly have emerged in mankind without its having characterized his predecessors; but man has been forced by the growth of the population to discover in fish and in cereals alternative chief sources of sustenance and concurrently there emerged strict taboos and legislation against animal foods in particular. From the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden to the cult of vegetarianisrn (a term applied circa 1847 to the present practice of. excluding fish, flesh and fowl from human diet, and in some sects milk, eggs and cheese, or even all cooked foods) civilized man has been steadily and increasingly. separated from his carnivorous.past. * * *


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