October 06, 2005


The Last Giant of Beringia: The Mystery of the Bering Land Bridge. By Dan O’Neill. Basic Books. $15.

Man the Hunted: Primates, Predators, and Human Evolution. By Donna Hart and Robert W. Sussman. Westview Press. $29.95.

     The great “devil creature” sitting in the mud of a stream on the Berezovka River in eastern Siberia in 1900 was one piece of evidence.  The knobby protuberance from which Siberian gold miners hung their lantern in the 1970s was another.  The plant debris in the Devil Mountain Lakes in North America’s far north was another.  From these and countless other clues, with painstaking work that extended over decades, geologist Dave Hopkins pieced together the story of the land bridge called Beringia that once joined Siberia and Alaska.  Arguments for the bridge date back 400 years, but it was only in the late 20th century that Hopkins assembled enough hard data to convince the scientific world in general that the bridge had really existed, and had been a conduit for woolly mammoths, saber-tooth cats and other extinct Ice Age predators and prey.  Dan O’Neill’s book is as much biography as science – Hopkins himself was the last giant of Beringia, according to a comment made at Hopkins’ funeral in 2001 that O’Neill adopts as his book’s title.  It is certainly true that without Hopkins’ endlessly inquiring mind and apparently endless perseverance, the mystery of Beringia might still not be solved to general scientific satisfaction.  But it is also true that the book sometimes veers unsteadily between its scientific and biographical interests.  A chapter on an archeologist in whose footsteps Hopkins followed is an example: “For the next three weeks, [Louis] Giddings located and excavated archeological sites on the upper Kobuk, then bought a canvas-covered kayak from a Native man and worked his way another one hundred sixty miles downriver to the Eskimo village of Kiana, where he caught a boat to Kotzebue and a plane to Fairbanks.”  Historical detail of this kind shows impressive research skills but tends to leave the focus-seeking reader meandering, if not floundering.  O’Neill never quite knits together his tales of Hopkins the dogged researcher and Hopkins the real and vulnerable human being.

     Man the Hunted – the title deliberately recalls the common phrase, “man the hunter” – studies the past in a different way.  Wildlife-conservation expert Donna Hart and anthropologist Robert W. Sussman look at the supposed history of humans as hunters with a jaundiced eye, concluding that until very recently, humans were far more likely to be prey than predators.  Having studied modern primate predation – leopards, for example, are typically primate hunters – and examined the fossil record, Hart and Sussman argue that human ancestors were frequently eaten by big cats and dogs, giant hyenas, reptiles such as snakes and crocodiles, and even birds.  The authors’ view, which is by no means universally accepted, is that such adaptations as speech and larger brains were a response to regular predation of humans by other creatures – and that the cohesiveness of human social groups was a defense against such predation.  Man the Hunted is very well written – the chapter on giant snakes as possible human predators even today is particularly good – and the evidence, while not conclusive, is certainly highly suggestive.  The book is both a good read and a thought-provoking one.

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