The Evolution of Ideas: Hyenas to hyenas

I haven’t cross-posted like this before but I want to get this out to a broad audience and my hyenas blog has a larger following. Besides, the subject matter is somewhat hyena related because it was my hyena research that kicked it off in the first place.
Over the next few posts, I want to talk about my new (and reasonably priced) book Crocodile Undone, due out in May of this year. I’m not going to preview the content of the book here, although there will be a lot of clues as to what it’s about. Rather, I’m going to write about how the book came to be. After Among the Bone Eaters was published, the question I was most often asked was ‘How did you arrive at that subject?’ In terms of this latest book this is a worthwhile question because answering it lets me reflect on the flow of events, coincidences, and choices, the outcome of which is 240 pages of non-fiction, three beehives in my back yard, and back pain for the remainder of my life.
Crocodile Undone is the product of a research project that I undertook under the guidance of Agustín Fuentes at the University of Notre Dame. From the outset, and to his credit, Agustín gave me almost free-reign in terms of what I could study. His only condition was that it be something to do with domestication, broadly construed. Looking back on my previous research I could easily see how Harar’s hyenas might have something to say about domestication, or in narrower terms, the original domestication of dogs during the Palaeolithic some 15,000 years ago. This is because on face value the situation in Harar has parallels to one of the scenarios that has been proposed for how dogs became domesticated. This scenario depicts pre-domestic dogs (or wolves) as camp followers; as hangers on who found that the closer they got to human camps, the better the chances that had of getting some food scraps. It suggests a selection for tamer individuals and not long thereafter, dogs making themselves at home within human communities.
In Harar, the hyenas are indeed dependent on the human population for food, and the less fearful, less aggressive hyenas probably have a much better chance of getting food than their wilder clan mates. But it’s not so much the similarities that have a bearing on our understanding of dog domestication as it is the differences. The city of Harar produces an awful lot of food scraps for not very many hyenas and it’s a pretty safe bet that a band of human hunter/gatherers in Palaeolithic Eurasia did not produce any where nearly as much edible food waste – if any. What’s more hyenas and wolves are distinctly different creatures with different evolutionary histories. Hyenas evolved alongside humans over millions of years while wolves first encountered humans in the Pleistocene. And there’s not as much archaeological evidence of wolf/human competition as there is hyena/human competition. So the individuals of each species bring a very different package to a relationship with humans and disentangling these differences would be a very difficult task. In fact it was this potential quagmire of false equivalences that swayed me. While I’d hoped I could revisit my beloved Harar hyenas for a second research project, I realised that I would have to look elsewhere for some meaningful subject matter to enlighten us about domestication processes of the past. In the next post I’ll talk about where that realisation led me.


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