Intimacy With The Beast

     Our kitty made discretion the better part of valor.
     The woods in our back yard converge into a bigger grove with a small opening into a 20-acre field. Yesterday morning our littlest kitty sat in that opening for a long time, watching a flock of wild turkeys.
     I could tell what that cat was thinking.
     “How am I going to get one of those birds?” she thought. But each turkey outweighed her about 6 pounds to 1. After long contemplation, the kitty turned around and slunk back home, dejected.
     I have never seen a cat so clearly say, “Damn!”
     Bruce Chatwin, that tireless traveler, had an interesting theory about man’s fascination with cats. Chatwin thought that mankind developed its social and intellectual skills not because our species is the planet’s most fearsome predator, but because a few million years ago, we were among the planet’s easiest prey. And our special, most intimate enemies were the big cats.
     Paleontologists who studied millions of years worth of bone deposits in ancient caves in South Africa suspect that a giant cat – the Dinofelis, or “false saber-tooth” – may have been a “specialist killer of the primates.”
     In one cave in Sterkfontein, primate bones accounted for nearly 70 percent of the bones that showed evidence of having been consumed as prey – considerably more than the 2 to 3 percent of prey that modern leopards make of baboons. One paleontologist told Chatwin he suspected a cat, or cats, lived deep in the cave, and merely walked toward its front door to snatch dinner.
     Cats could have done that to early hominids – to people. And in fact, a paleontologist showed Chatwin a Homo habilis skull with puncture marks in the back that exactly fit the fangs of a fossil Dinofelis.
     From this admittedly scanty evidence Chatwin proposes that our early ancestors were in an “arms race” with predators that were physically superior to us in every way except one – their brains. Humans needed tools to defend themselves from their special predator – a giant cat that specialized on preying upon us.
     It required a physically fit human, in the prime of life, to kill a giant cat with a spear. Once we did, we presumably ate the cat. Humans and cats therefore became one another’s most intimate predators – feeding upon one another, developing a special interest in watching one another.
     Eventually, we won. The lower, oldest levels of bones in the caves at Swartkrans and Sterkfontein contain intermingled bones of hominids and cats. Then “suddenly, in the upper levels of Swartkrans and Sterkfontein, man is there. He is in charge and the predators are no longer with him. Compared to this victory, the rest of our achievements may be seen as so many frills,” Chatwin wrote.
     It’s only a theory, and one that cannot be proved, or disproved. But it goes a long way to explain mankind’s strange fascination with watching cats – a fascination not quite like that we have with any other animal.
     Chatwin spent years of his life investigating nomads. He was fascinated with them – a fascination I did not share until I read his splendid book, “The Songlines,” from which I offer this closing quote.
     “Coleridge once jotted in a notebook, ‘The Prince of Darkness is a Gentleman.’ What is so beguiling about a specialist predator is the idea of an intimacy with the beast! For if, originally, there was one particular Beast, would we not want to fascinate him as he fascinated us? … has not the whole of history been a search for false monsters? A nostalgia for the Beast we have lost? For the Gentleman who bowed out gracefully – and left us alone with the weapon in our hand?”

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