The prehistory of primate-cat relations has always been a rocky one. First there’s the fossa, a Madagascan cat-like predator that eats lemurs, thought to be similar to ancestral cats just as lemurs are thought to be like the ancestors of monkeys and apes. Clearly this relationship has been a rocky one from its inception. And can you be surprised? Both are intelligent and adapted for an arboreal environment – primate ancestors adapted for eating fruit and insects, and cat ancestors adapted for eating, well, primate ancestors.
Then during the Miocene there were a wide variety of large cats with huge teeth preying on the large varieties of apes that flourished in the extensive rainforest that covered much of the Old World.
The hominin fossil record bears witness to the animosity between cats and primates. There are archaeological sites that are basically collections of bones in the lair of large cats with plenty of hominin bones among them. Poor, unsuspecting hominins that ended up as sabre-tooth cat food.
But primates haven’t been just passive victims in all this. There’s archaeological evidence for early humans scavenging lion kill. As in “we may not have big sharp teeth like you, but we have bigger brains and can steal your food.” Some might just say that stealing the food of animals that evolved to eat your kind is a little reckless. But early humans were clever and brave. And as human brains got bigger and bigger, they got better and better at not being eaten by big cats. They developed projectile weapons. In the end, cats had no chance against humans. They couldn’t get close enough for their teeth and claws to be effective if the humans were throwing spears and shooting arrows at them. So it looks like primates finally won the war.
Cats had a plan. Unable to match projectile weapons no matter how big their teeth were, they took a different evolutionary route. A sneaky one. By evolving to be small and good at catching vermin that ate the seeds stores of neolithic humans, they got to share the humans’ food, warmth and shelter. If you can’t beat them, join them, right? Wrong again. That’s what happened in the past. The evolutionary niche they have now is more parasitic than mutualistic.
The domestic cat – aka Felis catus or Felis silvestris catus – is the same size as a human infant. Its mew sounds very similar to the cry of a newborn human baby. It has a round face with big eyes, like a human infant. The domestic cat has gone down the same evolutionary route as the cuckoo, only much further. Its entire life-cycle involves imitating baby humans and being coddled, fed and protected as though it were a human infant. Its success is such that the human knows full well that the cat isn’t a baby human, but loves and pampers it anyway, because it’s cute, cuddly and less troublesome to look after than a real human infant. And even with the huge technological prowess of modern humans, what’s that technology used for more than anything else? Sharing pictures of cats.
Cats have won. Primates have thrown in the towel and taken refuge in cuddling their kitty-cats.
Having survived a logistically difficult move 4000 miles to live in the UK again, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the British countryside and even the weather. Sub-tropical heat and humidity does not suit me at all. I blame neanderthal genes; I clearly have cold-adapted body proportions and feel much more alive in cold weather. But one of the highlights of returning to the UK is the fact that I’ve found quite a lot of flint.
My family all think I’m crazy because while the rest of the family were paddling in the sea and/or building sandcastles when we went to the beach in August, I was making like a Homo ergaster and bashing up bits of flint, trying to shape them into tools.
My first successful stone tool was this one, which I think just about qualifies as an Oldowan style chopper although Australopithecus sediba might have something to say about it. But I think it would cut through meat although I haven’t tried it yet. The competitive streak in me wants to know how well it compares to the tools made by Kanzi the bonobo. I want to know if it’s good enough for me to keep my human card.
I got a bit more ambitious with this one (which is by far not my 2nd attempt – I have several failed ones that I’m not posting on this blog) where I was trying to get the general shape of a hand axe. I think I succeeded in that, albeit that it’s not as pretty as the Acheulean hand axes I’ve seen.
I got the last laugh regarding my family thinking I’m insane for taking lumps of flint and my rather feeble attempts at stone tool making into my house, because in the chaos of moving, I couldn’t find any scissors. I needed to remove one of those plastic tag things from something I’d bought and it was too thick to break with my fingers, so I needed something to cut it with. While looking for them, I found my hand axe, and thought I’d use that instead. and found it worked really well. It was easier to use than scissors on that kind of tag, and would have given a craft knife a run for its money. Since then, I’ve used it for other plastic tags. It’s now my tool of choice for that, and has also been used to cut through cardboard and other kinds of packaging. It’s quite interesting that such an ancient technology – dating back to the lower palaeolithic era – can be useful even in this day and age.
Blame my 6 yr old daughter for this one (or possibly me, for attempting to teach a 6 yr old palaeanthropology in the first place…) …the local supermarket were giving away free DVDs along with jars of processed cheese. The titles were up to a decade old (probably why they were freebies) but as I don’t have many DVDs besides all the Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and Harry Potter ones (nerd? me? never!), and I have no-where near enough kids’ ones given that I actually have two kids, you can possibly understand why I purchased a stupid quantity of processed cheese to acquire some free DVDs.
So anyway, Ice Age and Ice Age 2 were among the kids ones I obtained. My 6 yr old, watching Ice Age asked me of the humans “mummy, are they neanderthals?” Me being me, I didn’t just answer “yes darling, very clever, they’re neanderthals”… I said “well, yes, they are a lot like neanderthals in many ways, but they’re a bit too tall, and their clothes are a bit too sophisticated and they have pointy chins too.” I came to the conclusion that they’re possibly a hybridised population of neanderthals and Homo sapiens sapiens… but I couldn’t explain that to my daughter as we haven’t done the birds and the bees yet, so she won’t get admixture.
The inevitable consequence of this conversation was to try to determine which species of human various cartoon depictions of palaeolithic people are, and here are the results:
So you can see from the cartoon record that there is not only very clear evidence of neanderthal admixture, but also Homo erectus too. Well I really can’t say I’m surprised, I mean Homo sapiens sapiens got it on with neanderthals and denisovans, so why not Homo erectus too? All these years of watching The Flintstones and I never realised that it could be presented as evidence of interbreeding between Homo erectus and Homo sapiens.
I’m amazed how much human evolution they managed to cram into The Croods though, I mean you have a family of Homo erectuses (small cranial capacity, no foreheads, lower palaeolithic tools, scavenging birds’ eggs rather than hunting, no use of fire) but their daughter looks more like a neanderthal and is clearly cognitively advanced compared to her family, and well, neanderthals were descended from Homo erectus so that’s kind of accurate (give or take thousands and thousands of generations) and then she falls in love with a Homo sapiens sapiens. I mean that’s a huge significant chunk of human evolution played out in one film with one family. I’m impressed!
I’m also impressed that I managed to sit through all of Ice Age and all of the Croods without feeling the need to correct all the anachronisms and scientific inaccuracies, and I actually enjoyed them both (as did the kids of course!). In fact I even ended up seeing the Croods twice, as the kids wanted to see it in 3D as well (and well worth it; if you have the choice, definitely see it in 3D!) When I used to watch The Flintstones and Captain Caveman as a child, scientific accuracy bothered me less. But having said that, the horrific anachronisms in the Flintstones are a big part of what makes it funny.
And if anyone wants any processed cheese, just drop by and I’ll give you several jars of it.
Captain Caveman: Joe Ruby/Ken Spears – Hanna Barbera Productions
The Flintstones: William Hanna and Joseph Barbera
Ice Age: Blue Sky Studios
The Croods: DreamWorks Animation