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The Anthropology of Risk

In his seminal book The Hunters or the Hunted, the celebrated anthropologist Charles Kimberlin “Bob” Brain postulated that it was our relationship to monsters that established us as we are today.  As a native of Tasmania, Brain wrote not about a whirling devil, so to speak, but of “the terrible cat”, Dinofelis.  Dinofelis was described as “a large cat less agile than a leopard or cheetah but far more solidly built.  It hunted at night, and with great stealth.”  Brain continues, “A combination of robust jaws and a well developed component in the dentition would have allowed Dinofelis to eat all parts of a primate skeleton except the skull,” and goes on to say, that “the hypothesis that Dinofelis was a specialist killer of the primates is persuasive.”  Brain was the director of the Transvaal Museum in Pretoria and spent years developing his thesis in the Sterkfontein Caves, northwest of Johannesburg, in an area thought to be the Cradle of Mankind.  That Dinofelis has since been replaced by a similar cat, Megantereon, means little to the story. 

Could it be that Dinofelis was our Beast – who stalked us, stealthily and with great cunning, wherever we went?  This Beast that led us to live in caves, harness fire, and work together for not just safety, but our very survival?  This Beast that would be the stuff of nightmares, legend, scary stories told around the campfire or as cautionary tales told from mother to child?  A Beast that inspired imagination, fascination, even love?  In the end, of course, it appears that we got the better of the Beast.  But at what cost?  The writer Bruce Chatwin suggests that “perhaps this was a Pyrrhic victory: has not the whole of history been a search for false monsters…a nostalgia for the Beast we have lost?”

What are these false monsters?  What have we done to satisfy this part of our psyche that became so ingrained over a million years? 

When we are in the backcountry skiing the steep and the deep, free soloing 5th class terrain, and kayaking Class V whitewater, it may be that we are satisfying some old and ancient part of of our souls, our very DNA. 

Maybe, just maybe, we actually have no choice.  

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