The Evolution of Ideas 2. Still hyenas

One lasting memory I have from my time spent in a farming hamlet in West Shawa, Ethiopia is sitting down to dinner inside a round, mud hut beneath a thatched roof. In front of me was a cooking fire; beside me my Ethiopian family; some kids, Mum, brother-in-law. I remember it was dark inside except for the dim light of the coals. I was eating a plate of stir-fired meat with some crumbly cheese and moist bread called kotcho, feeling the warmth of the fire on my shins. It would have been like a family camping trip if not for the sound of a donkey urinating on the floor directly behind me. The donkey was one among a host of livestock animals in the house at the time. It was all part of the culture-shock that was hitting me like a hammer; eating and sleeping in a house that was divided by a pole and a hitching post, with family on one side of the post and animals on the other. Goats, sheep, donkeys, horses, cows. There was no interaction between people and animals in that hut, it was like a house of two families who spoke different languages and ate different food. The animals simply stood in silence, watching us as we ate our dinner, drank our barley-liquor, and talked and talked and talked until one by one we dropped off to sleep.

The presence of the animals in the house was not a response to anything out of the ordinary. It wasn’t windy or hailing outside. But neither was it something that the locals did because they wanted to be close to their livestock. After all nobody appreciated donkey pee on the living room floor. The reason that the animals were inside the house that night, and every night, was what lurked outside: hyenas. In this part of Ethiopia, hyenas are not as fondly abided as they are in Harar. In West Shawa hyenas are considered a sort of sinister society; a population of creatures of both physical and supernatural power who hold sway over the land whenever it is dark. People here are very afraid of hyenas. Nobody goes out alone after dark and stories abound of hyenas breaking into huts and attacking people foolish enough to try and defend their livestock. More than that though is the effect that the presence of hyenas seems to have on livestock animals. Rather than needing to be rounded up and corralled at the end of the day’s grazing, the animals dutifully line up at the end of the day, waiting to be let into the house. Of course I don’t have access to these animals’ minds so I can’t be certain whether it’s fear of hyenas or habit (or a combination of both) that leads them to behave in such a way and so there was the makings of a research project.

It was the dynamic between humans, livestock and hyenas that got me to thinking outside of my Western-constrained mindset – opening up for me a bunch of possibilities for the Neolithic when humans began keeping – or living in closer proximity to – goats, sheep and cattle. For someone like me who, if not for the whim of my parents and a program called assisted passage, would have been born in the UK, the idea of having your livelihood dictated by the presence of predators is outlandish. Lions and hyenas are long gone from the British Isles and bears and wolves were eradicated by the 11th and 17th Centuries respectively. In Britain, sharing a landscape with large carnivores is as foreign a concept as a classless society. The English take it as a given that humans have dominion over the landscape and over the domestic animals who graze over it. So not surprisingly, contemporary theories about animal domestication, which emerged out of and circulate among the English-speaking world, are as ecologically barren as the English countryside. They see domestication as something that humans did to animals through some means of control. They propose an evolution of hunting strategies that led to animals being corralled or fenced within steep ravines (which as anyone familiar with goats knows would be futile). What is missing in these accounts of livestock domestication is a third element: predators.

The places where goats, sheep and cattle were first domesticated were far more like West Shawa than West Sussex. In fact, in the middle east of the Neolithic, where goats and sheep were first domesticated, there were lions, leopards, bears, wolves, and striped hyenas and in fact only lions have since disappeared from that region and that was only a couple of thousand years ago. And given the impact that predators have on contemporary farming societies, it stands to reason that any theorising about early animal domestication must take into account the presence of predators. So there emerged a research question that still included hyenas but which had a lot of potential in terms of understanding early animal domestication: How did the dynamics between humans, livestock, and predators affect domestication processes? In the next post I’ll explain how this question and a political event involving a land-grab would circle me back around to my homeland: Australia.

West Shawa


Photos courtesy of Wendy Tanner


Guest post

I’d like to introduce Eli Strauss. He’s a researcher from Michigan State University who is coming to Harar to take a look at the research potential here. I asked him to contribute and hopefully he’ll post a bit more about his experiences with the hyenas here as they unfold.

My trip to Harar begins with a 30+ hour series of flights from Detroit, Michigan to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I am a researcher from the Masai Mara Hyena Research project, and in about four hours I begin my second trip to the African continent. Like my previous trip, the purpose of this journey is to observe wild spotted hyenas.  Almost two years ago I spent a year studying three clans of hyenas in the Masai Mara Game Reserve in southern Kenya. There I lived in our lab’s research camp inside the game reserve and went out every morning and evening to watch the hyenas. I felt very personally connected with the hyenas, over time growing familiar with their names, spots, ranks, and personalities.  Despite being very involved in the lives of the hyenas, we knew each other through an interesting filter: the car. An unfortunate fact of studying large mammals is that they are dangerous. Chomped in half by a hippo, eaten (alive, mind you) by a hyena, or trampled by a buffalo are just a few of the unpleasant demises that can be easily avoided by doing research in a vehicle instead of on foot. The price we pay for safety, however, that we don’t ever occupying the same world as our hyena friends.

It didn’t take long after arriving in the Mara for me to realize that our car was much more than barrier separating me from the outside world, however. While all of our hyenas run for their lives at the first sight of people, they are incredibly comfortable with our vehicle. And our vehicle is no small machine! It’s the closest thing I’ve ever driven to a tank: large and powerful, with a guttural diesel engine. Yet when we drive this behemoth up to a sleeping hyena, it will often give us no more than a one-eyed glance before continuing to sleep. Den cubs that go scurrying into holes at the sight of their own shadows will come up and chew on the tires and the underside of the car. When viewed from the hyenas’ perspectives, this comfort with our vehicle begins to make more sense. Most of these hyenas see our car every morning and evening nearly every day of their lives, and as youngsters they learn from the relaxed manner in which older clan members behave around our car. I soon realized that our vehicle doesn’t just keep us safe at the price of distance; in some ways, it allows us to get closer to the hyenas than could otherwise be possible.

And now here I am, on my way to Harar to study an entirely new group of hyenas. The focus of my work will be on comparing the behavior and social structure of hyenas in the Masai Mara with hyenas in Harar. But the hyenas wont be the only different thing about this trip; for better or for worse, I will be walking among my study subjects this time. I’m very excited to be free of the barrier that has always separated me from the hyenas, but also nervous about how a lack of vehicle will affect my research. Will these hyenas ever tolerate me as the Mara hyenas tolerate our car?  Will I be able to see enough of the Sofi and Aboker clans to get the data I need? Will I ever get to see mothers and cubs at a den?  Marcus’ research has shed a lot of light on such topics. For now, however, all I can think of is experiencing Harar and its Hyenas firsthand.