A lone man facing a saber-toothed tiger makes for a predictable outcome. Man gets eaten by tiger. During the last ice age, saber-toothed tigers were among an array of deadly predators that our distant ancestors faced with primitive weapons and gall.Mankind somehow endured, populating Europe, Asia and Africa, and then crossing a land bridge over the Bering Strait to North America. Moving south along the front range of the Rockies, he spread into the Great Plains and eventually into Central and South America.The rest is history: Man eliminated the big predators, developed technology and became the greatest despoiler of nature since the ice age. The proof lives in people like Dick Cheney, with his shameless canned hunts, ambivalence toward endangered species, and shooting lawyers without a permit.If the big predators of the Pleistocene had been triumphant, man would have been snuffed out, and none of this would have happened. I wouldn’t be writing this column and you wouldn’t be reading it. Extinctions happen, and man would have been yet another species wannabe.Considering man’s puny physical stature, extinction would have made sense. We lack massive jaws, huge incisors and sharp claws. Our skin is soft and our organs vulnerable. We are not the biggest, strongest animal, nor are we the fastest.Obviously, evolution did away with some of the traits that enabled us to survive the Pleistocene. We were stronger then, and certainly more physically brutal. We were equipped with powerful instincts that gave us residency in the State of Nature.Thomas Hobbes described man’s existence in such a state as “poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Jean Jacques Rousseau theorized that primitive life gave us an edge that we still have today: vigor, endurance and a burning desire to watch football and hockey.Early man must have been incredibly brutish to take on the big carnivores. Imagine the raw aggression necessary to tackle a saber-toothed tiger with a flint-tipped wooden spear. Despite our brutality, or as a counterpoint to it, man expressed sensitivity through art.The gentle curve of a Stone Age knife and the smoothly painted line of a bison on the wall of a cave evince man’s deeper sense of esthetics. Something noble and artistic sprang from the primitive mind even as survival engaged him in regular blood sport.”Gradually there appears in these tools something more than a capacity for better striking and a better cutting edge, a feeling for proportion and symmetry,” an art historian explained, describing man’s nascent artistry and culture.The picture of a bellowing bison painted in a cave at Altamira, Spain, in 15,000 BC connotes a sensitivity that provokes awe today. Man, the brute, enhanced utilitarian function with beauty, becoming man, the artist. Modern man, it appears, is still engaged in the struggle between beauty and brutality.Arrowheads I have found in the Seven Castles area behind my house are symmetrical, beautifully knapped stones that connect me with a primitive ancestor. The creative impulse inspired mankind in the Roaring Fork long before Anderson Ranch or the Aspen Art Museum.Touching these arrowheads, I arrive at an intersection of distinctly different beings that evolved from the same root stock. How different my life is from that distant ancestor, and yet how connected we are by our fundamental humanity.”To her fair works did Nature link/The human soul that through me ran/And much it grieved my heart to think/What man has made of man.”Wordsworth’s elegy rues modern man for retaining brutish characteristics and, like Dick Cheney, despoiling the Earth for pleasure and profit. This begs the question: Would the world would have been a better place had the saber-toothed tigers prevailed?Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays.
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