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Bruce Chatwinby Nichola Shakespeare
"Was he a cold fish?" I asked.
"A cold person."
"He was hot and cold. He was all things."
--BC, from "Among the Ruins"
On February 1984, an Englishman with a rucksack and walking-boots strides into a bungalow in the Irene district of Pretoria. He is six feet tall, with fair hair swept over a huge forehead and staring blue eyes. He is only a step ahead of the illness that will kill him. He is 43, but he has the animation of a schoolboy.
Bruce Chatwin had come to South Africa to see the palaeontologist Bob Brain after reading his book The Hunters or the Hunted?. It was, Bruce wrote, the book he had "needed" since his schooldays, and it had reawoken themes that had been with him a long time.
"This is a detective story, but rather an odd one," begins Brain's classic text on early human behaviour, based on 15 years' excavation at the Swartkrans cave near Johannesburg. Brain's analysis of fossilised bones raised the possibility that Early Man was not a savage cannibal, as had been generally held, but the preferred prey of one of the large cats with whom he shared the open grasslands of Africa. Around 1,200,000 BC the roles were reversed when homo erectus began to outwit his predator, the dinofelis or false sabre-tooth tiger.
What had given man the upper hand? "Everything," says Brain, "is linked to the management of fire." But 30 years of exploring and digging in caves over southern and Saharan Africa had failed to produce evidence of fire prior to 70,000 BC, by which time dinofelis had been extinct a million years.
Bruce called Brain's book "the most compelling detective story I have ever read". As a schoolboy he had held that "everyone needs a quest as an excuse for living". Brain's findings promised a key.
For two days Bruce engaged Brain in conversations which he described as "the most stimulating discussions in my life". They spoke of Birmingham, where Bruce had grown up and from where Brain's father, finding England restrictive, had departed for the Cape. They spoke about Brain's son Ted, who died at 14 months when he choked on a piece of apple, teaching Brain--painfully--to live his life as though each day might be his last. And they spoke of the origin of evil. Bruce seized on Brain's discoveries to support his conviction that human beings were "not that bad" and that the predator instinct was not essential to our nature. If the leopard-like cat had preyed on our ancestors, then man in his origins was not necessarily aggressive. He lived his life in fear, dinofelis watching him from the shadows.
Bruce--who called the cat "the Prince of Darkness"--amused the older man. Brain says, "He understood 'the Prince of Darkness' as a psychological necessity. He thought we had lived so long with prowling nocturnal predators they had become part of our make-up. When we no longer had these animals in bodily form, we invented dragons and heroes who went off to fight them." Discussing, for instance, Uccello's painting of St. George in the act of lancing the dragon, Bruce seemed to think this was an illustration of what had actually happened. Brain had misgivings about this nostalgia for "the Beast we have lost". Nevertheless, it excited him to watch Bruce take his work and run with it. "Chatwin was like a nineteenth-century synthesiser," says Brain. "There is a place again for that kind of generalist, someone who can wander among specialised fields and pull things together. Otherwise it's very compartmentalised and syntheses don't really occur." The two men talked late into the night and on the following day they drove to the cave at Swartkrans.
From the cave entrance on a hill of pink dolomite it is possible to see, 40 kilometres to the south-west, the skyline of Johannesburg, and to the east, the dumps of chalky rock from the goldmines of Krugersdorp. Close as it is to one of the most dangerous cities in the world, Swartkrans is always tranquil. Black eagles looking for rock rabbit glide above slopes dotted with white stinkwood, and here and there are bright red flowers.
Brain completed his book in a hut nearby. Bruce, too, sensed a place of special significance. He wrote in his notebook: "Good feeling at Swartkrans."
He was familiar with the excavation procedure. With Brain and the site foreman, George Moenda, he took up a position close to the west wall. The three started to dig into a patch of calcified earth with plastic-handled screwdrivers. At 10 a.m. one of them found a bone tool. A second grey bone looked like a scraper. "Turned out to be gnawed by a porcupine," recorded Bruce. Over the course of 19 years, Brain told him, the cave had yielded more than 100,000 specimens like these. They had been digging in the west wall for half an hour after lunch when Moenda prised from the earth, alongside an arrangement of three stones, a cracked fragment of antelope bone. Beige white on the outside, blackened on the inside, the bone was speckled with dark patches, as if burned.
George handed it round. It had a soapy feel.
Brain was not a demonstrative man. He had so often set out to find confirmation of his thesis, suffered so many false alarms. But this time he was visibly moved. "This bone is remarkably suggestive!"
What they were looking at would eventually be validated, in 1988, as man's first known experimentation with fire. It would predate by 700,000 years the previously oldest find, at Choukoutien in China. "That was the first convincing evidence for the earliest use of fire in any human context anywhere," says Brain. "It was a very astonishing moment."
Brain was quick to speculate. This bone provided a partial explanation of how our ancestors escaped the continual threat of predation. He reconstructed the scene: a thunderstorm at the beginning of summer, the yellow grass, dried to a parchment in the winter sun, a lightning-struck bush, and homo erectus dragging back to his cave this elusive substance, which coming with flashes and thunder must have had a magical significance.
Man's use of the fire-struck bush represented for Brain the "crucial step in the progressive manipulation of nature . . . so characteristic of the subsequent course of human affairs". It would not, of course, guarantee permanent protection: another half million years would pass before man could make fire to order. But it offered intermittent respite.
From the Hardcover edition.
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