No doubt the greatest single leap in human prehistory was the one we made from being helpless prey to becoming formidable predators (animals which hunt and eat others) of other living creatures, including, eventually, the ones with claws and fangs. This is the theme that is acted out over and over, obsessively, in the initiation rites of tribal cultures.

In the drama of initiation, the young (usually men) are first humiliated and sometimes tortured, only to be ‘reborn’ as hunters and warriors. Very often the initial torment includes the threat of being eaten by costumed humans or actual beasts.

Orokaiva children in Papua New Guinea are told they will be devoured like pigs; among Indians of the Pacific Northwest, the initiates were kidnapped or menaced by wolves; young Norwegian men, at least in the sagas, had to tackle bears single-handedly. As a species, we’ve been fabulously successful at predation. We have enslaved the wild ungulates, turning them into our cattle and sheep, pushing them into ever narrower habitats.

We have tamed some of the wolves and big cats, trivializing them as household pets. We can dine on shark or alligator fillets if we want, and the only bears we’re likely to know are the ones whose name is teddy. In fact, horror movies wouldn’t be much fun if real monsters lurked outside our cinemas. We can enjoy screaming at the alien or the monster or the blob because we know, historically speaking, it was our side that won.

But the defeat of the animal predators was not a clear-cut victory for us. With the big land carnivores out of the way, humans decided that the only worthwhile enemies were others like themselves – ‘enemy’ individuals or tribes or nations or ethnic groups. The criminal stalking his victim, the soldiers roaring into battle, are enacting an archaic drama in which the other player was originally non-human, something either to eat or be eaten by.

For millenniums now, the earth’s scariest predator has been ourselves. In our arrogance, we have tended to forget that our own most formidable enemies may still be of the non-human kind. Instead of hungry tigers or fresh-cloned dinosaurs, we face equally deadly microscopic life forms. It will take a whole new set of skills and attitudes to defeat HIV or the TB bacterium – not the raging charge on the field of battle, but the cunning ambush of the lab.


A. Match each word with one of the meanings.
1. initiation rite a) family of animals with hoofs and claws 2. devour b) fight
3. tackle c) train; make useful and safe 4. ungulates d) a large frightening object having no distinct shape
5. tame e) the ceremony of introducing someone to a special group 6. blob f) eat up quickly and hungrily 7. archaic g) a period of thousand years 8. millennium h) belonging to the distant past
B. Mark the statements as True (T) or False (F).

1. Human beings have always fallen helpless victims to other predators.
2. The initiation rites in tribal cultures aimed to prepare the young for a life as
fearless, bold warriors.
3. Wild animals no longer exist as dangerous enemies to human kind.
4. We scream at horror movies because the monsters we see on the screen may any time appear in our real lives. 5. Once they took control of animals, human beings started to act in a non-human way. 6. Deadly microscopic life forms will cause less trouble for human beings than big wars in the future.

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