Finding Australopithecus afarensis: Part 1

This is part of a series of posts on how I put together a plausible behavior pattern and psychology for the species, Australopithecus afarensis, for my upcoming novel, To Give a Rose. First, some terminology: for simplicity, I renamed the species “foot-ape,” because their humanlike feet were their most obvious difference from the modern great apes. I call them foot-apes throughout the novel and here as well. Also, I use the terms “man,” “woman,” and “child” to refer to individuals of any ape or human species, including the modern great apes. I do not mean that, for example, an adult male chimpanzee is a man in the human sense, but there should be some term for him, and “man” is certainly more appropriate than, say, “bull.”

Why did I recreate an extinct ape?

To write a book about foot-apes, I had to put together a vision of the bodies, minds, and societies. Actual scientists do have some guesses about these animal’s behavior, but their guesses were not detailed enough for my purposes and often seemed unbelievable to me. That might sound arrogant of me to say, and I was pretty arrogant at the time, but the process of becoming an expert in one subject almost always involves a narrowing of vision at the expense of other subjects. That means experts can miss things non-experts don’t.

For example, Don Johanson, one of the co-discoverers of the species, in a book for the popular readership, extensively and admiringly quoted a colleague’s vision of human evolution and monogamy.

The colleague argued that our bipedalism and social organization is bound up with the evolution of human monogamy, that our ancestors became monogamous so as to reduce competition between males and free them to cooperate in securing food (which they would walk upright to carry home). As he explained, if males were not attracted to each others’ mates, they would fight less and cooperate more. What the expert missed is that human monogamy (when it occurs) has nothing to do with men not finding each others’ wives and girlfriends attractive, as anyone who’s ever listened to pop music knows.

Clearly I had to do my own thinking.

A recipe for a foot-ape

In the beginning, I really didn’t know what I was doing. I had a vague idea that I should research the behavior of living primates, so I read whatever primate-related National Geographic articles I happened across. I didn’t know how to look for information and I didn’t know what I was looking for. But, as I got into the swing of things, I realized not not all primates were equally relevant–I should focus on those species most closely related to foot-apes, the living great apes (especially chimpanzees and bonobos) and humans. I don’t remember where I got that idea, but it’s hardly new. Anyway, the guiding principle I developed was a sort of a recipe; two parts chimpanzee, two parts bonobo, and one part human, mixed together, would equal a foot-ape. I largely ignored gorillas and orangutans, although I understand they are fascinating animals.

So, what is a bonobo?

Bonobos are relatively recently discovered apes–it’s been decades, but they’re still less well-known than chimpanzees. For a long time, scientists thought the two were the same, and some people still call bonobos pygmy chimpanzees. They do look alike, although it’s not hard to learn to tell them apart. Most people who have heard about bonobos have heard that they have sex all the time. They have a reputation as “the original party animals.” The sex part is true, the party part isn’t. Parties are vacations from ordinary human life with its cares and inhibitions, but bonobos are not on vacation. They’re just living their lives, which are both similar to, and different from the way we live ours.

Coming up next

In the next post in this series, I’m going to discuss the basic foot-ape social system and why I consider that system plausible.

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About Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.
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One Response to Finding Australopithecus afarensis: Part 1

  1. Pingback: Finding Australopithecines, Part 2: Love and Sex | News From Caroline

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