Almost Human - Essay

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TA: Colin Hoag
The study of the origin of humans and the journey of our evolution is a diverse and dynamic field that can be approached in many ways. Shirley Strum chose to examine primate behavior with the hope that it would illuminate the challenges early humans may have encountered and the possible solutions and adaptations they experienced in order to survive. In this essay I will outline the central findings as expressed in Strum’s book, Almost Human: A Journey into the World of Baboons, and connect her conclusions to information gathered throughout this course. Strum’s ground-breaking evidence of socially intelligent, minimally aggressive, female-centered baboon societies not only gives a glimpse into the lives of primates and the possible landscape for the evolution of man, but the controversy surrounding primate behavior studies illuminates characteristics of our society today and the world of academia. Shirley Strum began her journey into the world of baboons in September of 1972 in the Great Rift Valley of Kenya. Kekopey was a 45,000 acre cattle ranch and home to the Pumphouse Gang, the troop of baboons she would observe and learn from for the next decade. Strum believed that in order for us to realize our human potential today we must first understand our evolutionary heritage (Strum 1987 p6). While the fossil record can tell us much about the morphological adaptations that led to the human radiation, answers as to why early hominids adopted a bipedal locomotion and how they survived the environmental changes lie in their behavior (Strum 1987 p6). Since the Australopithecines are long extinct, the study of modern day primates who, like early hominids, have adapted to life in the African savannah, allow anthropologists and

Cate Havstad
TA: Colin Hoag
scientists the opportunity to observe behavioral patterns that resemble those of our common ancestor. Although chimpanzees may be biologically closer to humans, baboon lifestyle and their environment made them better suited as models for reconstructions of the beginning of human evolution (Strum 1987 p73). Prior to Strum’s research, scientists had felt they already uncovered answers about our past. These scientists described early human societies as aggressive, dominated by males who were the core of the group and functioned within a dominance hierarchy that was determined by size and force (Strum 1987 p7). Females were thought of as having little political or social influence, their primary roles were as child bearers and mothers. People such as Robert Ardrey used these findings to justify the claim that modern day human society is just like that of our ancestors; men and women are inherently different in their abilities and that a society with greater sexual equality was not likely because society can’t overcome biology (Strum 1987 p7). These assumptions were in fact inferences made from the first studies of baboon behavior that identified only a few males and watched them as individuals, overlooking the females, juveniles and infants, as well as the behavior of the group as a whole (Strum 1987 p8). In order to test the previous models, Strum employed new observation techniques, identified all individuals in the group, and at the end used an experiment to confirm her findings.

Cate Havstad
TA: Colin Hoag
Upon Strum’s introduction to the Pumphouse Gang, her colleagues talked of the aggression of the baboons and warned her to observe from the safety of the van. After much time with no signs of violence, Strum began to observe the baboons much closer on foot while remaining a nonentity and avoiding any direct interaction. As a result she began to see the baboons in a whole new light. Strum entered the lives of the Pumphouse troop at the same time as Ray, a male baboon trying to immigrate into the group. Rather than bullying the females or fighting the males, Strum watched as Ray peacefully persevered day after day to befriend Naomi, a female of...
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