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Hyenas and Humans in the Horn of Africa

Article excerpt

Cultural-historical geography provides a distinctive perspective on the human/animal interface by connecting the present with the past and the particulars of the biophysical with the cultural. Scholars who have explored animals in other disciplines have rarely predicated their studies on convergence of the two dimensions through time. Examined here is a relationship, broadly symbiotic yet also conflictive, (1) between the spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) and the culturally diverse peoples in the Horn of Africa. (2) If the roots of this connection originated in the distant past, only the last half-millennium is knowable, and but a fraction of that is retrievable. Integrating time, space, culture, and ecology with the many recorded observations of an animal species in one broad region offers more than the demonstration of a time-honored geographical approach. Reconstructing an interrelationship reaching back into time raises issues about the normative place of Homo sapiens at the top of the food chain and the need for a common groundwork of explanation that links humans to the same biological processes as the rest of life on earth. The geographical imagination, adept at converging natural history and culture history, can contribute to this project by identifying, collating, and analyzing inchoate topics into an intelligible process and pattern. Debates surrounding land and life can often be clarified when place and temporality frame the connectiveness of phenomena.


Aside from anything this creature does, the spotted hyena stands out for its singular appearance: Heavy shoulders, sloping back, large head, and wide mouth make this animal seem larger than its actual weight of 50 to 90 kilograms. Upper and lower premolar teeth in those heavily muscled jaws form a powerful pair of shears. Forelimbs longer than the hind legs produce a lumbering gait that, together with luminescent eyes, adds to its fearsome reputation (Figure 1). A dozen distinctive vocalizations allow communication within and between clans in this most social of species in the order Carnivora. An eerie whoop call and a sound that resembles the laugh of a demented person are the two tonalities that wildlife watchers invariably remark upon. Humans also comment on its purported offensive odor, although it is not clear how much of that comes from glandular secretions, feeding habits, or the practice of rolling in strong-smelling regurgitated material.

Most unusual for a mammalian species is its sexual mimicry: Not only is the clitoris of the female similar to the penis of the male in size, shape, and erectile ability, it also has a urogenital function and doubles as a birthing canal. Cross-gender resemblance advanced a widespread belief going back to Classical Antiquity that this animal was either hermaphroditic or capable of changing its sex from year to year. Even though close observation disproved those ancient assertions, current folklore about the spotted hyena revolves around similar suppositions. Stephen Gould (1981) explained physiognomic convergence of the sexes as a case of accidental evolution, whereas Martin Muller and Richard Wrangham (2002) interpreted it as an evolutionary adaptation of females directing their aggression more toward females than to males. Fierce behavior may start in the den when a stronger cub kills its weaker sibling (Frank, Glickman, and Licht 1991). Unlike other mammals, female spotted hyenas are larger and more aggressive than their male counterparts. Their different characteristics together have prompted Africans to judge them negatively (Schwartz 2005). Scientists who have studied them agree that these animals are intelligent and adaptable (Kruuk 1972; Glickman 1995).

Most studies of the spotted hyena have come from research in East Africa, where the animal is a conspicuous carnivore in an ecosystem that features a large ungulate biomass (Kruuk 1972). …