Book Review: Among the Bone Eaters; Encounters with Hyenas in Harar

imagesJust after nightfall, at the edge of the old city in Harar, Ethiopia, a small group of tourists gather in an area near an ancient shrine to wait for Africa’s second largest carnivore – the Spotted Hyena – to appear from the darkness. The tourists are not waiting behind any type of protective barrier. The hyenas are not under the control of any trainer or handler; they are genuinely wild and are coming toward the group in pursuit of the scraps of meat that sit in a large plastic bucket near a man who will, upon their arrival, feed them by hand and sometimes from the end of a short stick held between his teeth.

A mixture of social custom, religious practice, and lucrative tourist attraction, the practice of feeding the hyenas of Harar allowed Marcus Baynes-Rock, a post-doctoral anthropology scholar from the University of Notre Dame, the opportunity to study the inter-relation between the people and the hyenas of Harar in a way that no researcher is previously known to have done. His adventures as well as his discoveries are now collected in the fascinating new book Among the Bone Eaters; Encounters with Hyenas in Harar from Penn State University Press.

Long the stuff of nightmares, the Spotted Hyena is most certainly not an animal with which to trifle. Closer to cats than to dogs (and even closer still to mongoose than either one), the Spotted Hyenas found in northern Africa can reach up to 55 kg (and even up to 70 kg in southern Africa). These heavily muscled carnivores are renowned for their massive powerful jaws that can crush even the leg bones of large animals. They will eat anything they can catch or that stops moving long enough to allow them a firm bite. When attacking humans, they tend to make their first bite to the face. So why in the world would any sane person willingly sit on the ground with a bucket of meat scraps feeding them in a manner that brings their face to within inches of one’s own face?

The answer to that is, as might be expected, not a simple one – nor is it one that is easily explained. As Baynes-Rock slowly discovered, like so many things where humans are concerned, the process of seeking the answer is in many ways more the answer to the question than is anything that can be briefly put into words; or, to be even a bit more cryptic, the journey is more important than the destination. But before he lays out the events of his journey, Baynes-Rock presents the reader with a few intellectual “warm-up” exercises.

Hyenas awaiting their turn at a kill

Hyenas awaiting their turn at a kill. © Regina McNulty

Prior to becoming modern humans, our ancestors were first prey to, and then competitors for food with, such animals as hyenas. Upon achieving a bit of basic technology that gave us an edge over most potentially dangerous animals we encountered, we set about hunting most of them and eventually bringing a select few into our societal space as either help-mates or a source of more easily procured food. Yet today, we find ourselves craving the presence of animals in our lives. From sharing our homes with pets, to our fascination with zoos, to our pursuit of such past-times as hunting or bird watching, most of us derive pleasure from being near many of the creatures that we once either feared or hunted in order to survive. However it may not simply be a pleasant experience that we are seeking from being in the proximity of animals.

It’s at this point that Baynes-Rock begins to bring it what will become a string of many though-provoking – and in some cases, very challenging – ideas. From deep ecologist Paul Shepard’s contention that without wild Others “Homo industrialis is trapped in a perpetual adolescence” to philosopher Martin Buber’s “I-You” and “I-It” relationships, Among the Bone Eaters delves into some extraordinarily complex ideas. Some – including, admittedly, this reviewer – may find themselves at some point asking if such explorations into philosophical gymnastics are necessary in a book of natural history.

However as Baynes-Rock begins to unfold his adventures and discoveries among the people and hyenas of Harar, it becomes clear that indeed they are, for what he is trying to do is exactly what the entire purpose of the publisher’s Animalibus series, in which the book is included, seeks to achieve:

“Books in the series will share a fascination not only with the importance of animals in human life, but also with how thinking about animals can give us insights into human cultures, in different temporal and geographical contexts. Moreover, they will represent a wide range of disciplinary perspectives in the humanities and social sciences, including history, anthropology, social and cultural geography, environmental studies, and literary and art criticism. Books in the series […] will have a clear focus on learning something new about human cultures.”

One of the most intriguing “new [things] about human cultures” may perhaps be Baynes-Rock’s consideration of John Knight’s paradox, as outlined from Knight’s article “Making Wildlife Viewable: Habituation and Attraction” as published in Society and Animals, which “holds that the qualities of wild animals that make them attractive to tourists – their wildness, unpredictability, and tendency to avoid humans – are the very things that must be reduced in order to make viewing possible.” As this paradox underlies much of the global eco-tourism industry, as well as exists as a corollary to the wildlife conservation movement’s well known dictum stating that people don’t tend to value those creatures that they can’t see, the implications of it are profound indeed – and Baynes-Rock is to be commended for his astute inclusion of it in Among the Bone Eaters.

But if the hyenas are being studied under conditions in which they are not only being fed but seemingly have become habituated to such activity, are they still truly wild? And just how long has all this been going on in the first place? Is it truly an ancient practice unique to Harar or something new devised to fleece tourists? (This last is a very real conundrum, as an article from 1958, “Dinner Party with the Hyenas,” written by none other than Sylvia Pankhurst for the Ethopia Observer, stands as the earliest known written account of the feeding of hyenas near Harar.)

Like so much contained in Among the Bone Eaters, answers to such questions are not simple or clean-cut. The important thing to remember is that this is not a book just about hyenas or just about Hararis; it’s about both, all held together with its greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts third element of the curious and fascinating societal adaptations made by both parties that has enabled the humans and hyenas of Harar to live in balance together. Truly, it is a book quite unlike any other you’ve likely ever read.

Title: Among the Bone Eaters; Encounters with Hyenas in Harar

Author: Marcus Baynes-Rock; foreword by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

Publisher: Penn State University Press

Pages: 214 pp., 48 illustrations and 3 maps


John Riutta

John E. Riutta publishes The Well-read Naturalist, a site that publishes full length book reviews on a wide variety of natural history topics.  John is an avid naturalist with particular interests in birds, moths, bryophytes, and fish; interests he Read More
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