Among the Bone Eaters
Encounters with Hyenas in Harar
Marcus Baynes-Rock, Foreword by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
Among the Bone Eaters
Encounters with Hyenas in Harar
Marcus Baynes-Rock, Foreword by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
“[This] book is nothing short of amazing.”
- Table of Contents
- Sample Chapters
Listen to an interview with Marcus Baynes-Rock about his experiences with the hyenas of Harar from WBUR’s Here and Now here.
Visit Marcus Baynes-Rock’s website Hyenas in Harar.
At the start of his research in Harar, Baynes-Rock contended with difficult conditions, stone-throwing children, intransigent bureaucracy, and wary hyena subjects intent on avoiding people. After months of frustration, three young hyenas drew him into the hidden world of the Sofi clan. He discovered the elements of a hyena’s life, from the delectability of dead livestock and the nuisance of dogs to the unbounded thrill of hyena chase-play under the light of a full moon. Baynes-Rock’s personal relations with the hyenas from the Sofi clan expand the conceptual boundaries of human-animal relations. This is multispecies ethnography that reveals its messy, intersubjective, dangerously transformative potential.
“[This] book is nothing short of amazing.”
“I shouldn’t say that I envy Marcus for his intimacy with hyenas, because intimacy is the world’s best way of gaining knowledge of an animal, and there’s no such thing as too much knowledge about hyenas. Instead, I should acknowledge the deep gratitude I feel, and that all of us should feel, about this work that he’s done and the possibilities it offers. If we knew all animals as he knows hyenas, we’d save the world.”
“Among the Bone Eaters is a fascinating read. Most readers will be surprised to learn about the very close, reciprocal, and mutually beneficial relationships that have evolved between resident carnivorous spotted hyenas and people in Harar—and how overcoming fear led to enduring friendships. This book touches on a very timely topic, namely, human-animal relationships (anthrozoology) in a human-dominated world in which these sorts of encounters are not only inevitable but also essential to understanding.”
“This is a compelling account of the intersecting worlds of humans and hyenas in a shared architectural landscape. Baynes-Rock shares with us his intimate experiences developing social relations with hyenas as well as humans, thereby confounding distinctions between ethology and ethnography. By extending anthropology’s intersubjective approach to nonhumans, he explores the overlapping dynamics of hyena and human lifeworlds, producing a work that will undoubtedly make a significant contribution to the emerging field of multispecies ethnography.”
“Through a rich narrative, filled with the people, events, sights, and sounds of the distant city of Harar, we are invited to share space, place, and time with the least likely compatriot for humans: the spotted hyena. Marcus Baynes-Rock guides us into a world that is simultaneously strange and familiar, and we leave transformed. This book is great anthropology, a great story, and most importantly—it will change the way you think about being human with other animals.”
“Among the Bone Eaters isn’t precisely a natural history of the spotted hyena, nor is it precisely an ethnography of the Harari. Instead, it’s an utterly remarkable combination of the two, a portrait of a human community forging a working relationship with Africa’s second-largest carnivore.”
“Among the Bone Eaters is a probing look at the complex relationship between humans and wild animals. . . . Baynes-Rock’s immersive account is told with sharp-eyed, self-effacing prose, and he leaves nothing out—Ethiopia’s sluggish bureaucracy, the town’s maze-like geography, and even the Oromo woman he meets and eventually marries. It’s as much a travelogue as it is a research study.”
“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.”
“Among the Bone Eaters will appeal to a general audience interested in learning more about hyenas and the subtle aspects of their interactions with humans as well as to professional anthropologists and ethnographers.”
“Remarkable. . . . This is a delightful book, full of fascinating portraits of humans and hyenas in a remote corner of the world where ancient lines of animosity are blurred.”
Marcus Baynes-Rock is a research associate with the University of Notre Dame. He divides his time between Indiana, Ethiopia, and northern New South Wales, where he lives with his wife and baby daughter.
Foreword by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
1 Past Finding Around Harar
2 Lines of Reason for Hyenas
3 Between Different Relations
4 You Hyenas
5 The Legend of Ashura
6 On the Tail of a Hyena
7 Encounters with the Unseen
8 Reflections from a Hyena Playground
9 Death, Death, and Rhetoric
10 Blood of the Hyena
11 Across a Human/Hyena Boundary
12 A Host of Other Ideas
13 Returning to Other Hyenas
14 Talking Up Hyena Realities
15 Looking Through a Hyena Hole
I followed the old man up a rickety staircase, taking care not to put too much weight on any steps that were split or rotten. He led me along a deteriorating hallway to room number 7. A second-floor room with a single digit number is not unusual in Harar; the preceding number 1 had either fallen off or been unscrewed long ago, and its shadow had faded almost completely to the overall color of the door. The hotel clerk shoved it open and I dragged my bag through the doorway. I was greeted with an aesthetic slap in the face. There was a swarm of flies staging a circuit race beneath a ceiling fan that had ceased working when electricity was invented. The bed looked like it was stolen from an orphanage, after which time the original sheets had been removed in favor of a soiled set. The clerk gesticulated toward the bathroom and I went to see. I should have been more explicit at the front desk when I asked if there was a bathroom; I should have asked if there was a bathroom with running water. A small bucket sat beside the toilet, while opposite, the shower floor lay hidden beneath a layer of dried grime. It had been a long while since that shower had seen anything other than cockroaches disappearing down its drain. The clerk decided that he had no further reason to be there, so without a word he turned and walked out, leaving me to sit on the bed watching flies race around my head. Staring numbly at the stained walls, I called into question everything I had done over the past five years.
It was during the course of my honors year that I unwittingly set myself on a path to Harar. At the time, I was studying evolutionary relationships between humans and large carnivores and how these were reflected in modern humans. Because of this, I needed to find out as much as I could about large carnivore ecology, and that included reading up on hyenas. It was then that I found an intriguing passage in a seminal work on spotted hyenas by Hans Kruuk: “Only rarely are the scavenging habits of hyenas viewed with gratitude, and the most interesting example I know is the town of Harar in Ethiopia, where they walk in the streets without being molested. Occasionally they are even fed by the inhabitants and they become extremely tame.”
Kruuk’s account of Harar describes an exception to a rule: hyenas are not well liked. In general, hyenas are loathed, vilified, feared, derided, persecuted, and, where people have the wherewithal, eradicated. Time and again I encounter negativity when I tell people about my research. They can’t resist telling me how hyenas are disgusting or ugly, and they question why I’d bother studying such a hideous beast. This is a little unusual for a large carnivore; other species of this order evoke awe, admiration, and adoration, at least among people whose livelihoods are not affected by livestock predation. Even wolves have overcome public relations challenges of the highest order to enjoy a mystical fondness in the eyes of those whose forebears once sought their extinction. But spotted hyenas are something altogether different: they draw the ire of Westerners as easily as that of the locals, and few ever question why this second-largest of Africa’s carnivores should so excite people’s prejudices. Those who do raise this question wind up scratching their heads. Under the light of cultural analyses, the reasons for people’s strong, almost fanatical antipathy become lost in the emulsion of comparison with other species. But there’s something we’re missing here. These modern attitudes are in fact germinated and grown out of the detritus of human/hyena evolutionary history. Hyenas are the old enemy. Both of our species bear the marks of millions of years of hyena predation on humans and conflict over resources. There are some unsettled scores scratched in the backs of our respective psyches.
More than four million years ago, when our arboreal ancestors thought they might do well fossicking for food on the ground, they put themselves in the path of ancestral hyenas. The hyenas soon began crunching the bones of our diminutive bipedal ancestors, favoring freshly killed specimens over desiccated carcasses. Indeed, the efficiency with which hyenas demolish carcasses is a major reason why fossil evidence of the origins of our species is so scarce on the ground. Were it not for the bone-crushing capabilities of hyenas, skeletal evidence of human evolution would be everywhere. Instead, much of the story of human origins and human/hyena coexistence has been consumed, leaving only tantalizing traces of clues. Here, a collection of teeth that survived an ancient hyena’s digestive juices; there, footprints in cemented volcanic dust where hominins and hyenas crossed paths. What scant evidence there is of the first few million years indicates a somewhat one-sided relationship in which hyenas benefited from the presence of elusive but edible primates. But that relationship was transformed when those primates’ descendants acquired a taste for the marrow of freshly killed medium-sized ungulates. At that point in prehistory, our ancestors cut in on hyenas’ ancestral turf.
Enter Homo habilis. The appellation Homo confers a nonanimalness; these hominins are the first of our line to be considered and designated human. While comparatively small in stature, Homo habilis were well endowed with manual dexterity and tenacity; they modified stone cobbles and used the flakes and cores to process the carcasses of freshly killed ungulates over which they competed with hyenas. At least this is the origin story that comes to us from the fossil assemblages of Olduvai Gorge. While limited geographically and temporally, one assemblage of bones at Olduvai—FLK Zinjanthropus—paints an intriguing picture of an ancient coming together of meat eaters. Scratched into the bones are carnivore tooth marks overscored with cut marks from stone tools overscored with yet more carnivore tooth marks. Considerable debate surrounds the taphonomic processes evidenced by the marks, but the simplest explanation is that large carnivores killed the prey, after which hominins and hyenas competed for the lipid-rich marrow contained in the bones. Needless to say, this was a direct imposition on the adaptive niche of hyenas and a direct challenge to hyenas’ dominion over the dead. Homo habilis adopted carnivory, becoming, as David Quammen said, “more human by acting like hyenas,” competing over the bodies of hoofed animals and establishing sour relations with hyenas for millions of years to come.
Current evidence suggests that at the Plio-Pleistocene boundary, around 1.8 million years ago, the ranges of hyenas and hominins expanded into the Eurasian landmass. This concurrent dispersal from Africa of some adaptable hominins and some giant hyenas of the genus Pachycrocuta was no coincidence; the two were intrinsically linked to the movements of saber-toothed cats who left large quantities of scavengeable flesh and bones for which hominin and hyaenid scavengers competed. The members of this predator/scavenger guild came to occupy the entire Eurasian landmass, from modern-day Ireland to Mongolia, from Germany to Java. In combination with the already established spotted hyenas, these meat and bone eaters established a continuous human/hyena presence that persisted through dynamic climate changes and variable faunal compositions until the end of the Pleistocene ten thousand years ago. By that time, modern humans had even made art of spotted hyenas in ochre and antler. This is not to say that humans tolerated their subjects; the appearance of modern humans in Europe coincided with the rapid disappearance of hyenas. Mary Stiner suggests that wolves outcompeted hyenas in newly forested environments, but let us not discount the capacity of the bipedal ape to shove other species aside. Just prior to ten thousand years ago, spotted hyenas disappeared from Europe and Asia. A dwarfed variant emerged in the Middle East, perhaps representing a last effort to adapt and persist, before spotted hyenas completely disappeared from the lands beyond the African continent.
Under the shadow of millions of years of conflict, is it any wonder that relations between humans and hyenas in Africa are generally strained? No wonder, considering how our two species have such large range requirements and the same fondness for cows, goats, and sheep. Competition between humans and hyenas over livestock resulted in the complete eradication of spotted hyenas from southern Africa, their extinction in several other countries, and the contraction of their range all over the continent. Despite numbering twenty to forty thousand in Africa, current circumstances and the general trend indicate that hyenas are on their way out.
The way that hyenas comport themselves doesn’t help their cause. Their times of greatest activity, vocalizations, physical attributes, and ecologies combine with people’s fears and prejudices to produce some extremely negative conceptions. Often, hyenas are associated with what are called witches. Hyenas’ nocturnal habits, humanlike giggles, and propensity to exhume and consume human corpses make them obvious companions to people who use supernatural means to malevolent ends. Often, the hyenas are believed to do the bidding of witches, bringing home fresh human meat, or else they are ridden through the night sky with flames shooting out of their anuses. In some places, witches transform themselves into hyenas and prowl around at night looking for victims to eat. In this respect, killing a hyena is not always about pest control. It is a way of killing or disempowering malevolent humans.
Beyond the association with witches, hyenas’ necrophagy is dangerous in other ways. Where people dispose of the dead by leaving them out for hyenas to consume, a hyena’s defecating in the village—returning the dead to the living—can be a serious concern. Hyenas also prey on the living. They attack people sleeping outdoors in the hot summer months, or they break into huts and tents and drag their victims away to be eaten. They are especially adept at preying on children, and unfortunately for the victims, the usual method of attack is to bite the face. Even when children survive, they bear the scars of the attack for the rest of their lives; they are walking reminders of the dangerous creatures lurking outside the village.
Hyenas are also loathed and derided for their confusing sexuality; the enlarged genitalia of the females lead people to see them as hermaphrodites. And hyenas are a joke, a hated joke. African folktales consistently portray them as loathsome, greedy, and above all stupid. No doubt their appearance influences such conceptions. Ungainly heads, perched on the ends of overly long necks, bob up and down as they lope off into the long grass; falsetto voices call out to nowhere in particular, while hard feet designed for long-distance running slip out from under their bodies on wet surfaces. During a safari in Kenya, Ernest Hemingway shot a hyena who tumbled to the ground and tore at her wound. He gave an account of the reaction of his Kenyan guide:
“Fisi,” M’Cola would say and shake his head in delighted sorrow at there being such an awful beast. Fisi, the hyena, hermaphroditic, self-eating devourer of the dead, trailer of calving cows, ham-stringer, potential biter-off of your face at night while you slept, sad yowler, camp-follower, stinking, foul, with jaws that crack the bones the lion leaves, belly dragging, loping away on the brown plain, looking back, mongrel dog-smart in the face; whack from the little Mannlicher and then the horrid circle starting. “Fisi,” M’Cola laughed, ashamed of him, shaking his bald black head. “Fisi. Eats himself. Fisi.”
And yet there remained Kruuk’s account of Harar: a town where hyenas walked the streets at night and were “encouraged by the local population,” a town where men sat outside the town wall at night, handing scraps of meat to hyenas. It was an inconspicuous passage, but it stuck in my mind. When the time came for me to plan my doctoral research, I was interested in large carnivores and antipredator adaptations in humans. While I thought I should at some stage go to Harar and collect some limited data on attitudes toward hyenas, it was my honors coordinator, Marcus Barber, who thought this was worth a bit more of my attention. He convinced me to write a research proposal for a dedicated ethnographic study of hyenas and humans in Harar. At the same time, Macquarie University’s Centre for Research on Social Inclusion made a scholarship available for doctoral research into human/animal relations. My proposal fit nicely with what they were looking for, so under the supervision of Debbie Rose, I began making plans to spend a year in Harar doing ethnographic research on people and hyenas. It’s funny the places life takes you.
As far as ethnographic research goes, Harar is a pretty good choice of field sites. Just north of the equator and 1,850 meters above sea level, the weather is near perfect. There is power, phone, internet, and banking to make things easier for the researcher. But over and above that, the Harari people are fascinating. They claim that Harar is the fourth-holiest city in Islam, after Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. Supporting their claim, eighty-eight mosques and 121 Sufi shrines are located within the half square kilometer that is Harar’s Old Town. The Harari people retain their own language, clothing style, architecture, and traditions amid a large population of settlers and settler descendants from among the eighty other ethnic groups in Ethiopia. In the Harari language, the town is known as Gey, meaning “the City,” and nearly everything associated with Harar is prefixed with gey to denote that it is “of the city.” Hararis are gey usu, the Harari language is gey sinan, local baskets are gey mot, houses are gey gar, and indeed the local hyenas are gey waraba. These last seem incongruous, though, in a modernized city with a population of a hundred thousand and a history dating back more than a thousand years.
In the accounts of Harar by various writers since the nineteenth century, the hyenas often lurk in the shadows, carnivorous functionaries appearing here and there but never central to the texts. Both Richard Burton and Philipp Paulitschke, who visited Harar in the nineteenth century, mentioned the presence of hyenas. Burton’s mention sits within an account that reads as a precolonial reconnaissance mission on behalf of an expanding empire. Alongside his description of Harar’s inadequate defenses and of a populace needing a colonial power to step in and save them from themselves, Burton wrote that the hyenas in Harar were “lured” into the town, after which the gates were closed behind them and they were “safely speared,” a pest easily eradicated according to the fashion of the era. Paulitschke related his own experience of hunting hyenas in the hills around Harar. He was told that in times of famine, hyenas entered into the town and attacked people in the streets. Paulitschke also described how emirs in former times organized hunts, not to kill hyenas but to “worry” or “dislodge” (beunruhigen) them from their hiding places.
Later, in the 1960s, Wolf Leslau compiled and translated some accounts of Harar written by Harari men attending the University of Addis Ababa. In an account of Harar’s hyenas, one of Leslau’s informants relates that the hyenas emerged from their dens at night and ruled the land outside the town’s defensive wall. Whether they entered the town at night is not clear. The compilation also includes an account of the festival of Ashura and the tradition of feeding porridge to hyenas during the celebrations.
The most recent mention of hyenas in an ethnographic account of Harar comes from Camilla Gibb, who conducted fieldwork there in 1994. Gibb wrote that Hararis regarded the hyena as a “curious sort of half brother, half wild, half civilized, roaming the hills around the city yet familiar with the tangled streets of the town.” She also wrote about the practice of feeding hyenas in Harar. There was a man who entertained paying tourists by feeding scraps of food to hyenas at a place just outside the town wall. According to Gibb, the practice was sold as a tradition but was really only a money-making venture. If there were no tourists at the feeding place, the hyenas were not fed.
I didn’t realize it at first, but my decision to include hyenas in an ethnography made for some unexpected theoretical and methodological challenges. Anthropology by definition is the study of humans, and anthropology’s tool kit—ethnography—is designed for recording and interpreting the beliefs and behaviors of humans—and only humans. Traditionally, animals feature in ethnographies as things that people hunt, eat, ride, think about, or use as symbols; they are almost never considered as participating members of human societies.
In the early 1990s, the Dutch anthropologist Barbara Noske criticized this state of affairs. She argued that representations of animals in anthropology were drawn from assumptions based on biobehavioral accounts rather than firsthand empirical observations. Noske called for an anthropological approach to the study of animals. She argued that an “inter-subjective non-reductionist” approach was necessary before social scientists could decide what animals were or were not. Furthermore, the field of anthropology, with its intersubjective methods of understanding, was well situated to adopt such an approach.
After deciding on balance to include hyenas as members of the society that I was studying, I immediately encountered difficulties. It turned out that I had to apply for two sets of ethics approval and get two sets of permission—one for human research and one for wildlife research. I also had to come up with some research questions that pertained to relations between humans and hyenas. I struggled with that for some considerable time before letting it go. I was faced with the difficult task of collecting data from two different species and bringing those data together in a dissertation with some kind of theoretical underpinning, when there was no established theory other than Noske’s call to “bring in the animals.” I also needed some kind of methodology. Normally, biologists follow hyenas around in vehicles making observations, but even if I could have included a four-wheel-drive vehicle in my budget, it would have been useless. Of the hundreds of lanes and roads in Harar’s Old Town, only five are wide enough to allow the passage of vehicles. In the farmland outside Harar, gullies, woods, streams, and thorn hedges break up the landscape, making it traversable only on foot. While I was struggling with methodology, I was given a timely copy of Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s book The Hidden Life of Dogs. In order to gain insight into the nocturnal movements and activities of a dog named Misha, Marshall Thomas simply followed her subject around the neighborhood with a notebook. This sounded like it could work. I could spend a lot of time at the place where hyenas were being fed for tourists and habituate them to the point where they’d let me follow them around Harar recording my observations.
To that end I packed a bag full of technology for making nocturnal observations, recording interviews, and taking notes on the fly. I brought a handheld voice recorder, a flashlight, a camcorder with night-vision capability, an infrared searchlight, a night-vision monocular, a laptop with external memory, a tripod, and an SLR camera with three lenses suited to varying degrees of closeness. I think that if the customs officers at Addis Ababa airport had bothered to inspect my bags, they would have arrested me for spying. I had neither intention nor sufficient training to use tranquilizer darts and radio collars. While I can understand how radio collars and receivers make it extremely easy to locate hyenas, and how GPS devices provide very revealing data that would otherwise be almost impossible to obtain, I have reservations about imposing a device on an animal who would rather not have to wear it. There were also cultural issues I needed to consider; in light of what I had read in other ethnographies, putting a collar around the neck of a hyena might have been offensive to some people in Harar.
So it was that with a suitcase full of equipment and very little else, I stepped out of Dire Dawa airport into the dry heat of the Rift Valley. After the temperate vegetation in Addis, the acacia trees surrounding Dire Dawa appear almost as an African cliché. Whereas cold and rainy Addis seems anomalous, you really feel like you are in the stereotypical Africa when you arrive in Dire Dawa. The airport terminal is a sparse building in the style of the 1960s, complemented by the old Peugeot taxis waiting in the car park for the infrequent flights to arrive. I shared a taxi with a local doctor who was being stationed in a rural clinic, and went to a hotel where I left my bags. Before I traveled on to Harar, I had to visit the immigration department and apply for a residence permit, so I rode a three-wheeled “Bajaj” taxi through the tree-lined streets to the first of many frustrating and inevitably fruitless encounters with Ethiopian bureaucracy. After being told that I could not have a permit but could “simply” return every month and have my business visa renewed, I collected my bags and went to the bus station, from which I could get a minibus to Harar.
The minibus from Dire Dawa to Harar ascends a mountain range and crosses a verdant plateau to its eastern edge, whereupon Harar sits on a rocky spur. In my ignorance of what was standard practice, I protested that the minibus I was on was overcrowded and insisted on being let off to take another. My protest was greeted with much hilarity as the ticket collector slid the door shut and we were off. Consequently, I glimpsed only parts of the journey through the spaces between the bodies of my fellow sardines. I saw wattle-and-daub huts lining the roads, alongside which little earth-dusted children played; men whacked oxen with sticks as they carved furrows with wooden ploughs roped to the necks of the beasts; women balanced handwoven baskets on their heads as they followed their donkeys to market. It was like a journey into the Middle Ages on a minibus, but with modernity tacked on in all sorts of places. The women talked into mobile phones as they marched along; some of the wattle-and-daub huts had shiny tin roofs, and the children played with the lids of Coca-Cola bottles.
Arriving in Harar, I was ejected from the crowded minibus like a cork. I immediately looked to the roof of the vehicle and was amazed to see my bag where I expected to see only a dangling rope. It took three of us to drag the bag down from the roof successfully, and I wondered how much of the technological contents had survived the journey. I was already beginning to draw the attention of the locals, and I’d only been on the ground a few seconds. Some children prodded me and a leper waved the stump of his wrist in my face. I pretended to ignore them and hailed a taxi, asking the driver of the old Peugeot to take me to the Tewodros Hotel. I had read good things about this hotel. It was close to the Old Town, it had bathrooms, and it was relatively cheap. I was optimistic, even when I found reception a dingy office with a table and little else. I waited a few minutes in the office until a dusty-looking clerk emerged from the bar and went solemnly behind his desk. When I inquired about a room, he regarded me with a mixture of suspicion and pity. He shrugged his shoulders, told me the price, and led me upstairs to my room of flies. As I said, it’s funny the places life takes you.
Also of Interest
Subscribe to our mailing list and be notified about new titles, journals and catalogs.