Exactly when we abandoned life in the trees is still a hotly debated topic in the scientific community, but it would seem from the analysis of the fossilized wrist bones of our most likely direct ancestor, Australopithecus afarensis, that somewhere between 3.5 and 4.2 million years ago we began to lack the kind of bone structure necessary for arboreal existence and started to exhibit the physiology of a bi-pedal ground dwelling primate. We brought with us a number of adaptations from our time in the trees, the most remarkable of which was our incredible eyesight. In fact, in the animal kingdom, it is really only raptors (birds of prey) who have superior eyesight to homo sapiens.
In her book The Fruit, The Tree, And The Serpent, anthropologist Lynne Isbell describes how this was the result of an “evolutionary arms race” between our mammalian progenitors and large predatory snakes. Over some seventy million years of co-evolution, our (much smaller) ancestors had become the exclusive prey of large constricting snakes, somewhat similar to today’s reticulated python. In order to survive ‘we’ developed awesome eyesight at the expense of our olfactory senses and became hyper-aware of the presence of serpentine forms, their body shapes, movements and markings. Our ancestors who did not develop this capacity most likely did not survive.
Being predated upon by fat, legless, tooth-filled tubes of horror, demands vigilance. And the perfect driver of vigilance is – fear. Fear is a part of the human condition. To be more precise, it’s part of the mammalian condition. It is most likely, a basal emotion – the emotion that all other emotions grew out of. Yes, fear is a handy thing to have when you’re a pathetic mammal in an environment teeming with reptilian predators. This is especially true for larger primates whose offspring are totally helpless and just loll around gurning on a branch for several years. Those ancestors who learned to fear snakes, and who were consequently more vigilant, enabled their offspring to survive at a greater rate that those who were not. In this way, fear wormed its way into our very being.
Thirty per cent of humans are still ‘phobic’ around snakes. That means that they will exhibit high levels of fear and disgust upon merely viewing a picture of a snake. Most of the remaining population, while not phobic, have a strongly inbuilt reaction to encountering a real snake, a phenomenon which neuroscientist Arne Öhman and psychologist Susan Mineka believe is a hardwired ‘fear module’ that was shaped for precisely that purpose. Humans (and other mammals like cats) seem to instinctively recoil from things that even roughly equate to the configuration of a snake. We don’t recoil from things that are the shape of large dogs because we haven’t needed to fear dogs for anywhere near as long as we have needed to fear snakes. (If you doubt this get any apparatus with tubular appendages, like a vacuum cleaner, and walk into your room with it and watch your cat go into paroxysms of paranoia). Öhman and Mineka describe this brain function as “a predatory-defence system originating in the fear of the exclusive predators of early mammals—snakes and reptiles.”
Dragons Are Real
It is tempting to believe that this battle with dragons is a thing of the past, but in the jungles of South East Asia things are much the same as they’ve always been. In 2011, a study of the Agta tribe (sometimes known as the Aeta) who live deep in the jungle of the Philippines found that twenty-six per cent of adult males had survived predation attempts by reticulated pythons and six fatal attacks had occurred between 1934 and 1973. There were even anecdotal reports of consumption (humans being eaten by a snake). Given that reticulated pythons in the area are commonly six metres in length, and that the Agta are usually around five feet tall, this should not have been particularly surprising. But nevertheless, these anecdotal reports were taken with a pinch of salt. Until 2017 that is, when a 25-year-old plantation worker from Sulawesi in Indonesia was found dead inside the belly of a 23-foot reticulated python. This disturbing revelation was captured live by dozens of mobile phone cameras and from multiple angles. Technology, it seems, has finally unearthed one of the most disconcerting truths to have been lost in the haze of our ancestral past. Big snakes eat humans!
But while this fact may have been doubted by any rational discourse on the matter, it was never doubted by our mythology. It does seem beyond coincidence that the dragon (a snake, effectively) has featured almost universally as the quintessential villain in all cultures and mythologies. Perhaps this is an example of Carl Jung’s archteypes at work. The idea that we retain certain ideas, imagistically, which were formed in our ancestral grounds and which are imprinted into our thinking and imagining systems. Perhaps these images and ideas are an automatic and unbidden output of a specific brain module like Öhman and Mineka’s predatory-defence system. Perhaps they are just cultural memes that were handed down orally and artistically for an extremely long time by hunter gatherers like the Agta. Memes which eventually found their way into all the world’s civilizations and cultural traditions from the ancient Chinese to the Aztecs to the Norse tribes.
Either way, we know this. The large predatory reptile has become a symbol of what must be surpassed. On the other side of it – lays treasure. The archetypal dragon is always the watchman of ‘treasures’. A Jungian take on this evolutionary psychology would say that the foundational treasure we gleaned from overcoming reptilian predators was the act of descending from the trees. The liberty to hit the ground and start moving around on the forest floor. This took balls, because presumably the risk of being grabbed by a reticulated python in the undergrowth was much higher than in the branches. If fear was what got us to take snakes seriously in the first place, then balls it what it took to push on further. At some point, some Chad-ape-pioneer ancestor must have run this gauntlet. This then presumably became a blueprint. We had to expand our environment beyond the forest; beyond the next hill; beyond the sea – and so on. And so it is that the reptile stands as the archetypal foe. To kill it, is to expand, and also, to free the tribe.
So where are the dragons of today? It is important to know this, because psychologically speaking, we need dragons. In fact, I would argue that it is the lack of dragons (opponents, foes, challenges) that is creating a mental health crisis (in men in particular). Perhaps now, they are mostly inside. Perhaps they are inner reptiles.