Out of Bounds

The Dawn of Man

Our tool making has created a world of luxury and overproduction that threatens our own existence, as well as the world that sustains us

By Rob Breeding

The students at school started a film club this fall and hosted their first theater showing last week: “2001: A Space Odyssey.” It’s an old favorite of mine.

If you’re rolling your eyes recollecting the time you saw it, sleeping through much of the midnight showing at the old cineplex, I get it. While the film has long been considered director Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, for lengthy stretches it is tedious and incomprehensible. 

Yet it can also be profound and beautiful, hinting at some insight into the emergence of humanity and our rise from simple primates into the naked apes that now dominate the known universe.

“Space Odyssey” begins somewhere out on the African savanna, eons before the year 2001. There’s not a spaceship in sight, though there are bands of protohumans, scratching a meager existence from the dusty landscape. 

Then the leader of one of these prehistoric bands, “Moonwatcher,” has a startling revelation inspired by a black monolith that appears before his clan at sunrise. It’s a moment that leads directly, though after considerable interval, to the orange- and camo-clad hunters you’ll see in the coming weeks swarming out across the contemporary American West.

The monolith is alien. It communicates something to Moonwatcher — not through some sort of radio waves or transmission, but instead his insight seems the result of a primitive brain for the first time contemplating the feel of a smooth, right-angled, tooled surface. Humanity’s trajectory is reset. 

Soon after, Moonwatcher picks at a skeleton in the dirt, eyes a femur, and as Strauss’ “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” builds in the background, brings the heavy bone down on a bleached skull, shattering it.

And thus, the first “hominid” hunter is born.

The tool allows the clan to kill for food tapirs that they previously lived alongside, peacefully. They gorge on the energy-dense meat and Moonwatcher’s gang soon becomes the baddest bullies at the water hole. 

We’ll never know precisely what happened in prehistoric times, but the folks who study this stuff say that adding meat to the hominid diet, first through scavenging, then hunting, provided the fuel required to produce the bulky mass of nerve tissue that is the modern human brain.

This brain is the most complex and consequential organ in the history of life on Earth. It’s also a byproduct of our carnivorous ways. This may infuriate some, but ancient hunters likely made modern vegans possible. One of the realities of modernity is that it allows the luxury of inefficient eating. 

I have nothing against vegans, though I suppose a world without cheese seems bleaker to me than Moonwatcher’s dusty savanna. Many of our modern eating habits are really luxuries of surplus. Vegetarians stop eating meat, the food that made humans, while vegans set aside animal products altogether.

All of us are hunters at our core, however. It’s coded in us.

The camo-clad crowd has its own indulgences. Soon, my dogs and I will venture out on the chukar grounds, hunting birds for food. There’s no efficiency here. The cost of my shotgun alone would cover more seasons’ worth of rotisserie chickens than I care to admit.

I don’t think Kubrick’s point was to suggest Moonwatcher’s aha moment, this discovery of tools, would necessarily result in excess and waste. He had something else in mind. In “Space Odyssey” he seems to grasp feverishly for some existential explanation of being.

Artists try to explain while most of us are content to simply exist.

Our tool making has created a world of luxury and overproduction that threatens our own existence, as well as the world that sustains us.

It’s a wonderful thing, this largest brain on the savanna. Still, I wonder. Are we up to it?