memes & primate distribution

Bill Benzon (
Sun, 5 Sep 1999 19:39:56 -0400

Message-Id: <>
Date: Sun, 5 Sep 1999 19:39:56 -0400
From: (Bill Benzon)
Subject: memes & primate distribution

Fellow students of cultural evolution,

You will find two messages below. The first is one where I ask a question
about the geographic distribution of primates. The second is an answer by
the distinguished naturalist, Prof. Valerius Geist.

It seems to me that this exchange gets to the very heart of memetics, for
it is, in effect, about the adaptive problem which is solved by the
emergence of human culture, that is, culture beyond what we see in apes.
Without such culture primates could not survive beyond the tropics. We can
(and have) babble about the definition of memes until we are blue in the
face, but if we can't solve the problem implied in this pair of emails, the
talk is absolutely worthless.

Bill B

>>A number of years ago I read an observation (I forget where) I thought
>>rather striking. While many mammalian taxa (e.g. cats) have managed to
>>establish species in a wide range of climates, the higher primates have
>>not. They are tropical animals, EXCEPT for us. What is it about the
>>monkey & ape lifestyle that makes it impossible for them to live outside
>>the tropics? Why does it take human culture to allow a primate to break
>>out of the tropics?
>>Bill B


>Dear Bill,
>Yes, I think I can answer the questions you pose.
>I have explained it as follows: the great ecological barrier to primates, but
>not to ungulates and carnivores, is the steppe - grassy plains without trees.
>It confines and limits primates in distribution mercilessly. If you crash that
>barrier, and only if you crash that barrier, can you colonize the temperate
>zones, and later the cold, periglacial, alpine and arctic landscapes. Evolving
>through that barrier transformed us profoundly. Before that, we were apes,
>thereafter, humans.
>The difficulties a large-bodied primate faces in confronting the steppe are
>two fold: the inability to satisfy the demands of the long gestation and even
>longer lactation period by feeding off surface-food resources. Secondly, the
>problems of security in the absence of trees - the universal escape terrain of
>primates from carnivores. Lets look at the first problem.
>In the Savannah - grassy plains with trees and shrubs - feeding on surface
>vegetation and all it contains, can be carried out for 12 months of the year,
>provided the surface feeding large primate can follow the green-up of
>shrinking shallow ponds and lakes during the dry season. Over most of the
>savannah the female can maintain sufficent food intake to support gestatio or
>lactation 12 months of the year, by surface feeding
>That is impossible in the steppe. Here the surface parts of plants dry out in
>the dry season. To get at the plant resources during the dry season requires
>to go underground, to access tubers, roots and corms. That triggers, on one
>hand, the use of tools to get through the very hard soil surface, and the use
>of tools - stones - to make tools (digging sticks from - very hard, thorny -
>wood), and on the other hand it triggers a protein subsidy to the gestating or
>lactating female by the male (hunting), because the subterranean plant parts
>are adequate in all but the vital master nutrients - protein and fats. Without
>access to subterranean plant-parts and the above- ground protein sources a
>large-bodied primate is stopped cold by the steppe in the long, dry season.
>The second dilemma, of course, is how to survive during the night on the
>ground, because of the absence of trees. The solution resides originally in
>the chimp-like ancestor of humans making tree-nests. This capacity, refined
>and advanced to make - on the ground - a domed nest from thorny branches, is
>the basic solution to the security dilemma at night. It too requires the use
>of tools to obtain thorny branches large enough to commence the construction.
>This anti-predator solution is enhanced by vocal mimicry of predator threat
>sounds, and the ability to jab with a sharp stick hypochondriac predators. I
>gather that this solution works today quite well against large African
>Now let me back-peddle a little. The origin of subterranean feeding lies not
>in the steppe, but in the Savannah, in the australopithecine primate following
>the green-flush at the edge of the drying-up ponds and lakes in the dry
>season. Here the sprouting plants can be pulled out of the soft, muddy soil -
>nutritious roots included. Secondly, all sort of edible critters are trying to
>hibernate in the mud. Digging can be rewarding. Just what one can uproot and
>dig up I must leave to colleagues who go to Africa. Moreover, the notion of
>hidden food sources, once realised, opens up the food-rich intertidal zones
>along oceans to foraging by the lucky primate. A U.of Toronto nutritionist had
>some interesting things to say about this a few days ago on CBC radio (Quirks
>and Quarks). All, but the back-peddling, is in my 1978 book "Life Strategies,
>human evolution, environmental design" (Springer Verlag, New york). This
>includes the idea, that large primates, compared to ungulates or carnivores
>are confined to the tropics - man excluded.
>Very best regards,
>Val Geist

William L. Benzon 201.217.1010
708 Jersey Ave. Apt. 2A
Jersey City, NJ 07302 USA

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