My Brother Esau

Over a first coffee, I was challenged this morning (this is why I love my job) about whether I would accord some kind of race-memory to the notion of the wild man. I am not at all sure we can go – at least, I am not sure I can go – too far down the Jungian byways here.  Forth, in Images of the Wildman which I discussed yesterday (and where I first encountered the word glabrous used of a human rather than a plant), argues that wild man images obscure our own visual methodology of early modern humans and non-European peoples. What we can be sure of is that earliest writings that still have (or, until recently, had) currency in defining such things are clear about body hair (see below). There is, in addition, already a body of archaeological evidence on how hairy first peoples in Europe were, elegantly and delicately described by Chris Stringer, in  Ch 6 of Origin of Our Species, and of whose deeper research work I am not a competent judge (although the relevant paper he cites by Reed et al has such a great title I had to include it: see below).

Sneaky-Is-Best leader (up there with many-scheming Odysseus) is the patriarch Jacob, who in Genesis 27 cheats his hairy brother out of a blessing. He is a smooth operator in many senses of the word, and hairy, stupid, red-faced Esau is invariably the loser in the aetiological stories of the sibling rivalry. While it would be nice to claim that this myth has about it the bones of a story about Homo Sapiens out-competing other hominins, we can’t do it: too long a time frame between history and the development of myth must exist, tempting though it might seem with Stringer’s account of the archaeology of the Middle East, and to suggest that the Wild Man stories give us Sasquatches and Big Bad Wolves takes it from improbable to impossible.

So we must look for a simpler explanation of the lure of hair and wildness.  All I think I’d really be prepared to do is to blame puberty and the individual differentiation that it brings. “We” (and there’s a whole argument to be looked at about who “we” are, from when to where) look at one another, recognise one another by all sorts of things and facial hair (and/or maybe body hair?) is part of this. And then we look at other animals – ones we eat or live with or compete with – and ask “why is Esau growing to look like a goat, a wolf or (in modern, maybe more positive parlance) an otter or a bear?” And there it is: we don’t need hairy Neanderthals loping inexpertly through the woods, or massive Australopithecene Yeti to make a link between the hairy human and the animal, although we might, as a sort of back-fill of an argument suggest that connection.

But I still want to know: never mind the body hair, why does our head hair grown and grow? Oh dear, RRH has started looking like Rapunzel.


Forth, G (2007) Images of the Wildman Inside and Outside. Folklore Vol 118 (December 2007): 261–281

Reed, D et al. (2007) Pair of Lice Lost or Parasite Regained: the Evolutionary History of Anthropoid Primate Lice, BioMedCentral Biology, vol 7.

Stringer, C (2011) The Origin of Our Species. London: Allen Lane

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