A few weeks ago, I noted that in The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin made the case that early humans were prey rather than predators. Now I've read a new book on the subject: Donna Hart and Robert W. Sussman, Man the Hunted (Westview, 2005). The book's title is a bit misleading because it concentrates on primates other than modern man. Nevertheless, it was good to be reminded of the circumstances under which our hominid ancestors lived. Seven million years ago and until recently, our diminutive forbears were forest dwellers who were pursued by huge crocodilians, outsized eagles, packs of hunting dogs, a variety of giant cats, and hyenas the size of modern lions who had jaws strong enough to crunch human skulls in a single bite.
And also man-eating snakes. In the course of their discussion of snakes, the authors of Man the Hunted report on the instructions provided to early African missionaries on the proper response to pythons. (A 25-foot-long reticulated python can weigh up to 300 pounds.)
Remember not to run away; the python can run faster. The thing to do is to lie flat on the ground on your back with your feet together, arms to the sides and head well down. The python will then try to push its head under you, experimenting at every possible point. Keep calm, one wiggle and he will get under you, wrap his coils round you and crush you to death. After a time the python will get tired of this and will probably decide to swallow you without the usual preliminaries. He will very likely begin with one of your feet. Keep calm. You must let him swallow your foot. It is quite painless and will take a long time. If you lose your head and struggle he will quickly whip his coils around you. If you keep calm, he will go on swallowing. Wait patiently until he has swallowed about up to your knee. Then carefully take out your knife and insert it into the distended side of his mouth and with a quick rip slit him up.
Well-meant advice, I'm sure, but perhaps difficult to follow. Suppose you're just not in the mood to allow the python such liberties with your person. Suppose you've forgotten to bring your knife; suppose the python decides to start with your head rather than a foot. Suppose you involuntarily wiggle just a teensy bit. Suppose you just don't feel that it's a good day to be engulfed.
I think that, on the whole, running away and screaming at the top of your lungs is a more sensible reaction. But then again, I never signed up to be a missionary.