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Philippine Negritos with freshly killed reticulated python, twenty-three feet long and twenty-
six inches in circumference, at the headwaters of the Koso River in the Sierra Madre, Aurora
Province, Luzon, June 9, 1970. (Photo: T. & J. Headland)
Slow-moving, heavy-bodied snakes depend on camouflage and active defense to
avoid enemies, rather than crawling away. Once discovered, giant serpents are easily
killed with simple weapons, and not surprisingly (because snakes don't have toxic flesh),
people turn the tables and eat them too. Tom observed that the Agta routinely hunted
and consumed Philippine deer, Philippine warty pigs, long-tailed macaques, and retic-
ulated pythons, but not other snakes or domestic pigs. All adults had probably killed
at least one python, and occasionally they encountered large ones. The two hunters in
the photograph skinned and butchered that snake in less than an hour; assuming that
33 percent of her mass was usable, they thus obtained about fifty-five pounds of meat
for their group. Other Agta discovered a thirty-two-pound wild pig in the stomach of a
twenty-one-foot python they killed.
Tom's Agta were not in a general sense “primitive,” but his data provide a rare es-
timate of predation risk for hunter-gatherers and refute a widespread misconception.
Herpetologists had often claimed that snakes don't eat humans, but after all, indigenous
people in Africa, Asia, and South America are usually smaller than Western scientists. At
60 percent of a retic's weight, a hundred-pound Agta man would not be heavy, especially
for a serpent whose prey includes 130-pound pigs. Moreover, the eighteen unsuccessful
attacks and six fatalities amount to a traumatic incident in the group every year or two,
and deaths would have been more common a few centuries ago, before the advent of
metal weaponry. If python predation approached the incidence of unsuccessful attacks
on Agta, it would have exceeded the 8 percent of all male deaths that forest-dwelling
Paraguayan Aché incur from jaguars. 34
Anthropologists have long argued that predators influenced human evolution, and
some recently discovered australopithecine bones bear tooth marks from crocodiles
and mammalian carnivores. 35 As for snakes, although their few fossilized stomach con-
tents haven't included primates, Tom's data on hunter-gatherers similar in size to Lucy
and her kin are unequivocal. Pythons frequently attacked Negritos, and vice versa;
moreover, because big snakes observably ate deer, pigs, and monkeys, the humans
would have regarded them not just as predators and prey, but also as competitors. Until
recently, the Agta's lives were indeed complicated by multifaceted, dangerous ecologic-
al relationships with giant serpents. Moreover, as we have seen, other primates prey
upon and are killed by snakes—over its lifetime an individual retic might well eat tree-
shrews, tarsiers, macaques, gibbons, and people—all consistent with the notion that a
shared ancient heritage has inspired our dueling attitudes toward limbless reptiles.
About the same time as those Cornell connections were established I met an exception-
ally large snake while visiting the Bronx Zoo with my herpetology class. Samantha was
a reticulated python, wild caught as an adult and almost twenty-three feet long. She
had an enormous head, perhaps for having in youth eaten larger prey than her captive
fare of forty-pound piglets, and given inclination and opportunity she surely could have
swallowed me. I looked through the glass cage front and imagined her back in Borneo,
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