Illustration of early hominids fighting a pack of hyenas


I loved this illustration when I was a kid. I still do. It brought me closer to imagining life as a cave man than anything else I read or saw. It still does. The gazelle/ibex's tongue dragging across the dirt is a nice touch. I can't remember where this illustration first appeared but I know one of you do. Maybe one of those Time Life books? Who is the illustrator?



  1. Oh man, do I ever remember that illustration! It’s from the “Early Man” volume of the Time-Life Nature series, and if I had it to hand (unfortunately, it rests 385 miles to the south of me, in my parents’ house) I could give you the page number, and maybe even the illustrator.
    But don’t I remember this being in color? It certainly made a vivid impression on my badass nine-year old self, I can tell you. My friends and I loved those books.

  2. I remember those also.

    But also, those depictions where based on some racial prejudice. We didn’t know their hair type..but it’s always characterized as ‘kinky’, and skin type is black. Along with some ‘surprised’ looking characters at working of a simple day to day task. Portrayed as less than scavengers in this pic…as the scavengers had already arrived.

    1. Those are hyenas, which denotes Africa, which is where we all came from, which is probably why they’re depicted as black, which is therefore probably pretty accurate.

    2. “Less than scavengers?” I don’t know if you realize this, but Hyenas don’t wait for the hunter to leave before they try to take the kill. They’ll steal it from the hunter, piece by piece if necessary. So these hominids are defending their kill, not taking carrion from the Hyenas.

      As has already been covered, we were all black at one point. So showing our more distant ancestors as having black traits is not racism.

    3. Ummm sam1148, over analyze these things too much? Seeing as they are protohumans they had more body hair (like primates do today), they evolved in africa so they had dark skin (like people in tropics today), and they probably had kinky hair (like people in africa today). And how do you know it died next to the cave? It looks like they dragged it up the hill.

      You need to put your PC obsessions aside sometimes.

      This picture always reminded me of the start of the movie “2001”.

      dculberson, they may be competing with the hyenas over a kill they found. They may not have hunting tools yet.

  3. Swizzlebat beat me to it, but yes, it’s that awesome Time-Life Nature series! I remember this illustration, too!

    The whole series was excellent, if I remember. I think our family doctor had them and I’d read them when I went for checkups and getting stitched up from crashing my Stingray.

  4. This is like a mini story to me. The hominids on the far left is where they were earlier, middle is a few mins ago, and the guy on the right is just enjoying the reward. Either that this group has got ADD bad. Some are fighting off the hyenas, the middle group trying to scare/kill a hyena. I think in reality all eyes would be on the hyenas. Maybe I’ve thought about this scene too much and watched too many hours of nature programs. I should go to bed.

  5. It was a shock to be greeted by this first thing this morning. Thank you. It’s been over twenty years since I’ve seen it. It had quite an impact on my little mind, too. We must still have this book at my mother’s house. I have a feeling this is going to be the Number 1 reason, from everyone, that you may not get the illustrator’s name for a while yet.

    Regarding sam1148’s concerns, I would usually be among the first to jump on board and try to be careful about the context of images like this one. But I have to say, as I remember it, this was just a fantastic peek into what life could have, must have been like for our distant ancestors. If you accept the idea of evolution (as you probably would, with a book like this in your hands), then you were learning about history and science. Kinkiness of their hair? Their practically covered in fur!

    Fantastic drawing. Thanks again!

  6. I like the plants. Little clumps of euphorbia with stapelias growing between them and some Aloe africana in the background. You can tell what was hip and exotic in the horticulture world when this was done.

  7. What’s with the sublim white guy face in the background overseeing the action over the Ibex carrying dude’s arm?

    Clearly, this tribe is fortunate enough to have a Ibex drop dead just meters from their cave, as shown by the female and juvenile character in the background cave.
    But not quite quick enough to retrieve the tasty bits before hyenas show up. I guess they were sleeping in that day.

  8. The origin of…the illustration is TIME-LIFE BOOKS. “Life Nature Library” series, “Early Man” book, by F. Clark Howell and the Editors of TIME-LIFE BOOKS. 1965, 1970 Time Inc. This drawing is on pages 64-65 by Jay H. Matterness.
    Here’s a website:
    My dad showed me all these wonderful illustrations and explained evolution to me!

  9. @sam1148 “What’s with the sublim white guy face in the background”

    That is a rock.

  10. I had, and probably still have somewhere, that Time Life “Early Man” book. I’ve always thought that the hominid with the the gazelle head looked a little out of place. Why is he blithely stepping on the rock (why’s he stepping on that rock at all?) while everybody else is freaking out about the hyenas?

    And is it me, or have children’s books have been dumbed down since I was a kid? I may also be turning into my parents.

  11. how come all hunting packs look so brave? i would think at least one of them shat the shorts, and the artists just continue to relentlessly whitewash history with the stroke of a pen. f-em all!!! karl rooooovvvveeee!!! i beckon theeeeeee!!!!!!!

  12. Go hominid!

    Leopards and Cheetahs will not even bother to protect their kill when these crazy Hyena turn up.

  13. “those depictions where based on some racial prejudice. We didn’t know their hair type..but it’s always characterized as ‘kinky’, and skin type is black.”

    Really? I don’t think the hair in this picture or any other hominid illustration I see looks ‘kinky’ (hehe) or racially inspired – it seems to be based more on the dark, straightish, all-over hair of chimpanzees and gorillas than on any humans.

    The dark skin is perhaps supposed to be a human trait – gorillas have dark skin but some chimpanzees seem to have light skin. Given that most human genetic diversity is amongst black africans and the rest of us are all rather closely related, it seems that early Homo sapiens would have been black skinned – whether or not anyone has any evidence of other skin colours in earlier hominids I don’t know.
    It seems feasible that some would have been lighter skinned as some chimpanzees are, but black seems a reasonable assumption to me.

  14. does anyone really think that “white prehominids” existed?
    i think that the black variant of the human race is the original, given that the majority of the transitions took place in africa, and our ancestry as white or asian derives from the conditions in the parts of the world where these populations ended up.

  15. The prehistoric life illustration that always sticks in my brain, like this one has for you, is one where a saber-tooth cat has his two canines in the eye sockets of a lifeless primitive man and is dragging him away to his den. There was then the photo of the skull with actual damage which was portayed in the illustration.
    Very savage and vivid!

  16. I used to love this book when I was little. I asked my mother what the ape people (b/c the cave men came after) were. She explained evolution to me. Afterward, I was convinced that I had been born as a monkey, and had been a hairy Homo erectus toddler at some point, before becoming human.

    I’m not sure how long it took before I somebody told me I was wrong about this. I still want opposable toes.

    1. Oh, ChrisJF, you must have been an adorable little boy. My little grandson runs around as a hired gun; he isn’t even two yet. Maybe we haven’t quite evolved. :)

  17. Wow, I remember this and yes, I thought it beat all the lame caveman “guy in fur toga” type images by a mile.

    I also remember another painting of ice age people carving up a mammoth and one guy walking away with a huge slab of meat on his shoulder. He was looking at the viewer with a huge grin.

  18. Awesome. I remember that. and I have the book on my shelf. You need a better color scan of it.

  19. There’s no reason to think our hominid ancestors were black, just because they were in Africa. Evolution requires variation, so it’s more likely that ancient hominids had a greater range of skin color than we do, and evolutionary pressures increased the prevalence of certain colors in different regions after migration.

    Using black people as a measure of what our ancient ancestors looked like because they come from the same geographic area implies Africans are somehow less “evolved” than other populations. They are just as evolutionarily removed from these hominids as non-Africans. This is why portraying ancient hominids like this as having black skin and characteristically black features like kinky hair is racist.

  20. I have this very book at home in my closet. I had to dig it out of my parents house 15 years ago when my evangelical roommate told me that there was absolutely no science behind evolution and it was unproveable. She was amazed by the fossil record, etc. and couldn’t explain why her parents never taught her about science.

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