In 1856, fossilized skeletal bones were discovered in a river valley in Germany. The bones suggested that their deceased owner had a somewhat stockier physique than would be customary for a human. As a result, the bones were initially thought to be those of an ancient species of bear.
Three years later, Charles Darwin published The Origins of Species and, over time, scientists influenced by his theory of evolution developed a different view about the bones. They speculated that the fossils belonged to an early human species, a separate but closely related branch of the evolutionary tree, now extinct. The name of the valley was Neander and the archaic human species has been known ever since as Neanderthal.
The similarity of physical morphology that caused the initial confusion about Neanderthal bones may help explain why bears have been held in special regard by human cultures around the world and throughout history. They are sometimes considered to be bear people, equivalent in many respects to human people.
There is evidence that early humans carved and drew figures of these animals, with apparent shamanistic or religious import. As Shannon Huffman Polson observes in North of Hope: A Daughter’s Journey (reviewed here), “the bear is central to religious beliefs in nearly every Arctic and boreal culture from ancient times to the present, with uncanny similarities of beliefs and practices even among peoples of disparate geographies.” She notes that these widespread beliefs led Carl Jung to say that “there is a bear with glowing eyes deep in the heart of human consciousness.”
The place occupied by bears in ancient mythology has echoes today in our names for heavenly bodies. For example, the star Arcturus (literally meaning bear watcher) keeps an eye on the constellation of Ursa Major, the Great Bear, following it across the northern sky. Tales of old also resonate in contemporary literature, as in the story of the woman who married a bear, which is a traditional legend of Northwest Indian culture. The story now appears in the poetry and essays of Gary Snyder and in a popular Alaskan mystery novel by John Straley.
The behavior of brown bears and black bears is also frequently reminiscent of that of humans. Starting with the antics of the Wisconsin black bear that my daughter and I observed as described in Teach Someone to Fish, I have often had occasion to remark on the curiosity and playfulness of these animals.
This similarity with humans was brought home to one day in the Chugach Mountains. My friend Phil had joined Jerry and me in Anchorage, where we were staging for a subsequent trip to the Varykino cabin. Phil was unfamiliar with the Chugach, so we drove to the Glen Alps trailhead, parked the car and set out on an afternoon hike to Hidden Lake. It was hours later before we realized the lake was well named. In fact, it was so well hidden that we had missed it entirely and overshot by several miles. This was a good reminder to brush up on our orienteering skills or, better yet, to bring along a real topo map rather than a park guidebook. Fortunately, mid-August days are long in Alaska.
On this particular hike, sometime after we had discovered our error and doubled back toward Hidden Lake, we came across a large expanse of snow and ice blanketing the hillside on the northern, shaded slope of a small mountain. We had our rain jackets with us, of course, although it was a warm and sunny day. It turns out that the coattails of a synthetic fiber raincoat make an excellent sled, and soon we were coasting down the snow bank on our rear ends, whooping and hollering.
It occurred to me that I had seen brown bears doing more or less the same thing on a shaded hillside in Katmai Park in the heat of summer. Some of the animals just sat or sprawled out on the snow to enjoy its cooling effects on a sultry day. Others, and they seemed to be the younger animals, would slide down the snowy hill, then scamper around to the top and do it over again. I subsequently read a similar account of snow surfing in Will Troyer’s book, Into Brown Bear Country, where he remarks on seeing “bears climb back up to the top of the snow patch to repeat the sliding game.”
My favorite comment on the playfulness of bears was made by Sherry Simpson in her book, Dominion of Bears: Living with Wildlife in Alaska. "Perhaps we can't prove exactly why bears play," she notes, "but I'm pleased to report the results of my own observation: 100 percent of people who watch bears playing think it's a ton of fun." Amen to that.
Acknowledgement of playful behavior is not, of course, to be at all dismissive of the ferocious power of these animals, and the explosive aggressiveness and unpredictable volatility with which it can be displayed. The animals are awesome, in every sense of the word, and it is important to be respectful, as well as cautious, in their company. Which is as it should be for bear people.