Nov 29, 2009

Deconstructing Charley

A short paper written for my first-year Anthropology class. The assignment was to find a picture of an early hominid and do a critical evaluation of it based on what we learned this term.

Deconstructing Charley: Early Hominid Identity in "Tom the Dancing Bug"

Ruben Bolling's bizarre surrealist comic strip, “Tom the Dancing Bug,” presents readers with thought-provoking and mind-bending diversions into strange realities. One of these diversions is a series of strips featuring Charley the Australopithecine (see Appendix figure 1 and 2). These comics chronicle the adventures of an early hominid in a world of modern humans. While Bolling does identify Charley as an australopithecine, he does not specify which particular species. The reason for this is likely that Bolling does not feel that his readers need such specific information to appreciate the humour and satire of the strip. The aim of this paper, then, is twofold: first, by examining certain traits in the illustration (Fig. 1), to identify Charley's species, and second, to determine whether or not the depiction is an accurate one.

When attempting to identify Charley's species, there are ample physical characteristics in the illustration from which to draw evidence.  The first indicator of Charley's status as an australopithecine is his upright posture and bipedalism. Without this, no argument for his species, or his identity as a hominid, could be made. Because he is bipedal, Charley is a candidate for analysis as an early hominid. Charley exhibits copious body hair, a large brow ridge, and pronounced upper canines. His legs are short, his arms are long, and the big toes do not appear to be quite as divergent as on an ape. Charley grasps in his hands a knife and a glass, ostensibly a humorous depiction, but demonstrating that he is capable of holding, and using, tools. Overall, his morphology appears gracile. Since this is a satirical illustration, the problem of which characteristics to lend credence to, as will be discussed in the next section of this paper, is troubling. From Charley's build, such species as A. aethiopicus and A. robustus can be ruled out. He does not appear to exhibit the “increas[ed] cranial and dental robusticity” (Larsen, 2008, p.297) associated with the later species of australopithecus, and the pronounced sagittal crest of these types is nowhere apparent in the picture. The body hair can also be discounted as an indicator of species, as there is no evidence in the fossil record to indicate the amount of hair that would have covered an australopithecine's body. The short legs in the picture could point towards A. afarensis. As is common in this genus, “the upper part of the...face is small, while the lower part is large and protruding” (Lewin, 2004, p.132). So which characteristics are the key to Charley's identity? Ironically, it is probably the most humorous aspect of the picture (leaving aside for the moment the fact that Charley is wearing clothes!) that reveals Charley's species: he is holding tools. Of all the varieties of autralopithecines, only A. garhi has been associated with tool use. “[A]ntelope bones that showed signs of having been cut and broken with sharp stone implements” (Lewin, 2004, p.138) were discovered along with the fossils of this species. While the tools Charley holds may be modern, the fact that they are tools shows his species to be A. garhi. But is he an effective depiction of this early tool-using hominid?

One of the clearest illustrations of Bolling's depiction being inaccurate is that Charley is wearing clothes. While over the course of millions of years fabrics would have deteriorated, there is no evidence that any of the australopithecines wore clothes. Manufacturing clothing requires a very specific and complex skill set, and the
A. garhi, with their 450 cc. brains (Larson, 2008, p.294), would likely not have had this ability. Following on from this, it appears in the picture that Charley's head is the same size as those of the other patrons in the restaurant. Considering the difference in brain size between A. garhi and modern Homo sapiens, Charley's head should be somewhat smaller. Another troubling part of the depiction, at least at first glance, is that Charley is speaking. While the formation of English words is patently ridiculous, “Ralph Holloway... argues that language capacity began to develop...among australopithecine species” (Lewin, 2004, p.222). Charley may not have asked for his “Bucka-Roaster” (Bolling, 2004, p.11), but there exists a possibility that he may have had some linguistic capacity. As Charley is opening his mouth to call for the waitress, his upper teeth are visible and yet another mistake in the depiction of A. garhi is revealed. The large canines in his mouth call more to mind apes and monkeys, rather than the “small canines, large premolars, and large molars” (Larsen, 2008, p.286) of early hominids. His dentition is clearly meant to make him seem menacing, but it detracts from the accuracy of the picture.

The only positive indicator of his species is that Charley is holding tools. The grip he places on the glass and knife in the picture show “the finer precision use of the thumb and other fingers [necessary] for tool production and tool use” (Larsen, 2008, p.296). The illustration of Charley also shows that “beneath the nose the face [has] a primitive projection” (Larsen, 2008, p.294), however this is a characteristic not only of
A. garhi, but of all australopithecines, and as such cannot be included as clear indication of species.

While there is little in the illustration that links Charley to
A. garhi, his tool use is really all that is needed. Bolling appears to have drawn attributes from the australopithecines as a whole, meshing their characteristics together to depict an individual who can perhaps be seen as representative of the entire genus. Once again, his reason for doing this, rather than picking one particular species, probably relies on his audience needing only superficial details to appreciate the humour of the comic. Bolling does appear to have treated the subject fairly, if satirically. While perhaps exhibiting a more modern intelligence than his real life counterparts, Charley does act very much as an early, tool-using hominid might. Especially if one found itself the winner of a free dinner at “Bucka-Roosters.”

Appendix: Charley the Australopithecine

Fig. 1 Charley the Australopithecine from Bolling, Thrilling Tom the Dancing Bug Stories (Kansas City: Andrews McMeel, 2004) 11.

Fig 2. “Australopithecine's Night Out” from Bolling Thrilling Tom the Dancing Bug Stories (Kansas City: Andrews McMeel, 2004) 11.

Works Cited

Bolling, Ruben. (2004)
Thrilling Tom the Dancing Bug Stories. Kansas City: Andrews McMeel.

Larsen, Clark Spenser. (2008)
Our Origins. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Lewin, Roger. (2004)
Human Evolution: An Illustrated Introduction. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Available from

No comments: