The Political Animal

Human History as Natural History

Beware the Beachmasters

Don't Kick Sand in My Face

Over half a century ago, Angelo Siciliano, a.k.a. Charles Atlas, appealed to all 97 pound weaklings in his comic book ad.  “The Insult that Made a Man out of Mac” has a bully kick sand in a weakling's face, after which he sends away for Charles Atlas' bodybuilding book, then goes back to the beach and punches the bully out. “Oh Mac, you are a real man after all,” says his girl. 

He got nothin’ on elephant seals. Mirounga angustirostris, a.k.a. the world's most improbable animal, spends the better part of 9 months in the Pacific Ocean, off the North American Coast. It ranges from Baja California to the Aleutian Islands, hunting for octopuses, squid, skates, rays, eels and sharks. It bulks up. It stretches out to as long as 16 feet, and puts on as much as 2 tons of weight.

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Then it hits the beach. Elephant seal bulls haul out on their island rookeries, and they start to fight. They stare each other down; they move up and try to get their opponents to back off; they throw their heads back and bark. And if that doesn’t work, they attack. They raise up on their foreflippers, cock their huge heads to either side, and jockey for open shots at each others’ necks. Canines slash into cornified flesh. Eyeballs are punctured, proboscises are split, chunks of blubber are ripped off. But in the end, one bull stands his ground.

The beachmaster wins. And the dozens, or hundreds, of cows in the harem belong to him. Beta, gamma, delta and epsilon males will get shots at those females, as befits their rank; but for the rest of the breeding season, and occasionally into the next, the alpha alone has the right to uninterrupted copulations. Lord over all other grotesque sea cucumbers, master of the ugliest animals on the beach, he will father the most pups—says the eminent elephant seal ecologist, Burney LeBoeuf.

He got nothin’ on Indian chiefs. Across the intercoastal channels from some elephant seal rookeries, Tlingit, Haida, Nuu-Chah-nulth and other chiefdoms once flourished. When Captain James Cook showed up a couple of centuries ago in his ship, Resolution, he found Indians hallooing from their canoes, and wading out to meet him from the beach. But he was annoyed when the men tried to sell him human skulls—proof that their wars were both frequent and bloody, he wrote; and he was lucky to get away with his own life.

Captain Cook wasn’t partial to the Native American women he met: as he noted in a Journal entry from 1778, he thought their legs were too short. Native American men thought not. Chiefs gave away lots of blankets at potlatches; but they owned the local waters, lands, houses, songs, dances and names. So it was easy to collect sexually accessible war captives, who became sexually accessible slaves; and it was easy to collect wives.

It was easiest to collect anything when the way out was blocked.  Charles Atlases, beachmasters and Indian chiefs have always done best wherever 97 pound weaklings were unable to run off.

Back in the '60s and '70s, the elephant seals on Año Nuevo Island, near Santa Cruz, settled in a couple of spots. Masters of the first beach—a long, sandy stretch easily approached from all sides—averaged just 30 to 40% of all copulations with their harem. But masters of the second beach—tucked in a small cove, and surrounded by steep banks so that ingress and egress were blocked—managed up to 100%.

So it went for late-18th-century Native Americans along the Pacific Coast. Further north, mountain ranges made it harder for commoners and war captives to get away from the coasts. But further south, the rough coastal ridges flattened out, and free people dispersed.

With no sand in their faces.  And their proboscises intact.

 

BEACHMASTER TV:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tkRsnjmWjbw

 

Laura Betzig, Ph.D., is a Darwinian historian at work on her fourth book, The Badge of Lost Innocence: A History of the West.

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