“Be cautious of bears at all times, even when being mauled by a tiger” – Craig Benzine

Papa Bear
Papa Bear

Monkeys are such clowns. It almost makes one ashamed to be their close genetic cousins. If I had to trace my evolutionary origins to a respectable animal, it would be the bear. During a retrospectively foolhardy month spent running whitewater on the Mistassini River in northern Quebec, I had the primordial displeasure of a face to face encounter with a black bear in the wild. Well, not exactly face to face, as if that were the case, I probably would not have much of a face left, rather a black bear had caught our scent as we paddled around a river bend, and was standing in the middle of the river trying to figure out where that awful smell was coming from (our bathing regimen was infrequent at best). We swamped our canoe in frenzied back-paddling, but managed to stay out of sight long enough for the bear to lose interest and wander away. While black bears are one of the smaller ursines, they can weigh 500 pounds, stand 6 feet tall when on their hind legs, and run at a steady 30 miles per hour. If you’ve ever had the misfortune to unintentionally get way too close to a wild bear, you understand the atavistic fear inherent in such an encounter. The sole thought in one’s head at the time (particularly if you are unarmed, and frequently even if you are) is “if it so chooses, that bear is perfectly capable of catching and eating me, and there is very little I can do about it”. Adventurer and travel writer Bill Bryson summed this up nicely when he said, “Black bears rarely attack. But here’s the thing. Sometimes they do. All bears are agile, cunning and immensely strong, and they are always hungry. If they want to kill you and eat you, they can, and pretty much whenever they want. That doesn’t happen often, but – and here is the absolutely salient point – once would be enough.” The only real advantage a human has over a bear is motorized transportation and a really, really big gun. In the absence of either of those, the bear wins. Your optimum survival strategy as a Homo sapien is to stay as far away from bears as is humanly possible. Consequently, mankind, when not blindingly drunk or utterly oblivious to the basic rules of camping in the wilderness, has always had a healthy respect for the bear, and bears figure prominently in our mythologies. There is even archaeological evidence of paleolithic worship of bears among Neanderthals (e.g. arrangements of bear skulls), particularly in circumpolar regions where the bear is the apex predator. The Ainu of Japan, the Menominee of Wisconsin, and the ancient Acadians of Greece took reverence for the bear to the next level, and trace the origins of their respective people’s to an ancestral bear.

The Ainu are the Japanese equivalent of Native Americans, believed to be descended from Jōmon-jin hunter-gatherers that inhabited Japan starting around 12,000 B.C. (Japan was probably connected to continental Asia by a land bridge until the end of the last Ice age, not coincidentally, about 12,000 years ago). Because of intermarriage and historical ethnic prejudices, it is unclear how many Ainu still exist, but estimates range from 25,000-200,000 people, primarily in Hokkaido, Sakhalin (Russia), and the Kuril Islands. The history of the Ainu is pretty much the history of every indigenous people on the planet that got clobbered on the head by another group (for you ancient aliens fans, the spacesuit wearing “dogu” date from the Jōmon-jin period). In this case, the Yamato people, the majority ethnic group that we typically think of as Japanese, took over around 250 A.D. and eventually became the Imperial House of Japan (the oldest continuous hereditary monarchy in the world). Unsurprisingly, the first recorded histories of Japan also date from this time period. These folks may have been descended from colonists designated as the Yayoi culture from eastern China who began to establish settlements in Japan around 300 B.C., but all of this is hotly debated by Japanese archaeologists, and I don’t believe I’ll be wading into that particular mess. The point is that 98.5% of modern Japan doesn’t bear any resemblance to the Ainu in as much as the typical Ainu has much lighter skin, is distinctly more hirsute, and has a less pronounced epicanthic fold to the eye. Modern genetic testing has demonstrated yet again that our similarities are greater than our differences, noting that despite the fact that the Ainu have historically been said to have distinct “Caucasoid” features, they are definitely within the Northeast and East Asian genetic cluster. The Ainu point out this is ridiculous, as they are obviously the descendants of bears. This is clearly described in the creation myths of the Ainu.

In very ancient times there lived two people who were husband and wife. The husband one day fell ill, and soon after died, leaving no children, so that the poor wife was left quite alone. Now it happened to have been decreed that the woman was at some future time to bear a son. When the people saw that the time for the child to be born was nigh at hand, some said, “Surely this woman has married again.” Others said, “Not so, but her deceased husband has risen from among the dead.” But the woman herself said that it was all a miracle, and the following is an account of the matter: One evening there was a sudden appearance in the hut in which I was sitting. He who came to me had the external form of a man, and was dressed in black clothing. On turning in my direction he said—”O, woman, I have a word to say to you, so please pay attention. I am the god who possesses the mountains (i.e., a bear), and not a human being at all, though I have now appeared to you in the bodily form of a man. The reason of my coming is this. Your husband is dead, and you are left in a very lonesome condition. I have seen this, and am come to inform you that you will bear a child. He will be my gift to you. When he is born you will no longer be lonely, and when he is grown up he will be very great, rich, and eloquent.” After saying this he left me. By and by this woman bore a son, who in, time really became a mighty hunter as well as a great, rich, and eloquent man. He also became the father of many children. Thus it happens that many of the Ainu who dwell among the mountains are to this day said to be descended from a bear. They belong to the bear clan, and are called Kimun Kamui sanikiri—i.e. ‘descendants of the bear’ (Batchelor, 1901, p8-10).

Now, I was not aware that bears are both fearsome predators, and gentlemen as well. Yogi is not just smarter than the average bear, he’s also a lot more suave than you are. The bottom line is that papa was a rolling stone, and a bear. The Menominee tribe of Wisconsin has a similar origin myth, where a bear is the first animal that thinks creating a human is such a good idea that he turns himself into the first Menominee when given a choice by the Great Spirit.

When the Great Spirit made the earth he created also numerous beings termed Manidos or spirits, giving them the forms of animals and birds. Most of the former were malevolent underground beings —a-na’-maq-ki. The latter consisted of eagles and hawks, known as the Thunderers, a-na’-maq-ki’, chief of which was the invisible thunder, though represented by the Ki-ne’-uT’, the Golden eagle. When Ki-sha’-manido, the Good Spirit, saw that the bear was still an animal he determined to allow the latter to change his form. The Bear, still known as nanoq’-ke, was pleased at what the Good Spirit was going to grant him, and he was made an Indian, though with a light skin. This took place at mi’-ni-ka’-ni, Menomoni River, near the spot where its waters empty into Green Bay and at this place, also, the Bear first came out of the ground. He found himself alone, and decided to call to himself ki-n’-uT, the Eagle, and said: “Eagle, come to me and be my brother.” Whereupon the Eagle descended, and also took the form of a human being. While they were considering whom to call upon to join them, they perceived the Beaver approaching. The Beaver requested to be taken into the totem of the Thunderer, but being a woman she was called na-ma’-ku-kiu’, Beaver woman, and was adopted as a younger brother of the Thunderer. The totem of the beaver is at present termed the po-wat’-i-not’. Soon thereafter, as the Bear and the Eagle were upon the banks of a river, they saw a stranger, the Sturgeon (no-ma’-e), who was adopted by the Bear as a younger brother and servant. In like manner o-mash’-kosh, the Elk, was accepted by the thunderer as a younger brother and water-carrier (Hoffman, 1890, p243-244).

Arcas, the original King of the Arcadians (a wilderness region in Ancient Greece) was purported to be the son of Callisto, a nymph who did the deed with Zeus, and got turned into a bear by Hera for her troubles. Thus it is said, Arcadians are descended from bears.

The great Thunderer’s wife had known all this long since; but she had put off her vengeance until a fitting time. And now that time was come; for, to add a sting to Juno’s hate, a boy, Arcas, had been born of her rival. Where to when she turned her angry mind and her angry eyes, “See there!” she cried, “nothing was left, adulteress, than to breed a son, and publish my wrong by his birth, a living witness to my lord’s shame. But thou shalt suffer for it. Yea, for I will take away thy beauty where with thou dost delight thyself, forward girl, and him who is my husband.” So saying, she caught her by the hair full in front and flung her face-foremost to the ground. And when the girl stretched out her arms in prayer for mercy, her arms began to grow rough with black shaggy hair; her hands changed into feet tipped with sharp claws; and her lips, which but now Jove had praised, were changed to broad, ugly jaws; and, that she might not move him with entreating prayers, her power of speech was taken from her, and only a harsh, terrifying growl came hoarsely from her throat. Still her human feelings remained, though she was now a bear; with constant moanings she shows her grief, stretches up such hands as are left her to the heavens, and, though she cannot speak, still feels the ingratitude of Jove. Ah, how often, not daring to lie down in the lonely woods, she wandered before her home and in the fields that had once been hers! How often was she driven over the rocky ways by the baying of hounds and, huntress though she was, fled in a fright before the hunters! Often she hid at sight of the wild beasts, forgetting what she was; and, though herself a bear, shuddered at sight of other bears which she saw on the mountain—slopes (Ovid, Metamorphoses, Bk. 2).

We like to trace our ancestries back to culture heroes, gods, and mythological figures. It makes us feel important. Some day in the far future when we’ve all been largely forgotten, there will no doubt be a people who arise and distinguish themselves by their messiah’s degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon, but as poet Thomas Overbury said, “The man who has nothing to boast of but his illustrious ancestry is like the potato – the best part underground”. Next time you want to impress somebody, don’t bother telling them you are a Daughter of the Revolution, the rightful heir to the Duchy of Grand Fenwick, or the son of Apollo and a mortal woman. You just sound like a jerk. Tell them dad was a bear.

Batchelor, John, 1854-1944. The Ainu And Their Folk-lore. London: Religious Tract Society, 1901.
Hoffman, W.J. “Mythology of the Menomoni Indians”. American Anthropologist 3 (July), p. 243-258, 1890.
Ovid, 43 B.C.-17 or 18 A.D. Ovid: Metamorphoses. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1951.