“Maybe stalking the woods is as vital to the human condition as playing music or putting words to paper. Maybe hunting has as much of a claim on our civilized selves as anything else. After all, the earliest forms of representational art reflect hunters and prey”…”To abhor hunting is to hate the place from which you came, which is akin to hating yourself in some distant, abstract way.” ~Steven Rinella
Animals held a hugely important place in the lives of ancient hunter-gatherers. And big-game hunting, the pursuit of megafauna, was one of the most dramatic and dangerous parts of our prehistoric lives. Humans seem to have a fascination for the biggest, most impressive members of the animal kingdom. In fact- environmental activists looking to garner public support have learned to rely on these big, interesting animals as something like mascots, often symbolizing whole ecosystems and restoration projects that go well beyond a single species. The term “charismatic megafauna” emerged to describe this obsession of ours (Berti et al. 2020). This power of megafauna today to bring people together for collective action is, to me, a fascinating echo of their role in our prehistory.
Megafauna are ordinarily considered to be any species that can hit 100kg, making humans a part of that club. Over the last 50ky or so, a wave of megafaunal extinctions has swept the globe, in which most regions outside Africa and South Asia lost dozens of species. Giant beavers, cave bears, cave hyenas, woolly rhinos, mastodons, giant ground sloth, stag moose, sivatherium, and many more. A debate has raged for decades over what role humans might have played in that extinction- but even setting that debate aside, these animals represented huge bags of calories, hides, bones, antlers, and ivory to feed, clothe, and equip Stone Age people. They must have been objects of fear, awe, and opportunity.
Among the oldest myths in the world we know of, the “Cosmic Hunt,” was first noticed by anthropologists comparing mythological tropes in cultures across the Northern hemisphere. They saw that while subtle details varied, many motifs kept recurring. In one variant a group of hunters pursues a big-game animal across the sky, with the box of Ursa Major representing the animal, and the handle representing the pursuing hunters. There are also little details shared cross-culturally, like a dimmer star in the handle representing a cooking pot in cultures as far apart as the Siberian Khanty people, or the Iroquois. For others, including Siberia’s Oroch and the Chinook of the Pacific Northwest, that dimmer star is a hunting dog. Sometimes the constellation is switched- the Pleiades are a popular choice, where the stars represent a group of prey animals, surrounded by hunters and their dogs. This form is particularly common in Central Asia. People have even identified more distant descendant myths, such as the Tuareg story of Ursa Major as a female camel belonging to Noah, pursued by a group of seven noble hunters (d’Huy 2013). Phylogenetic reconstructions of these myths have traced them back to a common origin at least 15kya, before the ancestors of modern Native Americans left Eurasia. Obviously, the details of that common ancestral myth are lost - but I still think it’s amazing to see even faint echoes of paleolithic thought.
Paleoanthropologists have long touted the idea that hunting was one of the key tasks we evolved to perform during the last several million years, with the emergence of stone tools, fire-making, and even our big brains being deeply connected to the benefits of adding protein and fat-rich meat to our diet (Linares Matás & Yravedra 2021).
But if you look beneath the hood you’ll find that hunting big game has always had a complicating risk factor- not just physical risk, of getting trampled by a panicked mammoth or hamstrung by a boars tusk. There’s also another form of risk, the risk of going home empty-handed, or having to give away what you killed.
Imagine you’re a hunter-gatherer. Like anyone, you aren’t successful every day you go out. But today you are returning to camp having killed a wild goat. When this happens, you are immediately confronted by a collective action problem. You have more food than you can eat right away, so for you the stakes are low. For some of the other members of your band who don’t have so much, the stakes are higher. Any person who wants a share, then, will be hungry and motivated, and you can’t say no to a mob. For years this problem has bugged anthropologists.
“From the hunter’s perspective, the immediate value of the remaining meat is not worth fighting over but it is from the perspective of someone who is hungry” (Kelly 2013: 146).
There are several explanations for how hunters might deal with this. One is reciprocal altruism, the idea that hunters provide meat to others when they experience a windfall with the expectation that the favor will be returned when they are the ones coming home empty-handed (Gurven et al. 2000). Another explanation, tolerated scrounging, implies that hunters will tolerate theft in order to avoid conflict (Blurton Jones 1984). One might predict frequent confrontations over kills among hunter-gatherers, “but such events are virtually nonexistent” (Kelly 2013: 146). Among the San, the maker of an arrow, not the person who fired it, is sometimes considered the owner of a kill. In this way, a person could intentionally use a friend’s arrow in order to give them a claim to the meat, to develop a relationship, and to avoid provoking jealousy. Researchers have observed of the Hadza of Northern Tanzania that “hunters were not considered owners of the meat from the carcasses they acquired and did not control its distribution” (Hawkes et al. 2014: 607). All of this stuff deals with animals as food. You kill a deer, you get meat. Or your friend eats, and owes you a favor. Your children eat well. Very direct, individual payoffs.
There’s a second line of thinking gaining steam, which emphasizes some more abstract elements of big-game hunting. Most prominent of these is Zahavi’s costly-signaling theory, introduced from evolutionary biology to anthropology by researchers like Kristen Hawkes. Hawkes proposed that men primarily hunt large game as a form of costly signaling, to “show off” to a wide range of companions in order to receive favorable treatment in return (Hawkes 1991, Hawkes and Bird 2002). Like the ridiculous tail of a peacock that they survive in spite of, a costly signal is a way of telegraphing one’s fitness in spite of the signal. Like that big, dangerous animal you killed, or that sports car you drive. Ultimately, the idea is that showing off in this way must have translated into greater reproductive success. Among the Meriam, a Melanesian people of the Torres Strait, “successful turtle hunters signal strength, risk-taking, and (in the case of hunt leaders) a variety of cognitive and leadership abilities to potential allies, mates, and competitors” (Bird et al. 2001: 10).
This is where we start shifting to bigger stories of cooperation and collective action. Maybe some of the most challenging hunts became events - seasonal moments where people gathered to trade, exchange marriage partners, renew their social bonds, and cooperatively hunt large, dangerous animals like mammoths, and big herds of bison and caribou.
There are some interesting arguments that suggest hunting technologies are deeply connected to this issue of communal or individual hunting. “Atlatls require the hunter to make himself known, to move, and hence scare game. Atlatls can be used by individual hunters, but they are also suited to communal hunting, where hunters’ movements are intended to channel game into the path of other hunters”… (Kelly 2013:134) Meanwhile, a bow allows a hunter to remain hidden, and to make little movement while firing. “Bow hunting, therefore, is more conducive to individual hunting from a blind”. (Kelly 2013:134) This does seem to be a pattern among hunter-gatherers, and even in recent ethnographic studies, this emphasis on atlatls for communal hunts persists. “In Zimbabwe, for example, Tyua groups preferred to use the atlatl and dart for such reasons, even while adjacent groups used the bow and arrow; they hunted large game: giraffe, rhinoceros, and elephant. To increase success, they also hunted collectively in groups” (Angelbeck & Cameron 2014:95).
In Wyoming, ice age hunters might have periodically revisited the Colby mammoth site, trapping and dispatching one or a few animals each time and piling the bones as archaeologists later found them. In Alaska, ancient caribou hunters in the Brooks Range built huge systems of cairns and standing stones to funnel herds into valley bottoms, where, mired in alpine lakes, they could be dispatched from boats. In the Arabian desert there are remnants of similar structures called Kites, used for cooperative hunts of gazelles, ostriches, Arabian Oryx, Onagers, and hartebeests (Fradley et al. 2022). Over generations, considerable resources would have been devoted to building and rebuilding the kites, together with hunting and returning slaughtered remains to settlements or camps. This kind of hunting gave people a stake in the landscape. These were big, seasonal events, not just about food but also about cooperation, kinship, and belonging.
Hunting has always been more than just a way to eat. It goes right to the heart of our social and symbolic lives.
Angelbeck, B., & Cameron, I. (2014). The Faustian bargain of technological change: Evaluating the socioeconomic effects of the bow and arrow transition in the coast salish past. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 36, 93–109. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaa.2014.08.003
Berezkin, Y. (2005). Cosmic Hunt: Variants of siberian-north american myth. Folklore: Electronic Journal of Folklore, 31, 79–100. https://doi.org/10.7592/fejf2005.31.berezkin
Berti, E., Monsarrat, S., Munk, M., Jarvie, S., & Svenning, J.-C. (2020). Body size is a good proxy for vertebrate charisma. Biological Conservation, 251, 108790. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2020.108790
Binford, L. R. (1978). Nunamiut Ethnoarchaeology. Academic Press.
Bird, Rebecca, Eric Smith, and Douglas Bird. “The Hunting Handicap: Costly Signaling in Human Foraging Strategies.” Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 50, no. 1 (2001): 96–96. https://doi.org/10.1007/s002650100375.
Blurton Jones, Nicholas G. “A Selfish Origin for Human Food Sharing: Tolerated Theft.” Ethology and Sociobiology 5, no. 1 (1984): 1–3. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/0162-3095(84)90030-X.
Frison, G. C., & Todd, L. C. (1986). The Colby Mammoth Site: Taphonomy and archaeology of a clovis kill in northern Wyoming. University of New Mexico Press.
Gurven, Michael, Wesley Allan-Arave, Kim Hill, and Magdalena Hurtado. “‘It's a Wonderful Life’: Signaling Generosity among the Ache of Paraguay.” Evolution and Human Behavior 21, no. 4 (2000): 263–82. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/S1090-5138(00)00032-5.
Hawkes, Kristen. “Showing off: Tests of an Hypothesis about Men's Foraging Goals.” Ethology and Sociobiology 12, no. 1 (1991): 29–54. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/0162-3095(91)90011-E.
Hawkes, Kristen, and Rebecca Bleige Bird. “Showing off, Handicap Signaling, and the Evolution of Men's Work.” Evolutionary Anthropology 11, no. 2 (2002): 58–67. https://doi.org/ https://doi-org.libproxy.uwyo.edu/10.1002/evan.20005.
Hawkes, Kristen, James F. O’Connell, and Nicholas G. Blurton Jones. “More Lessons from the Hadza about Men’s Work.” Human Nature 25, no. 4 (2014): 596–619. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-014-9212-5.
Linares Matás, G. J., & Yravedra, J. (2021). ‘we hunt to share’: Social Dynamics and very large mammal butchery during the oldowan–acheulean transition. World Archaeology, 53(2), 224–254. https://doi.org/10.1080/00438243.2022.2030793
We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night telling itself stories."
Humans are 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee."
The very ritual practices that the New Atheists dismiss as costly, inefficient and irrational turn out to be a solution to one of the hardest problems humans face: cooperation without kinship”
The most powerful force ever known on this planet is human cooperation — a force for construction and destruction.”
The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor."
Sports is to war as pornography is to sex."
Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary."
Civilization is the interval between Ice Ages."
Most of us spend too much time on the last twenty-four hours and too little on the last six thousand years."
Philip Larkin famously proposed that what will survive of us is love. Wrong. What will survive of us is plastic, swine bones and lead-207, the stable isotope at the end of the uranium-235 decay chain."
We are part mineral beings too – our teeth are reefs, our bones are stones – and there is a geology of the body as well as of the land."
However many nations live in the world today, however many countless people, they all had but one dawn." ~Anonymous, Popul Vuh
Every step you take has already been taken. Every story has already been told. The land is not newly discovered, so old with legends you might mistake them for rocks." ~Craig Childs
The present contains nothing more than the past, and what is found in the effect was already in the cause." ~Henri Bergson
Archaeologists may not always see the trees, but we capture the forest with great clarity" ~Robert Kelly
The past is never dead; it's not even past." ~William Faulkner
No civilization has survived forever. All move toward dissolution, one after the other, like waves of the sea falling upon the shore. None, including ours, is exempt from the universal fate.” ~Douglas Preston
If you go into a museum and look at antiquities collected there, you can be sure that the vast bulk of them were found not in buildings but in graves." ~Leonard Woolley
Ice breathes. Rock has tides. Mountains ebb and flow. Stone pulses. We live on a restless earth.” ~Robert Macfarlane
We always stand on the shoulders of our ancestors, whether or not we look down to acknowledge them." ~David Anthony
That which always was, and is, and will be everliving fire, the same for all, the cosmos, made neither by god nor man, replenishes in measure as it burns away." ~Heraclitus
Shamanism is not simply a component of society: on the contrary, shamanism, together with its tiered cosmos, can be said to be the overall framework of society." ~David Lewis-Williams
Opened are the double doors of the horizon. Unlocked are its bolts." ~Utterance 220 of the Pyramid of Unas
If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten." ~Rudyard Kipling
The mountains are fountains of men as well as of rivers, of glaciers, of fertile soil. The great poets, philosophers, prophets, able men whose thoughts and deeds have moved the world, have come down from the mountains." ~John Muir
The ecological thinker is haunted by the consequences of time." ~Garrett Hardin
Through the experience of time, Dasein becomes a ‘being towards death’: without death existence would be care-less, would lack the power that draws us to one another and to the world." ~Iain McGillchrist
The dead outnumber the living fourteen to one, and we ignore the accumulated experience of such a huge majority of mankind at our peril." ~Niall Ferguson
Tell me what you eat and I'll tell you what you are." ~Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
We live in a zoologically impoverished world, from which all the hugest and fiercest, and strangest forms have recently disappeared." ~Alfred Russel Wallace
Humans have dragged a body with a long hominid history into an overfed, malnourished, sedentary, sunlight-deficient, sleep-deprived, competitive, inequitable, and socially-isolating environment with dire consequences." ~Sebastian Junger
Except in geographical scale, tribal warfare could be and often was total war in every modern sense. Like states and empires, smaller societies can make a desolation and call it peace." ~Lawrence Keeley
The first people were aware of the signs and signals of the natural world. Their artifacts were projectiles, blades, and ivory sewing needles, either used on animal products, or made from them, or used to procure them. The world around them was a cycle of animals of all sizes, from voles and falcons to some of the largest mammals seen in human evolution." ~Craig Childs
The number of herbivores sets a cap on the number of carnivores that can live in a region. Of course, adding an additional predator of fairly large body size, like a modern human, would produce repercussions that would ripple though all the other predators in the area and their prey." ~Pat Shipman
When viewed globally, near-time extinctions took place episodically, in a pattern not correlated with climatic change or any known factor other than the spread of our species." ~Paul S. Martin
However splendid our languages and cultures, however rich and subtle our minds, however vast our creative powers, the mental process is the product of a brain shaped by the hammer of natural selection upon the anvil of nature."
Behavior is imitated, then abstracted into play, formalized into drama and story, crystallized into myth and codified into religion- and only then criticized in philosophy, and provided, post-hoc, with rational underpinnings."
I have seen yesterday. I know tomorrow."
We are fire creatures from an ice age." ~Stephen Pyne
Men come and go, cities rise and fall, whole civilizations appear and disappear-the earth remains, slightly modified." ~Edward Abbey
Men and women, empires and cities, thrones, principalities, and powers, mountains, rivers, and unfathomed seas, worlds, spaces, and universes, all have their day, and all must go." ~H. Rider Haggard
One day the last portrait of Rembrandt and the last bar of Mozart will have ceased to be- though possibly a colored canvas and a sheet of notes will remain- because the last eye and the last ear accessible to their message will have gone." ~ Oswald Spengler
All that is human must retrograde if it does not advance."
In the long paleontological perspective, we humans must be considered invasive in any locale except Africa." ~Pat Shipman
Of the gladdest moments in human life, methinks, is the departure upon a distant journey into unknown lands. Shaking off with one mighty effort the fetters of Habit, the leaden weight of Routine, the cloak of many Cares and the slavery of Civilization, man feels once more happy." ~Richard Francis Burton
Sedentary culture is the goal of civilization. It means the end of its own lifespan and brings about its corruption." ~Ibn Khaldun
Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire." ~Gustav Mahler
As for man, his days are numbered. Whatever he might do, it is but wind." ~The Epic of Gilgamesh
There is a cave in the mind."
Full circle, from the tomb of the womb to the womb of the tomb, we come." ~Joseph Campbell
I feel again a spark of that ancient flame." ~ Virgil
Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun. I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it therefore not to be an experimental science in search of law, but an interpretive one in search of meaning." ~Clifford Geertz
In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order." ~Carl Jung
Man fears time, but time fears the pyramids." ~Arab proverb
Few romances can ever surpass that of the granite citadel on top of the beetling precipices of Machu Picchu, the crown of Inca Land." ~Hiram Bingham
You don't have to be a fantastic hero to do certain things- to compete. You can just be an ordinary chap, sufficiently motivated to reach challenging goals." ~Edmund Hillary
Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going into the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity." ~John Muir
To speak of truth sounds too grand, too filled with the promise of certainty, and we are rightly suspicious of it. But truth will not go away that easily. The statement that ‘there is no such thing as truth’ is itself a truth statement, and implies that it is truer than its opposite, the statement that ‘truth exists’." ~Lain McGillchrist
The Sphinx will always have to be looked after."
Yes, the pyramids have been built, but if you give me 300,000 disciplined men and 30 years I could build a bigger one."
Civilizations exist by geological consent, subject to change without notice."
When at last we anchored in the harbor, off the white town hung between the blazing sky and its reflection in the mirage which swept and rolled over the wide lagoon, then the heat of Arabia came out like a drawn sword and struck us speechless"
The best prophet of the future is the past."
An archaeologist is the best husband a woman can get. The older she gets the more interested he is in her."
Archaeology is the peeping Tom of the sciences. It is the sandbox of men who care not where they are going; they merely want to know where everyone else has been."
What would be ugly in a garden constitutes beauty in a mountain."
I have never been able to grasp the meaning of time. I don't believe it exists. I've felt this again and again, when alone and out in nature. On such occasions, time does not exist."
Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths. "~Joseph Campbell
In my experience, it is rarer to find a really happy person in a circle of millionaires than among vagabonds."
Always my soul hungered for less than it had"
History is filled with the sound of silken slippers going downstairs, and wooden shoes coming up."
Back home, I'm always focusing on something happening in the future. On expeditions, time stops, and you become like a stone age man, acting on instincts and knowing you are part of the universe."
Genes are rarely about inevitability, especially when it comes to humans, the brain, or behavior. They're about vulnerability, propensities, tendencies." ~Robert Sapolsky
The Land is not old. It only changes, becoming one thing and the next. We are the ones who ascribe age, the brevity of our lives demanding a beginning, middle, and end."
Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books."
The only thing that belongs to us is the time."
To abhor hunting is to hate the place from which you came, which is akin to hating yourself in some distant, abstract way." ~Steven Rinella