Friday, June 16, 2017


It’s Aurochs Appreciation Week.  Aurochs were the wild ancestors of today’s herd of 1.3 billion domesticated cattle.  They were huge, strong, and fierce — the opposite of the passive cud-chewing manure makers of today.  In regions having ideal conditions, bulls could grow up to 6 feet (180 cm) tall at the shoulder, and weigh up to 3,300 pounds (1,500 kg).  Their horns were much longer than cattle, and pointed forward, aggressively.

Some believe that the species emerged in India between 1.5 and 2 million years ago.  They survived in a world along with similarly large, strong, and fierce predators.  Eventually their range spanned from England to China.  Aurochs’ preferred habitat was dense ancient forests with lakes, rivers, bogs, and fens.  They didn’t hang out in frigid tundra regions with woolly mammoths.

Some say Neanderthals emerged 600,000 years ago, and others say 350,000.  They had migrated into Europe by 250,000 years ago, and went extinct around 30,000 years ago.  During their long visit in Europe, Neanderthals hunted aurochs with wooden thrusting spears, but did not drive them to extinction.  Mark White’s team wrote a fascinating paper on five ancient sites where Neanderthals had hunted steppe bison, aurochs, rhinoceros, horses, and reindeer.  They discussed the La Borde site in France, where aurochs were driven into a collapsed cavern, a pit trap.

In 1971, La Borde was discovered by chance, and largely destroyed, by a construction project.  During rushed rescue excavations, the remains of 40 aurochs were found at the site, and far more were likely destroyed by the machines.  Most of the animals were juveniles, and most adults were cows.  Avoiding adult bulls was an intelligent way for hunters to avoid a premature death.  Neanderthals combined their knowledge of aurochs behavior with their knowledge of the land’s topography, to select the prime location for a bloodbath, and then guide the animals into it.  Their knowledge was more powerful than their weapons.  This trap was used many times.

Maybe 45,000 years ago, Homo sapiens arrived in Europe.  Some are beginning to wonder if our visit on Earth will last as long as the Neanderthals.  In France, aurochs were painted in the Lascaux cave 17,000 to 13,000 years ago, and carved on the walls of Caves de la Mairie 15,000 years ago.  Aurochs disappeared on the Danish islands by 5500 B.C., from Britain by 1500 B.C., from the Netherlands by 400 B.C.  They still survived in Germany when Julius Caesar visited around 50 B.C., to harass the Suevi and other wild tribes. 

The Hercynian forest once spanned east from the Rhine, across modern Germany, to the Carpathians, and all the way to Dacia (present-day Romania).  A quick traveler could cross the forest north to south in nine days, but it was very long, from east to west.  Caesar noted, “There is no man in the Germany we know who can say that he has reached the edge of that forest, though he may have gone forward sixty days’ journey, or who has learnt in what place it begins.”  Pliny also mentioned it:  “The vast trees of the Hercynian forest, untouched for ages, and as old as the world, by their almost immortal destiny exceed common wonders.”

Caesar also commented on aurochs, animals “a little smaller than elephants, having the appearance, color, and shape of bulls.  They are very strong and swift, and attack every man and beast they catch sight of.  The natives sedulously trap them in pits and kill them.  Young men engage in the sport, hardening their muscles by the exercise; and those who kill the largest head of game exhibit the horns as a trophy, and thereby earn high honor.  These animals, even when caught young, cannot be domesticated and tamed.”

Charles the Great, or Charlemagne (747 – 814), the first Roman emperor, once had a painful encounter while on a hunting trip.  When an aurochs appeared in the forest, his hunting buddies fled in terror.  Charlemagne was less intelligent.  He rode up to one, drew his sword, and pissed off the monster, who gored his leg.  From that day forward, the humbled king walked with a limp.

The famous explorer Marco Polo (1254 – 1324) also described them.  “There are wild cattle in that country as big as elephants, splendid creatures, covered everywhere but on the back with shaggy hair a good four palms long.  They are partly black, partly white, and really wonderfully fine creatures.”

In Russia and Hungary, aurochs were last seen in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.  In Germany, they had blinked out by the fifteenth century.  Aurochs made their last stand in Poland.  As agriculture expanded, Europe’s ancient forests and wetlands vanished.  Grain farmers detested aurochs molesting their crops, and herders resented them dining on prime forage.  Aurochs stood in the path of progress.

Anton Schneeberger (1530 – 1581) was a Swiss botanist and doctor based in Poland.  He once wrote a letter to Conrad Gesner, who included it in a book published in 1602.  He wrote that aurochs had no fear of humans, and did not flee from their approach.  When they were teased or hunted, they got very hot-tempered and dangerous, sometimes hurling idiots high into the air.

Cis van Vuure wrote the book on aurochs.  He thought that domestication began about 9,000 years ago, in the Middle East and Pakistan.  As the powerful intelligent gray wolf was reduced to the neurotic poodle, so the mighty aurochs was reduced to countless variations of dimwitted cattle, fine-tuned for specific climates and uses (meat, hides, milk, draught).

It’s hard to imagine such notoriously fierce animals being forced into slavery.  Dogs and horses were likely enslaved at multiple locations independently.  Alasdair Wilkins wrote about recent DNA research on cattle.  The ancestors of every cow in the world trace back to a tiny herd in the Middle East, a herd as small as 80 animals.  The process of domestication may have taken a thousand years, and it was likely done by sedentary people.  It would have been impossible for nomadic herders to confine huge powerful animals with a tremendous love of wildness and freedom.

Meanwhile, back in Poland, the forests kept shrinking, as did the number of aurochs.  Farmers and hunters kept killing them.  Many likely fell to the devastating diseases of domesticated herds, like anthrax.  People became concerned at their decline, and guards were hired to discourage poaching, but the rapidly growing civilization had no room for them.  The last aurochs died in 1627, in the Jaktoróv forest, in Warsaw province of Poland.

Thus, the steaming beef in a hamburger comes from the bovine equivalent of a poodle, an unhappy meal indeed.  The aurochs were displaced from their vast territory, and eventually eliminated by heavily armed tropical primates.  The unusual primates have displaced the wolves, grizzlies, rhinos, bison, cod, whales, the Hercynian forest, and on and on.  Look at us.  How have we been changed by this rampage?  I raise my glass to wildness and freedom, and pray that the terrible hurricane soon loses its fury, and makes way for the dawn of a Great Healing.

Caesar, Julius, The Gallic Wars, 50 B.C.

Einhard, Vita Karoli Magni (Life of Charles the Great), A.D. 830.

Gestner, Conrad, Historiae Animalium, Christoffel Froschower, Zurich, A.D. 1602.

Pisa, Rustichello, The Travels of Marco Polo, A.D. 1330.

Rimas, Andrew and Fraser, Evan D.  G., Beef: The Untold Story of How Milk, Meat, and Muscle Shaped the World, Harper, New York, 2008.

Van Vuure, Cis, Retracing the Aurochs: History, Morphology, and Ecology of an Extinct Wild Ox, Coronet Books, 2005.  LINK to summary.

White, Mark, Paul Pettitt, and Danielle Schreve, “Shoot First, Ask Questions Later: Interpretive Narratives of Neanderthal Hunting,” Quaternary Science Reviews, Volume 140, 15 May 2016, Pages 1-20.

Wilkins, Alasdair, “DNA Reveals That Cows Were Almost Impossible to Domesticate,” Gizmodo, March 29, 2012.  LINK

Image: Aurochs at Lascaux

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Hunting Strategies in Central Europe

Hunter-gatherer cultures differed widely in their dependence on technology.  The persistence hunters of the Kalahari used almost none, while those inhabiting cold regions required huge survival toolboxes — weatherproof shelters, warm hearths, fur clothing, canoes, specialized weaponry, food storage.  In the far north, hunting clans also required dozens of large sled dogs, and feeding them required killing many additional wild animals, all year long.  The utterly simple Kalahari way of life was practiced by our hominid ancestors for two or three million years.  These tropical primates had coevolved with their tropical ecosystem, and elegantly danced to the beat of the land, a vital key for their long-term success.

I was curious to learn more about the hunting cultures of my prehistoric ancestors in snowy Europe, so I plowed through a pile of scholarly books, papers, and websites.  The Stránská skála site near Brno, Czech Republic looked promising.  It held the remains of bison, horses, mammoths, elk, rhinos, bears, and giant deer.  I came across Hunting Strategies in Central Europe During the Last Glacial Maximum, by Dixie West.  Most of the book focused on stone tools and bone fragments found at Stránská skála and another site.  I didn’t find what I was looking for, but the info I found was important for better understanding this chapter of the human saga.

The Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) was the frigid peak of the last ice age, which occurred between 20,000 to 15,000 years ago.  Glaciers retained so much water that sea levels were 410 feet (125 m) lower than today.  A lass could walk from Ireland to Scandinavia or France without getting her feet wet (MAP).  During the LGM, climate became cooler and more arid, which had a serious impact on vegetation, and the animals that depended on it.  Many species that had survived a number of earlier ice ages began to go extinct.  Climate was an important actor in this drama.  Notably, highly skilled human hunters, with state of the art technology, were now well-established residents of Europa.

Once upon a time, mammoth country ranged from Western Europe to Alaska, New England, and Mexico.  Mammoths needed to stay close to water.  Because they were huge, and moved slowly, they couldn’t utilize sparse scattered patches of vegetation, or food too distant from water sources.  Difficult terrain was also off limits for the huge critters.  Each day, an adult needed to eat 440 to 660 pounds (200 – 300 kg) of moist feed, preferably grass.  A horse could get by on 22 pounds (10 kg) per day.

Frozen mammoths have been found, and their guts contained larch, birch, willow, sedge, mosses, and grasses.  They were able to digest both low fiber fresh grasses and high fiber wood, and quickly convert them into mammoth poop.  As the climate became cooler and more arid, their food supply diminished.  European mammoths were stressed by 24,000 years ago.  As the harsh climate intensified, the slow-moving animals had to migrate to warmer regions, which were already occupied by other large herbivores.

In a dryer climate, vegetation became more fibrous, or went dormant.  Seasonal bottlenecks in the food supply for grazing animals increased.  Bison, aurochs (cattle), sheep, and goats digest their preferred food slowly, and a diet higher in fiber would have been a threat to survival, in the driest periods.  They joined the mammoths in drifting toward greener pastures.

Similarly, reindeer had a limited ability to digest cellulose, but they were able to survive because they could quickly travel long distances each day, selectively dining at smaller patches of the most nutritious food.  Another plus was their ability to digest forages that other species could not, like lichens.

Horses were also lucky, because they could thrive on a high fiber, low protein diet.  They had to spend more time grazing on lower quality food, consume larger amounts of it, and expand the size of the territory they grazed.

The LGM made life more challenging for hunters.  Game animals declined in numbers and variety, so more time was spent searching for them.  The lads preferred to take larger animals that provided generous amounts of meat, body fat, marrow, and bone grease.  Fat was very important.  When a carcass provided little fat, more meat had to be consumed to acquire necessary nutrients.  West noted, “If fat is totally absent in the diet, very lean meat should be avoided as it takes a higher metabolism to digest purely lean meat, and predators, including humans, can readily lose weight on a lean meat diet.”

At the kill site, animals were often dismembered, making it easier to haul them back to camp.  They hauled away the prime stuff, and left behind low quality stuff for scavengers to enjoy and recycle.  Marrow was prized, and reindeer bones contained a lot of it.  Horses were twice the size of reindeer, but the deer had 13 times more marrow.  Horses provided lots of protein, but had minimal body fat or marrow.  It wasn’t worth the effort to haul away horse bones and break them apart at camp.

There were two types of horse groups, harems and bachelor herds.  The dominant stallion protected his harem of mares, and the young colts.  Colts were prime targets for predators, but stallions were big, strong, and aggressive — kicking, biting, and stomping all threats.  When hunters attacked a harem, the stallion had to be killed first.  Hunters were less likely to die when attacking bachelors, but less likely to get meat, because bachelors rapidly dispersed in every direction.

For ambush hunting, waterholes were a prime location.  Hunters waited, concealed in blinds.  As the LGM squeezed plant communities, horse herds were forced to scatter more for grazing, making them harder for hunters to find.  During fall and spring migrations, herds could swell to thousands of animals.  They were fattest in the late autumn.  Hunters could kill many by driving them into box canyons, ravines, stone corrals, and other traps.

Reindeer also gathered in large herds for seasonal migrations.  Autumn was the prime season for hunting.  Reindeer were much easier to kill, but these smaller animals provided less protein.  Hunters consumed their meat, blood, fat, marrow, and the milk of (killed) lactating cows.  West adds, “Modern caribou hunters provide evidence that ancient humans could have relied on partially digested gut contents and feces of reindeer to fulfill nutritional requirements.”  Yum!

Antlers were used to make tools.  They could be eaten while in summer velvet.  Fat was burned for light.  After the hunt, hides were prepared for tanning, and meat was butchered for drying or smoking.  Bones were broken to get marrow, and then crushed and boiled to extract the bone grease.  Containers were made from hides, bladders, and guts.  Cordage was made from tendons and sinews.  Hides were used to make blankets, boots, and clothing.

Caribou are close relatives of reindeer.  Each year, 24 hides were needed to maintain a caribou hunter’s wardrobe.  At least 20 hides were needed to make a tent.  Boiled hides were famine food.  From time to time, when adequate vegetation became scarce, the routes of seasonal migrations might change suddenly without warning.  It only took a few weeks for a hunting group to die from starvation.

For me, the moral of this story is that life is vastly easier when tropical primates remain in their tropical motherland, and live as their ancestors had for several million years, relying on a few very simple tools.  Migrating into non-tropical ecosystems, like Europe, demanded serious technological innovation, a dark juju that proceeds slowly at first, gradually accelerates, and then explodes.  Innovation is highly contagious, demonically addictive, and phenomenally destructive in its advanced stages.  Old-fashioned cultures that wisely nurtured voluntary restraint and simple lifestyles were helpless deer in the headlights of runaway innovation, forcing them to leap aboard the Oblivion Express or die.

In her book, The Old Way, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas reported that the traditional Kalahari way of life is over.  Clever lads discovered that enslaved dogs made tracking and hunting much easier.  Later they got enslaved horses, eliminating the need for long distance running.  Then they got guns, which were far deadlier than bows and arrows.  Progress never sleeps.  Guess what happened to the game.  Only a few elders still remember the art of tracking, a million years of time-proven knowledge.

Year after year, we’ve been zooming past countless red warning signs.  Wrong way!  Do not enter!  The path of human-centered thinking is approaching its clearly marked dead end.  Beliefs, spells, and madness got us into this mess — not genes.  Devastating epidemics of status fever are spread via stupid ideas.  Sane ideas are an effective cure.  Imagine that.

West, Dixie, Hunting Strategies in Central Europe During the Last Glacial Maximum, British Archaeological Reports, Oxford, 1997.

Thomas, Elizabeth Marshall, The Old Way: A Story of the First People, Farrar Straus Giroux, New York, 2006.

Woolly mammoth image above (source).

Friday, May 26, 2017

Pleistocene Hunting in Europe

Humankind is confronted with an enormous and perplexing riddle.  We’ve developed a way of life that is ecologically super-idiotic (but look at our awesome phones!), and pounding the vitality of the natural world (and soon we’ll have self-driving cars!).  The great riddle is how did we get into this mess?  Can we get out of it?  Who are we?  Where did we come from?

Many books reveal important clues.  Bonobo described our closest living relatives, a species that has remained sustainable for millions of years.  The Art of Tracking revealed our ancient roots as bipedal hunters and scavengers, which kept our ancestors alive for several million years.  Hunters of the Recent Past examined the communal hunting practiced by Homo sapiens who struggled to adapt to living in temperate and subarctic climates, during the last 15,000 years or so. 

Now, I want to peek at life from 40,000 to 20,000 years ago.  This peek looks at the Homo sapiens who had recently moved into Europe — the ancestors of many white skinned folks who are reading my words in English.  In those days, Europe enjoyed an astonishing abundance of wildlife.  Peek at the fantastic cave paintings of Chauvet or Lascaux.

For my tropical primate ancestors to survive in a challenging non-tropical climate, they had to live like moon explorers, with weatherproof shelters, warm clothing, blazing hearths, and a well-stocked food locker for the deep freeze months.  The giant hyenas, cave bears, cave lions, and saber-tooth cats refused to join PETA, and took great delight in brutally killing the delicious primates in fur coats.  Eventually, groups that were clever and lucky figured out ways to exist for a while, riding a scary climate change roller coaster.

Roche de Solutré

At the Roche de Solutré site, near Mâcon, France, archaeologists have found the remains of up to 100,000 horses.  Prior to 1866, when experts realized the bones were prehistoric, local farmers had been hauling them away for many years, using them for fertilizer.  In some places, the surface of the ground was paved with ancient horse bones.  The valley was a common route for the migrations of animal herds.  In the summer months, herds grazed at higher elevations to avoid heat and insects.  Winter months were spent grazing on the warmer floodplain of the Saône River.

The bone beds were located fairly close to the bottom of a steep limestone cliff.  For years, folks theorized that the horses had been killed by driving them over the edge.  At this site, a more likely scenario was that hunters drove the animals into natural rock corrals, or box canyons, where they were trapped.  Once cut off from escape, they were killed, butchered, dried, and smoked.  Wild horses were extremely dangerous prey.  Big strong stallions would aggressively attack hunters, and stomp them to bloody bits.

The oldest bones are 55,000 years old, horses killed by Neanderthals.  They were covered by six feet (1.8 m) of sterile soil.  The next layer is deep, containing the remains of animals killed by Homo sapiens between 37,000 and 10,000 years ago.  Prior to 22,000 years ago, the majority of bones were horses.  After that, reindeer bones were dominant.  This was an era of climate shifts.


Předmostí is near the city of Přerov, in the Czech Republic.  It is located at the southern end of the Moravian Gate, a narrow corridor that passes between the Carpathian Mountains to the east, and the Sudeten range in the west, linking southern Poland and Moravia.  It has long been a strategic trade and communications route.  Naturally, it was also a route for the seasonal migrations of game animals in the Pleistocene, including mammoths.

Předmostí has the largest mammoth bone accumulations in central Europe.  The skeletons of more than a thousand have been uncovered so far.  Mammoth bones were used in the construction of their huts.  Excavations have found hearths, a cemetery, stone and bone tools, and carvings made from mammoth ivory.  One carving has been named the Venus of Předmostí. 

Folks inhabited Předmostí between 27,000 and 25,000 years ago, and again later, about 20,000 years ago.  During this time period, at many locations in central Europe, numerous Venus figurines have been found.  HERE are some examples.  The figurines inspired archaeologist Marija Gimbutas to imagine a paradise of goddess worshipping people that preceded the dark arrival of patriarchy and bloody warfare… a pleasant dream.

Dolní Věstonice

Dolní Věstonice and Pavlov are small neighboring villages north of Mikulov, in the Czech Republic.  In the twentieth century, when a villager decided to dig a cellar, he discovered the remains of a large dwelling built with mammoth bones and tusks.  Multiple excavation sites in these villages have revealed fascinating details about Pleistocene hunters, who lived there from 29,000 to 24,500 years ago.  They lived on terraces overlooking the river, where they had an excellent view of the vast treeless steppe below.  These huts were common in central Europe.  HERE is a map of them, and HERE are many images of mammoth bone huts.

At one camp, four huts were located close together, and the small settlement was surrounded by a low wall made of mammoth bones and rocks, covered with brush and turf.  The huts were something like teepees, covered with animal skins.  They had a circular foundation made of rocks and heavy bones.  Between the huts was a large outdoor fire pit.  Up the hill was a small hut containing a kiln for baking clay.  This is the earliest evidence of making ceramics (they did not make pottery).  They created a variety of figurines, including the heads of bears, foxes, and lions, and female figurines with bulging breasts and buttocks.  These may be the earliest art.

At a nearby location, the largest lodge was 50 feet long (15 m) by 20 feet wide (7 m), and had five hearths.  At one hearth, two long mammoth bones were stuck in the ground, to support a roasting spit.  Southeast of the lodge were piles of bones, including about 100 mammoths, mostly young.  There were also bones of horses, reindeer, hares, wolves, and foxes.  At one dig, they found the remains of a child wearing a necklace with 27 fox teeth.  The skull was covered with red ochre, and the body was covered with the shoulder blades of mammoths. 

Artists have studied the skulls found in the area, and made paintings of what the people would have looked like in life.  When exhibited in Prague, the portrait of a prehistoric wild woman embarrassed the public — because she looked too modern, not like a dirty primitive beast — she looked like the proper and dignified ladies in the gallery (gulp!).  Many awesome paintings can be found HERE.

Great Leap Forward

The sites mentioned above existed prior to the Last Glacial Maximum (20,000 to 15,000 years ago), an era of intense cold that froze out many species of flora and fauna.  Some human supremacists see these mammoth hunters as a glorious breakthrough in the human saga, when we finally ceased being ordinary animals — dumb brutes unable to sing, speak, reason, make ornaments, paint caves, invent deities, or become entranced by smart phones.  They call this transition the Great Leap Forward — a miraculous advance as important as the Industrial Revolution.  (Of course, this could only take place in Europe, home of the most brilliant humans of all.)

The Pleistocene epoch spanned from 2.6 million years ago, to 11,700 years ago, and it included many intense ice ages.  At the end of the Pleistocene, there was a surge of extinctions; a large number of megafauna species vanished in North America, mostly between 12,000 to 10,000 years ago.  Some experts blame humans for overhunting, others blame climate change, and many blame a combination.

In Europe, fewer extinctions occurred, and they took place over a longer period of time.  Many of the species that went extinct were giant-sized, compared to their modern relatives.  Cave bears and European hippos vanished around 24,000 years ago — both species had been around for over a million years.  Homotherium, a genus of saber-tooth cats, existed for five million years before vanishing 28,000 years ago.  European cave lions vanished 10,000 years ago, after 1.9 million years.  Cave hyenas were gone by 11,000 years ago, after 3.5 million years.  Irish elk were gone by 8,000 years ago, after 400,000 years in Europe.  Woolly mammoths were gone by 14,000 years ago, after 400,000 years.  Woolly rhinoceros vanished 10,000 years ago, after 3.6 million years in Eurasia.

Was the Great Leap Forward a great booboo?  Did overhunting encourage the emergence of agriculture and civilization?  Should we have stayed in tropical Africa, and skipped our nightmarish experiment in technological innovation?  Why don’t bonobos need psych meds?  Good luck with the riddle!  Have a nice day!

Image at top by Libor Balák.

Fagan, Brian, Cro-Magnon:  How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans, Bloomsbury Press, New York, 2010.

Kurtén, Björn, Pleistocene Mammals of Europe, Aldine Publishing Company, Chicago, 1968.

Svoboda, Jiri, and Vojen Lozek, Hunters Between East and West: The Paleolithic of Moravia, Springer Science, New York, 1996.

Stringer, Chris, Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on Earth, Times Books, New York, 2012.

Ward, Peter D., The Call of Distant Mammoths, Copernicus, New York, 1997.

HERE are paintings of life in central Europe from 20,000 to 12,500 years ago.

HERE is a large collection of photos and random notes describing the Kostenki sites along the Don River in Russia.  Kostenki is notable for the mammoth bone huts found there.

HERE is a large collection of interesting photos, maps, and random notes describing the Dolní Věstonice and Pavlov sites in the Czech Republic. 

Monday, May 15, 2017

Hunters of the Recent Past

When I hear the word “hunter,” I immediately conjure an image of a man with a gun.  Other images follow — bows and arrows, mounted hunters, cavemen with spears, and so on.  Hunters of the Recent Past provided me with much new information on how the ancestors lived, prior to horses, guns, and other industrial gizmos.  The book is a collection of 19 scholarly papers that describe modes of low-tech communal hunting that were common during the last 8,000 years or so.

Evolution fine-tuned our species for life on tropical savannahs.  In a hot climate, meat spoils quickly, so hunting was only done to satisfy immediate needs.  Tropical folks could survive without fire and clever technology.  On the other hand, in temperate and subarctic climates, the buffet of food resources was less generous.  In many regions, survival through long winters was impossible without having fire, warm shelter, fur clothing, and substantial amounts of stored food.

On the western plains of North America, a common method of communal hunting was driving herds of buffalo off cliffs.  White folks called these killing sites buffalo jumps, the Blackfeet called them pishkuns.  Pishkuns were scattered from Canada to Mexico.  There were more than 300 in Montana alone.  For thousands of years, prior to horses and guns, this was a primary method for hunting buffalo.  At the First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park in Montana, many layers of buffalo bones are found beneath the cliff — literally millions of bones.

When scouts observed a herd moving into the vicinity of a pishkun, hunters moved to appropriate locations, and became noisy and animated.  The herd panicked and ran away from them, moving into drive lanes that funneled the herd to the brink of doom.  Brave teenage buffalo runners, camouflaged in buffalo hides, led the animals toward the cliff.  The runners would disappear over the edge, but safely land on a ledge below, whilst the surprised buffalos flew over them, and plummeted to the rocks below, where butchers waited.  (Read THIS.)

The Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is in southwest Alberta.  It utilized one of the longest and most complex drive structures on the plains.  Natives constructed drive lanes that reached up to 6 miles (10 km) into the gathering basin.  They followed the contours of the land, to help the flow of animals move as smoothly as possible.  The bone deposits at the bottom are 39 feet deep (12 m).  This pishkun was in use by at least 6,000 years ago.  (Read THIS.)

In the journal of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Lewis noted that on May 29, 1805 they discovered the rotting carcasses of about 100 buffalo at the bottom of a cliff, as well as great numbers of well-fed wolves that were “very gentle.”  For amusement, Clark felt inspired to shoot one of the blissed out wolves.

There were two primary seasons for communal hunting, springtime and late autumn/early winter.  In spring, little stored food was left.  Buffalo still had heavy winter coats, excellent for making warm clothing.  In the fall, animals had fattened up for the long cold winter, and fat was cherished.  Animals with minimal fat were junk food, or dog food, or left to rot.

Reindeer live in northern Eurasia, and caribou live in Greenland, Canada, and Alaska.  The two creatures are the same species (Rangifer tarandus), but there are nine subspecies, like tundra reindeer, woodland reindeer, tundra caribou, woodland caribou, etc.  Several are now endangered.  The species is unique in that both sexes grow antlers.

All around the Arctic Circle, reindeer and caribou have been hunted for thousands of years.  They provide meat, sinew for sewing, bone for needles and awls, antler for tools, fat for light, heating, and nourishment, and hides for bags, snares, clothes, and tents.  They make survival possible.

Every spring and fall, herds made seasonal migrations along traditional routes.  Hunters knew when and where to expect them.  These routes often had bottlenecks that concentrated the herds, ideal locations for hunting.  Commonly, groups of hunters would drive the herds into killing places.  To direct the movement of a herd, drive lanes included barriers — log fences, brush fences, snow drifts, rock cairns.  Some locations had corrals of wood or stone to capture the herd.  In Siberia, animals were driven into nets.

Herds were driven into deep snow and then lanced or shot with arrows.  In Greenland, caribou were driven off cliffs.  Some hunters used snares, open loops suspended from branches, to grab animals by their necks or antlers.  Snares were placed along game trails, where animals voluntarily moved, or scattered along drive lanes where hunters or dogs aggressively drove them.  Records from 250 years ago report that near Churchill, Manitoba, caribou herds were driven into corrals that were one mile (1.6 km) in diameter, and 350 to 600 people participated in the kill.

The easiest method, where possible, was to drive the herd into streams or lakes, where they were lanced by hunters in canoes or kayaks.  Two hundred animals could be taken in a few hours.  During a two-week summer hunt on Lake Mistinipi, hunters speared 1,200 to 1,500 caribou.  One Copper Inuit settlement, inhabited between 1500 and 1700, was located close to a caribou migration route.  During two centuries, an estimated 100,000 caribou were driven into the lake and killed.

Lads in canoes did not always stop killing when they had all the meat they needed.  In a frenzy, they killed as many caribou as they could, the entire herd, if possible.  It was a great pleasure to kill so easily, many months since the last migration.  Near Hudson Bay, an observer in the 1890s found hundreds of carcasses left to rot — overkill.

In Scotland, Norway, Sweden, and Finland, many thousands of pit traps were dug in migration routes to catch reindeer.  Animals could be driven into the pits during their outbound and inbound migrations.  In southern Norway, trapping pits were used as early as 11,000 years ago.  HERE are examples of snares and traps used in Stone Age Finland.  HERE are photos of recreations of a settlement in Stone Age Finland.

Caribou herds had been following traditional migration routes for 8,000 years or more.  Indians and Inuit built permanent settlements along the routes.  In the nineteenth century, when hunters began using repeating rifles, animals could be killed from farther away, requiring less stalking skill.  The caribou harvest sharply increased.  Before long, herds abandoned traditional routes, communities starved, and their settlements went extinct — an unintended consequence of progress.

The book also discusses communal hunting for pronghorn antelope, mountain sheep (bighorns), mammoths and mastodons, moas, guanacos, and others.  It’s a mother lode of information.  The writing is scholarly — terse and compact — but not bewildering techno jargon gibberish.

Compared to the good old days in mother Africa, it was far more difficult for tropical primates to survive in cool climates.  The selection of kill sites, and the construction of drive lanes, corrals, and pit traps was a major effort.  On the days of mass kills, large numbers of people were required for success.  Preserving meat and hides took weeks of work.

Communal hunting required teamwork, planning, and extensive knowledge of the landscape, the behavior of animals, and basic survival.  Over time, it contributed to the extinction of mammoths, mastodons, and moas.  By the 1930s, mountain sheep were nearly gone.  With the arrival of guns, horses, traders, snowmobiles, ranchers, loggers, miners, diseases, and genocidal maniacs, the herds of buffalo, caribou, and reindeer have been sharply reduced.

In another review (HERE), we learned that the persistence hunters of the Kalahari, and their hominid predecessors, remained extremely low tech for two million years or more.  The civilized people who have waged full-scale war on wildlife are all descendants of persistence hunters.  Technological innovation is demonically addictive, new gizmos replacing old, in an accelerating downward spiral.  Cultures bewitched with cleverness gallop down the drive lanes, faster and faster and faster, destined for the bloody bone beds below — big brains and all.  There are other paths.

Davis, Leslie B., and Brian O. K. Reeves, editors, Hunters of the Recent Past, Unwin Hyman, London, 1990.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Indian Running

For at least four million years, our ancestors have been bipedal, they moved around on two legs.  This ability evolved on the African savannah, tropical grassland.  Being upright exposed less of their bodies to hot sunbeams, and their bushy head hair provided extra protection.  Their nearly furless bodies, combined with three million sweat glands, allowed them to shed body heat better than other savannah mammals.

Being bipedal prohibited lightning fast bursts of speed, but it enabled steady long distance running in roasting temperatures.  Other mammals could make quick getaways, but they soon had to find shade and chill out.  Our ancestors were able to chase large animals in the heat of the day, hour after hour, until their prey collapsed from exhaustion or heat stroke.

The person you see in the mirror has a body that is optimized for running, not walking.  Your toes and heel tendons provide a bounce when your foot hits the ground, improving energy efficiency.  Your legs and spine are fine-tuned for jogging, keeping your head and eyes steady.  Skilled runners seem to move with elegant smoothness, effortlessly gliding along, lightly skimming across the land.

As I learned more about long distance running, I kept discovering fascinating tidbits about persistence hunting.  Aborigines would eventually outrun kangaroos.  The Penobscot tribe chased down moose, and the Navajo and Paiutes would subdue antelopes.  The Tarahumara pursued deer and turkeys.  In Southern Africa, game included steenbok, gemsbok, wildebeest, zebras, and others.  Peter Nabokov’s book, Indian Running, blew my mind.

The book was born in 1980, when Nabokov covered a five-day footrace in New Mexico.  Hopi, Navajo, and Zuni runners covered more than 375 miles (603 km).  The event celebrated the 300-year anniversary of the Pueblo Revolt.  Santa Fe was “the first and only white man’s city to be conquered and occupied by North American Indians.”

In 1680, Spaniards had been building missions in the region for 90 years, and they displayed remarkable gifts for behaving like class-A tyrants.  Natives from up to 300 miles (483 km) away coordinated their attack to expel the illegal aliens, and defend the American way of life.  Churches went up in smoke, their hated bells were smashed, documents were burned, 21 detested priests were sent to their just rewards, along with 380 of their Spanish and Mexican Indian associates.  Good triumphed over evil (for 12 years).  Joy!

The outline of Nabokov’s book includes five chapters that provide commentary on the five days of the 1980 race.  Throughout the text, he inserted passages about other tribes and eras, with regard to running, and these passages include some mind-altering gems.  By the end of the book, my perception of what it means to be human had been significantly updated and clarified.

Every morning, I step outdoors and wince at the rumbling thunder of thousands of motorized wheelchairs.  We consider this normal, but limited energy reserves guarantee that this silliness can have no long-term future.  When the last Toyota croaks, an extremely bloated population is not going to return to travelling by horse.  By the 1890s, industrial cities had become filthy, stinking, unhealthy nightmares of horse manure, urine, and thick clouds of flies (read THIS).

A mere 5,500 years ago, horses were domesticated in Kazakhstan.  Like the atom bomb, this event radically altered the course of the human saga.  With horses, the ferocious Mongols rapidly created the biggest contiguous empire in all history.  Mounted warriors dominated warfare for centuries, until guns and cannons came to the battlefield.  Plains Indians didn’t acquire horses until the eighteenth century, at which point their way of life promptly experienced turbulent changes, but that’s another story.

Nabakov’s story is about running.  For essentially four million years, running meant survival.  A Hopi man said, “Long ago when the Hopi had no sheep, no horses, no burros, they had to depend for game-capturing on their legs.”  Running was also vital during conflicts — for chasing despised enemies, and for speedy exits when despised enemies came to visit.  Running could be crucial for escaping the claws and jaws of man-eating predators, and other bummers.

He noted that many civilizations used runners to deliver messages — Greeks, Romans, Chinese, Persians, Aztecs, Incas, Mayans.  With fresh runners ready at stations placed several miles apart, messages could move through the Inca world at 150 miles (241 km) per day.  In Greece, the “marathon” race refers to 490 B.C., when a soldier ran 25 miles (40 km) from Marathon to Athens, bringing news of the Athenian victory over the Persians — and then he collapsed from exhaustion and died.

Nabokov provides numerous accounts of Indian messengers traveling great distances.  One ran 50 miles in six hours.  A Mojave lad ran 200 miles (322 km) in 24 hours.  Seven days a week, a Tarahumara man ran a 70 mile (112 km) route, carrying a heavy mailbag.  Another report noted that some Tarahumara lads could run 170 miles (273 km) without stopping.  Mexicans would hire them to capture wild horses, chasing them for two or three days, until the horses could run no more — while the men remained fresh.  After running 15 miles (24 km), Zuni runners still had a slow heart rate and no signs of fatigue.  Men in their seventies continued to have tremendous endurance, as well as low blood pressure.

Ceremonial running was done after planting to bring rain, and ensure a good harvest.  For Navajo and Apache women, a four-day rite of passage ritual was held to honor their first menstruation.  Young ladies would run each day, to become strong in body and soul.  Many other tribes practiced forms of puberty running.

When he was just four years old, Navajo lad Rex Lee Jim was awakened before sunrise each day, and sent outside to run four miles before breakfast.  In winter, he might take a freeze bath, rolling in the snow before running.  Geronimo and the Apaches were infamous bad asses.  By the age of 8, boys were being taught to increase their strength, endurance, and tolerance of pain.  They ran up mountains.  They ran carrying loads.  They punched trees.  Apache warriors were far stronger and tougher than the U.S. cavalry soldiers sent to exterminate them.

I spent many years sitting indoors in school desks, learning reading, writing, and arithmetic, loading my brains with the ideas necessary to be an obedient, punctual, productive cog in the industrial society that’s pounding the planet to pieces.  Wild Native Americans, during the years of their youth, were being taught to be strong, brave, and extremely healthy.  They learned the skills needed to survive in their ecosystem, in a low impact manner.  During their entire lives, they sent nothing to landfills.

In the Boston Marathon, participants are running for themselves, individuals in a vast mob of folks motivated to beat records and gain fame.  When Indians run in races, they do so as members of their tribe.  They have a sense of belonging, of community, of one enduring culture, that white people never experience.  When natives run, the message is about peace, harmony, and uniting as a people.  Race time is not important.

Fame tends to result in bigheads bloated with pride, an unwelcome irritant in tribal communities.  Excellent native runners are more likely to pump gas than become famous celebrity athletes on national TV.  There’s no place like home.

Nabokov, Peter, Indian Running, 1981, Reprint, Ancient City Press, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1987.

For more info on running and tracking, see my two previous reviews, The Art of Tracking, and The Origin of Science.  Other interesting books include Why We Run, by Bernd Heinrich, and The Tarahumara, by Wendell Bennett and Robert Zingg.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Origin of Science

NOTE: To better understand the following, you might read my review of The Art of Tracking first.

Back in the 1800s, folks on the cutting edge of Western science were perplexed.  Evolution had apparently provided hunter-gatherers with essentially the same brains that we moderns have, yet they appeared to be severely retarded — no clear-cuts, mines, cities, insane asylums.  What was wrong with them?  This abnormality led Alfred Wallace to wonder if the theory of evolution was a hoax. 

At the time, he and his peers believed that science originated in ancient Greece, but none of them knew anything about the wild people of the Kalahari Desert in Botswana.  Around 1950, anthropologists began spending time with these hunter-gatherers.  Their studies noted that the hunters carried small bows, which shot poison-tipped arrows.  Poisons were made from plants, snakes, scorpions, spiders, or beetle larvae.  They took from 6 hours to 3 days to kill the animal.  Because anthropologists could see the bows and arrows, they asked questions about them. 

What they could not see was enormous — a two million year tradition, a primary reason why humans walk upright, the mother of our high-powered brains — persistence hunting.  The researchers were attuned to cozy civilized living, not running barefoot across a thorny scorching hot desert for hours at a time.  Consequently, they missed a great deal.

Persistence hunting involved doggedly chasing game for hours until the animal collapsed from heat stroke and died.  Prey could run faster than hunters, for a while, until they became exhausted, overheated, and collapsed.  Their speedy escape left tracks that the less speedy hunters could follow.  Some hunters had fantastic skills in the art of tracking.  HERE is a 7-minute BBC video of a persistence hunt.

Louis Liebenberg is a South African lad, a “citizen scientist,” not a highly paid professional scientist from a luxurious education factory.  He has spent many years learning from the trackers of the Kalahari.  Because skilled trackers utilize an impressive variety of reasoning processes, he believes that tracking could have been the birth of science.  His first book, The Art of Tracking, was published in 1990.  It provides readers with an amazing collection of ideas.  The following commentary is on his 2013 book, The Origin of Science, which focuses on the relationship between tracking and science history.

Tracking requires accumulating an immense amount of knowledge about animal behavior and their spoor (tracks and other signs), an endless lifelong learning process.  In addition, while jogging across the desert in extreme heat, trackers must rapidly process complex inputs into accurate hypotheses.  The most gifted trackers excel at remembering, attention, reasoning, intuition, and imagination.  Their ancient culture enables them to survive in a vast desert that would promptly doom suburban consumers.

These wild super-survivors are nearly naked, unschooled, illiterate, unemployed, uninsured, homeless, penniless heathens who rarely take a bath.  Yet their culture remained sustainable for 100,000 years or more.  Their way of life is possible because they know how to engage in high quality scientific reasoning.  Tracking is about creative problem solving.  All trackers use inductive-deductive reasoning — track and sign recognition.  Advanced trackers also use hypothetico-deductive reasoning — track and sign interpretation, which requires more creativity.  Modern science continues to depend on both types of reasoning today.

Liebenberg has had years of direct experience with both wild people and modern people.  Tracking encourages wild people to develop heightened abilities for intuitive thinking, because the tracks of their prey are rarely clear and complete.  Intuition helps to fill in the blanks and suggest possible conclusions.  It is fast, automatic, effortless, and often unconscious.  Intuition also enhances social relationships.  Wild people are far more sensitive to each other than are folks in the modern world, “where perceptions of others have been blunted by fragmented and shallow relationships.”

For Liebenberg, “education” is a four-letter word, because it is so authoritarian.  Inmates are forced to sit indoors, in rows of hard seats, to have their brains filled with the infallible knowledge of modern science.  Truth is based on the authority of teachers and textbooks, and students on the golden path to success know better than to question authority.

“Modern societies in general, and education in particular, does more to stifle than to encourage intuitive thinking.”  Modern science is often hierarchical, elitist, and less accessible to non-specialist commoners.  On the Kalahari, tracking science is informal and accessible to everyone.  A youth can disagree with how an experienced elder has interpreted tracks, and suggest a different conclusion.  From childhood, youths are regularly exposed to the scientific process.

Modern human brains are probably little different from those of early Homo sapiens.  Liebenberg believes that “some trackers in the past probably were, and perhaps today are, just as ingenious as the most ingenious modern mathematicians and physicists.”  At the same time, both trackers and physicists are capable of being stunningly irrational.  “Cultures may go into decline when scientific knowledge is undermined by irrational belief systems.”

We believe that our industrial civilization is too smart to collapse, perpetual growth is possible, innovation will create “clean” sources of abundant energy, climate change can be reversed, eleven billion can be fed, and the best is yet to come.  He warns us that, “Political leaders who hold irrational and superstitious beliefs, and may even be anti-science, clearly may have serious negative implications for human welfare.”  (Gulp!)

The goal of this book is to argue that science began with prehistoric bipedal trackers.  I wonder if scientific processes aren’t even older than bipedal primates.  Who taught our ancestors the art of hunting — locating prey by scent, sight, sounds, tracks, and knowledge of prey behavior?  Who taught us concealment, stalking, silent movement, deception, ambush, and approaching prey from downwind?  Lions don’t sit in the grass with their mouths open, waiting for breakfast to prance in.  They survive because they have teamwork and powerful minds.  “The /Gwi believe that some species possess knowledge that transcends that of humans.”  In Alaska, the Koyukon proverb is, “Every animal knows way more than you do.”

On the Kalahari, the traditional wild culture is being driven to extinction by growing contact with you-know-who.  Herders are moving in, fencing off lands.  In the 1960s, hunters began using dogs.  Much more game was killed, but the tracking skills of the hunters declined.  More recently, horses have also been added.  The diabolical trio of hunters, horses, and dogs makes it much easier to overhunt and deplete wildlife populations.  Far less skill is needed.  Younger generations have shifted to making souvenirs for tourists, as their ancient culture is pounded against the rocks.

Liebenberg is working with Kalahari elders to encourage younger folks to learn tracking, in hopes that skilled trackers can gain employment collecting wildlife data for use in scientific research.  He has created CyberTracker, a smart phone app that can be used to collect data in the field.  The interface is icon-based, so it can be used by illiterate people.  It is now being used in research around the world, and is helpful in documenting ecological trends, like the welfare of endangered species.  It also encourages the survival and preservation of the art of tracking.

Liebenberg, Louis, The Origin of Science, CyberTracker, Cape Town, South Africa, 2013.

Free PDF downloads of Liebenberg’s books, The Art of Tracking, and The Origin of Science, are available HERE.  Amazon sells a Kindle version of The Origin of Science for $1.00.