Friday, July 21, 2017

Sea of Slaughter

Farley Mowat (1921–2014) was a famous Canadian nature writer, a fire-breathing critic of modernity’s war on wildness.  He spent much of his life close to the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Atlantic, and was an avid outdoorsman.  By 1975, he and his wife were becoming acutely aware of the sharp decline of wildlife during their own lifetimes.

Mowat chatted with 90-year olds who confirmed his suspicions, and revealed even more tragedies.  Then he began researching historical documents, and his mind snapped.  Early European visitors were astonished by the abundance of wildlife in North America, something long gone in the Old World.  To them, the animals appeared to be infinite in number, impossible for humans to diminish, ever!

At this point, spirits of the ancestors gave him the heart-wrenching task of writing the mother of all horror stories.  His book, Sea of Slaughter, focused on the last 500 years in a coastal region spanning from Labrador to Cape Cod.  The book has five parts: birds, land mammals, fish, whales, and fin feet (seals, walrus).

For thousands of years, Native Americans hunted for subsistence, taking only what they needed to survive.  Europeans were strikingly different.  They suffered from brain worms that inflamed a maniacal obsession with wealth and status.  They were bewitched by an insatiable greed that was impossible to satisfy — they could never have enough.  Today, scientists refer to this devastating, highly contagious mental illness as get-rich-quick fever — the villain of this story.

In 1534, Jacques Cartier sailed by the Isle of Birds, a rookery for auks (northern penguins).  He wrote, “This island is so exceedingly full of birds that all the ships of France might load a cargo of them without anyone noticing that any had been removed.”  Auks were large, flightless, fat, and laid eggs in accessible locations (not cliff side nests).  Vast numbers were clobbered, salted, and loaded on ships.  Others were chopped into fish bait.  Many were boiled in large cauldrons to extract the oil from their body fat.  In Europe, it had taken over a thousand years to exterminate the auks; in the New World, advanced technology got the job done in just 300 years.  The last two died in 1844.

Prior to the emergence of the petroleum industry in the late nineteenth century, civilization acquired large amounts of oil from wildlife — seabirds, whales, walrus, seals, porpoises, and fish.  An adult polar bear killed in autumn provided lots of meat, a valuable pelt, and twelve gallons (45 l) of good oil.  Animal oil was used for lamp fuel, lubrication, cooking oil, soap, cosmetics, margarine, and leather processing.

There are a number of repeating patterns in the book.  The hunger for money was the heart of the monster.  Nothing else really mattered.  If there were just ten whales left in the world, and they were worth money, the hunters would not hesitate to kill them all.  God made animals for us to obliterate.  Whenever possible, wildlife massacres were done on an industrial scale — kill as many as possible, as fast as possible.

Conservation was an obscene, profit killing, four-letter word.  When there were fewer cod, whales, or seals, the value of each corpse increased.  So, the industry got more and bigger boats, used the latest technology, and raced to kill as many as possible, before competitors found them.  Rules, regulations, and prohibitions were always issued far too late to matter, and they usually included enough loopholes to make them meaningless.  The slaughter industry ignored them, and bureaucrats winked and looked the other way.

Five hundred years ago, cod grew to seven feet long (2.1 m), and weighed up to 200 pounds (91 kg).  An observer noted, “Cods are so thick by the shore that we hardly have been able to row a boat through them.”  Today the average cod is 6 pounds.  For many years, they were killed in staggering numbers.  By 1968, the cod fishery was rubbished.  It has not recovered, because fish mining has also depleted small fish, the cod’s basic food.

Nobody ever confesses to overfishing or overhunting.  What happened to the cod?  Obviously, they moved somewhere else, we don’t know where.  Efforts are made to find them.  When searches failed, it was time to seek and destroy scapegoats: whales, porpoises, loons, otters, cormorants, and many others.

In 1850, loons lived in nearly every lake and large pond in the northeast, from Virginia to the high arctic.  Hunters rarely ate them, but they were excellent flying targets for gun geeks.  When folks noticed salmon and trout numbers declining, it was time to look for loon nests and smash their eggs.  Cormorants got the same treatment.  Their rookeries were invaded, and all eggs and chicks destroyed.  Sometimes they sprayed the eggs with kerosene, to kill the embryos.  Birds continued sitting on lifeless eggs, instead of laying new eggs.

Big game hunting was a profitable industry, catering to <bleepity-bleeps> who found killing to be thrilling.  It generated the shiny coins that make men crazy.  What could be more fun than cruising around shooting beluga whales?  In the old days, many beaches were jam-packed with walrus that could grow to 14 feet long (4.2 m), and weigh up to 3,000 pounds (1,360 kg).  Rich lads enjoyed walrus hunting competitions.  One guy, in three weeks, killed 84 bulls, 20 cows, and a number of youngsters, not counting those that died unseen after being wounded.

Mature whales and walrus had no natural predators, so they never evolved defensive aspects or strategies.  They didn’t need to be aggressive or speedy.  They were often curious and friendly.  Hunters preferred to kill black right whales.  Their bodies had a layer of blubber up to 20 inches (51 cm) thick, containing up to 3,500 gallons (12,250 l) of oil.  Abundant blubber meant that the dead ones floated.  Other species sank when killed, and were lost.  With regard to all whale species, it was common for the number of lost carcasses (sinkers) to exceed the number landed and butchered.  Extreme waste didn’t matter as long as the carcasses landed were profitable.

Anyway, Sea of Slaughter is over 400 pages of back-to-back horror stories with no rest stops.  The book is painful, disgusting, and illuminating — a mind-bending experience.  Reading it puts you into an altered state of consciousness, an otherworldly trance state.  Our brains aren’t designed to process flash floods of stupidity.

Many readers will be shocked to see the degree to which screw brained beliefs can turn ordinary people into mindless monsters — an important concept for folks trying to understand the world.  Some readers may be tempted to dismiss the foolish destruction as an aspect of the bad old days, when we didn’t know any better.  Readers having a larger collection of working brain cells will realize that the greed is still with us, in a multitude of new forms, and it’s destroying more than ever before — a vital idea to grasp.

It’s much easier for us to acknowledge horrors that happened in the past, rather than the horrors our shopping is causing today.  History can be powerful medicine when it is taught by competent elders, instead of the usual cheerleaders for wealth, empire, progress, and human supremacy.  Mowat was an excellent wordsmith, and a passionate storyteller.  You will never forget this one.

Postscript.  In 1985, following the publication of Sea of Slaughter, Mowat was scheduled to do a book tour in the U.S.  Shortly after boarding his plane in Toronto, customs officials escorted him back off.  He learned that he was forever forbidden to travel to the land of freedom — and they wouldn’t tell him why.  This was the Reagan era, and Mowat had pissed off many conservatives.  Banishment inspired him to write a smart-assed new book, My Discovery of America.

Mowat, Farley, Sea of Slaughter, 1984, Reprint, Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver, British Columbia, 2012.

The Sea of Slaughter documentary, with Farley Mowat (1 hr, 45 min) is HERE.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Great Leaps

It’s fascinating to explore the deeper roots of our family tree.  They reveal a lot about the path that led us to today.  Homo sapiens emerged in Africa, somewhere between 300,000 and 130,000 years ago, depending on which expert you read.  DNA mapping asserts that the oldest surviving human group is the San people of South Africa and Namibia (also known as Khoisan, Bushmen, or !Kung).  Their genes are the closest to the ancient female from whom all living humans descend (Mitochondrial Eve).

The San have been hunter-gatherers since the dawn of humankind, enjoying a way of life that managed to survive into the 1970s.  Eight hundred years ago, the San homeland included all of southern Africa.  Since then, Bantu and European herders and farmers have displaced them from their better lands.  They now reside in the Kalahari Desert, where they are being devastated by the dark juju of modernity — missionaries, bureaucrats, booze pushers, and the money economy.

The Pygmies, who live in the rainforest of central Africa, are the second oldest surviving group.  They also managed to live as hunter-gatherers into recent decades.  The Pygmies and San coevolved in their ecosystems, and their way of life was genuinely sustainable, like all other (normal) animals.  They did not live like ecological firestorms.  Prior to the arrival of outsiders, they had no domesticated plants or livestock.

In the tropics of Mother Africa, meat spoiled quickly, and yummy carcasses quickly attracted mobs of ravenous scavengers.  When folks wanted a steak, they killed something.  Preserving and storing meat was impractical and unnecessary, a stupid idea that never occurred to anyone.  This limitation was a blessing, because it made large-scale hunting impossible, keeping low limits on population.  It was impossible for nomadic hunters in the tropics to acquire and preserve surplus meat that could feed non-hunting specialists like priests, technicians, warriors, or kings.

Somewhere between 100,000 and 50,000 years ago, pioneers began migrating out of Africa, into southwest Asia.  They discovered new species of big game, many of which had no instinctive fear of small, smelly, goofy-looking tropical primates with sharp sticks.  In tropical regions like India, Southeast Asia, and Australia, traditional lifestyles essentially continued, because meat storage was impractical.

Pioneers who migrated into colder regions were confronted with daunting new challenges.  They were something like moon explorers.  Outside the tropics, food was less available all year long.  Surplus had to be carefully stored to ensure winter survival.  They needed weatherproof shelters, warm hearths, and stylish wardrobes of fur clothing.

The San and Pygmies lived in sustainable, time-proven, low-tech ways.  However, in chilly non-tropical regions, where living was more complicated, ongoing innovation boosted the odds for survival.  The clever ones invented sleds, canoes, kayaks, lances, harpoons, nets, snares, and on and on.  For the moon explorers, innovation became insanely addictive, because cool gizmos reduced the odds of premature death.  As centuries passed, innovation became something like an endless arms race, a nightmare-inducing runaway train, according to Alfred Crosby.

Clive Finlayson discussed the humans living in snowy Europe from 20 to 30 thousand years ago.  The clever Gravettian culture preserved surplus meat by freezing it in pits dug in the permafrost.  Finlayson perceived the storage pit to be a wicked invention, because it radically changed the world.  “They had found ways of producing surplus, something almost impossible in tropical climates, and with it emerged an unstoppable drive to increase rapidly in numbers.”  Food storage infected the moon explorers with a new and diabolical idea, “more is better.”

Around 10,000 years ago, in the Fertile Crescent, the genie of domestication emerged from the magic lamp, and steered humankind into the express lane to catastrophe.  Jared Diamond wrote a fascinating essay on the emergence of domestication.  Obviously, it was impossible for the cunning conjurors to foresee the unintended consequences of the monster they were creating.  If a vision had revealed the dark future to them, Diamond thought that they would have immediately ceased their experiments, and made food production taboo.  The shift to agriculture “was in many ways a catastrophe from which we have never recovered.”

No matter how hard the control freaks tried, most plant and animal species proved to be unsuitable for domestication.  Of the 200,000 species of wild plants, only 100 have been enslaved.  Of the 148 species of terrestrial herbivores and omnivores weighing more than 100 pounds (45 kg), only 14 have been enslaved.  Of those 14 species, 13 were enslaved in Eurasia, including the big five: cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, and horses.

None of the 14 species enslaved originally resided south of the equator in Africa.  Horses, donkeys, and zebras are close relatives, and can interbreed.  Horses and donkeys were enslaved in Eurasia, but all four species of African zebras defiantly resisted 200 years of efforts to destroy them — the older a zebra gets, the more vicious it becomes.  Freedom is precious.  No surrender!

In the homelands of the San and Pygmies, few wild plants were suitable for domestication.  Of the crop plants domesticated in Africa, all originated north of the equator.  In their ancient homelands, the San and Pygmies had no domesticated plants or livestock, and zero need for long-term food storage.  Progress was not an option for them, so they lived simply and sustainably, like their hominid ancestors had for the last two million years.

Unfortunately, the moon explorers wandered into harsh ecosystems where it was impossible to live like tropical hunter-gatherers.  The way-too-clever oddballs eventually became exotic invasive loose cannons.  Large game became scarce, then small game.  The dark and slippery path to agriculture was nicely described by Mark Nathan Cohen.

Diana Muir noted how the process unfolded in prehistoric New England.  In the good old days, game was abundant.  Stuff like acorns and shellfish were reserved for famine food.  As game became scarce, shellfish became a mainstay.  An adult male would need 100 oysters or quahogs each day.  Thousands were dug and smoked for winter consumption, a tedious job.  In the lower layers of huge shell dumps are oyster shells 10 to 20 inches across (25 to 50 cm) — oysters 40 years old.  In higher levels, the shells get smaller and smaller.

Eventually, the seeds of corn (maize), squash, and beans reached New England.  If a region was home to 100 tribes of hunter-gatherers, and just one tribe adopted corn, helter-skelter followed.  The farmers produced more calories, and could feed more bambinos.  With abundant stored foods, they had a much better chance of surviving harsh winters when hunting was poor.

Eventually, farmers outnumbered hunters.  Muir wrote, “Once any group in a region decides to adopt agriculture, no neighboring group can afford not to.”  Farming spread, population grew, conflicts increased, and villages were surrounded by defensive wooden palisades.  Soils were depleted, new fields displaced forests, and stronger tribes trumped weaker ones.  Progress!

In Mother Africa, the San continued their traditional way of life (i.e., naked, illiterate, heathen savages).  The folks who stumbled into Europe took a different path.  The turbo thrusters of progress roared.  In the Czech Republic 25,000 years ago, folks lived in mammoth bone huts.  A bit later, folks in France were painting gorgeous graffiti in caves.  A bit later, folks were whacking down forests, living in filthy cities, and slaughtering each other in great numbers.

Pleistocene Europeans had heroically transformed from “anatomically modern humans” (like the San), to “behaviorally modern humans” (like the Trumps).  Hooray!  This miracle began maybe 50,000 years ago, an event celebrated by the cult of human supremacy.  They call it the Great Leap Forward — cave paintings, complex language, ceramics, ornaments, rational thinking, and on and on.  It had a lot to do with migrating out of Africa and adapting to exotic ecosystems via technological innovation.

The bottom line disturbs me.  Until recently, the San followed an ancient path, which didn’t wreck their ecosystem.  The folks who adapted to non-tropical ecosystems eventually strayed away from a two million year tradition of sustainability.  Consequently, after a relatively brief rocket ride of bad craziness, the climate is trashed, the ocean is trashed, and seven-point-something billion primates are painfully discovering the embarrassing side effects of great leaps.

It’s fun playing “what if?”  Imagine what the world would be like if our ancestors had remained in sub-Saharan Africa, and continued living like wild tropical primates — and nothing was domesticated.  Would Europe and America still be home to mammoths, rhinos, and saber-toothed cats?  Is there something we might learn from our bloody adventure?

Image: A San Tribesman (Source)

Cohen, Mark Nathan, The Food Crisis in Prehistory — Overpopulation and the Origins of Agriculture, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1977. 

Crosby, Alfred W., Throwing Fire: Projectile Technology Through History, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2010.

Diamond, Jared, “Evolution, consequences and future of plant and animal domestication,” Nature, 418, 700-707 (8 August 2002) | doi:10.1038/nature01019  Free download.

Diamond, Jared, Guns, Germs, and Steel, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1997.

Diamond, Jared, “The Worst Mistake In The History Of The Human Race,” Discover, May 1987.  Free download.

Finlayson, Clive, The Humans Who Went Extinct — Why Neanderthals Died Out And We Survived, Oxford University Press, New York, 2009.

Muir, Diana, Reflections in Bullough’s Pond: Economy and Ecosystem in New England, University Press of New England, Hanover, New Hampshire, 2000.

Thomas, Elizabeth Marshall, The Harmless People, Vintage Books, New York, 1989.

Turnbull, Colin M., The Forest People, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1961.

Wade, Nicolas, Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors, Penguin Books, New York, 2006. 

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.