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 psyche 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.

The Art of Tracking

Right now, your eyes are following a track of squiggly scratches, and your mind is comprehending meaning from them.  This morning, my mental processes created those tracks, and they contain specific meaning for those who have learned the ability to interpret them.  The farther you are able to follow my tracks, the more you will learn.

Similarly, animals leave behind tracks and other signs as they move across the land, and folks who are skilled at reading this information can accumulate pieces of a story.  The indigenous trackers of the Kalahari Desert in Botswana can perceive a fantastic amount of information by studying spoor — footprints, urine, feces, saliva, blood, fur bits, feeding signs, smells, sounds, and so on.  Spoor provides clues about the animal’s species, gender, size, behavior, direction of travel, time of passage, and so on.

There are large regions of the Kalahari that are quite flat, an endless landscape having no notable landmarks for a white boy like me, who would quickly become hopelessly lost, and turn into cat food.  Hunter-gatherers, on the other hand, always know exactly where they are, because they orient themselves by the layout of plant communities, noting their size, shape, position, and unique features.  They know the face of their land as well as they know the faces of their family.

Louis Liebenberg is a South African lad who has spent years with Kalahari trackers, learning their art.  He calls himself a citizen scientist, not a professional, and he has special gifts for thinking outside the box.  His work has impressed famous academic heavyweights at Harvard.  In 1990, he published The Art of Tracking.

After our primate ancestors moved out of the trees, they eventually evolved for bipedal travel — walking upright on two legs.  In Tanzania, 3.6 million years ago, two bipedal ancestors left their footprints in wet volcanic ash.  In 1978, scientists discovered 70 of their fossilized footprints, in a sequence that was 88 feet long (27m).  [Image]  These ancestors were probably Australopithecus afarensis.

Today, our living primate relatives are quadrupeds, four legs.  Chimps can sprint much faster than humans, but we excel at running long distances.  Moving on two legs is more energy efficient than on four.  Evolution optimized our feet and legs for the spring-like mechanics of running, not walking.  Over time, we lost our fur coats, and developed the ability to sweat profusely, so we excelled at shedding body heat.  Standing upright gave us a better view of the surroundings.

Many game animals can move much faster than humans, for short bursts, then they must stop to cool off.  The desert is especially hot at midday.  Humans are unusual because we can run for hours in the heat of the day.  We can doggedly follow the tracks of speedy prey, not giving them a chance to rest, until heat stroke brings them down, and often kills them.  Hunters also carried spears or clubs, to finish the job, if needed.  HERE is a 7-minute video.

This is called persistence hunting, and Liebenberg was apparently the first civilized scientist to participate in this (he nearly died from heat stroke).  In other regions, this method has been used to hunt reindeer, kangaroos, deer, and pronghorn antelope.  Our ancestors have likely practiced persistence hunting for two million years or more.  It played a central role in the evolution of the person you see in the mirror.

Gorillas are vegetarians, spending long hours stuffing their faces at the salad bar.  They have evolved large guts in order to digest this bulky fibrous diet.  In addition to plant foods, chimps, bonobos, and baboons also eat meat, an excellent source of nutrients and calories.  They are good at predation, killing small animals without weapons.

In the early days, our bipedal ancestors likewise killed small critters with their bare hands.  Eventually, they became hunters.  Early hunters used pointed sticks, stones, and clubs to stun small mammals and birds.  By and by, the ancestors learned how to kill large game, via persistence hunting, javelins, spears, bows and arrows, and so on.  Meat maybe provided forty percent of their calories.

In addition to predation and hunting, our ancestors also acquired meat by scavenging.  Large carnivores often kill large game, devour as much as possible, and then abandon a partially eaten carcass.  On the Kalahari, hunters always note vultures circling in the distance.  They indicate the location of a dying animal, or a yummy carcass.  With luck, our ancestors’ running abilities sometimes enabled them to beat the hyenas to lunch.  Hyenas are not as good at shedding heat.  They periodically need to stop and pant to cool off.

Because game animals can move faster than humans, for limited distances, the success of persistence hunting largely depended on tracking skills — following the spoor of their chosen prey who might be out of sight.  Kalahari people had exceptional tracking skills.  Women were as good as men, or better, at interpreting spoor.  Everyone in a band, both men and women, could observe human tracks, and accurately identify the individual person who made them.

One time, Liebenberg asked some trackers if they could actually recognize the spoor of an individual antelope.  “They found it very amusing that I should ask them such a stupid question.  To them it is difficult to understand that some people can not do it.”  Liebenberg described three levels of tracking strategies.

(1) Simple tracking is just following the prey’s footprints, under ideal conditions, when the prints are clear and easy to follow.

(2) Systematic tracking is used when the spoor trail is less than complete.  Using reasoning and deduction (inductive-deductive reasoning), the tracker can then develop a hypothesis of what the prey was doing, and the most likely direction of its escape route.  This is solely based on real evidence.  Then, the hunter proceeds in the prey’s probable direction, in hope of picking up the track again. 

(3) Speculative tracking is the most advanced and creative.  “Anticipating the animal’s movements, by looking at the terrain ahead and identifying themselves with the animal on the basis of their knowledge of the animal’s behavior, the trackers may follow an imaginary route, saving much time by only looking for signs where they expect to find them (hypothetico-deductive reasoning).  By predicting where the animal may have been going, the trackers can leave the spoor, take a shortcut, and look for the spoor further ahead.”

Like vervets, baboons, jackals, and most other species, our ancestors learned ways of communicating with each other, via sounds and gestures.  Some birds make one warning call for lions, and a different one for snakes.  Many species, including humans, pay careful attention to the vocalizations of other species.  It’s good to know when a lion is approaching, long before it can be seen.

At some point, nobody knows when, the ancestors developed complex language.  As social animals, they lived in small bands.  Each member collected and shared information, and the group developed a body of wisdom.  Language made it easier for them to relay accumulated wisdom to the next generation.

Biological evolution (genes) moves at a snail’s pace, but cultural evolution (knowledge) can boogie like gazelles on meth.  With spears and javelins, the ancestors didn’t need to spend hundreds of thousands years evolving claws and fangs.

A few million years of scampering through the rainforest canopy, followed by a few million years of persistence hunting and tracking, fundamentally directed the evolution of our bodies and minds.  Today, we have abandoned our ancient way of life; it’s nearly extinct.  Imagine what we’d look like after 500,000 years of sitting on couches, entranced by glowing screens, chugging sugar water.

I’ve now given you a wee whiff of this book.  When I write reviews, I usually select a few subjects that especially interest me.  This one was especially interesting from one end to the other.  It carries readers off to a sacred mountaintop, where we can get a better view of the big picture.  If we want to live sustainably for hundreds of thousands of years, simple living is the only option.  What good are all our amazing gizmos if they require an insanely unsustainable flash-in-the-pan culture?

In every way, the wild people of the Kalahari were completely in tune with their ecosystem.  In my world today, I observe the opposite — a society that could not possibly be more alienated.  Recent DNA mapping strongly suggests that the hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari are the ancestors of all humans now on Earth.  You and I carry their genes.  Liebenberg pulls back the curtains of modernity and provides readers with a mind-expanding peek into distant corners of our family tree — the ancestors we have forgotten, and would be wise to remember.

In 2013, Liebenberg published The Origin of Science, which furthers his discussion of our Kalahari relatives.  My review is HERE.  There is some subject matter overlap between the two books, and my two reviews.  Sorry!  Take your anxiety meds.

Free PDFs of two Liebenberg books can be downloaded HERE.  YouTube has many Kalahari documentaries.

Liebenberg, Louis, The Art of Tracking, David Philip Publishers, Claremont, South Africa, 1990.

Saturday, April 1, 2017


One day in 1991, a strange letter arrived at the Rainforest Action Network in San Francisco, where Joe Kane was working.  It was from members of the Huaorani tribe of Ecuador, wild folks who have lived in the Amazon rainforest for thousands of years.  Their jungle home had fantastic biodiversity, including many species that live nowhere else on Earth.

The letter said that DuPont-Conoco was planning to destroy their ecosystem and culture.  The Indians were perfectly happy with their traditional way of life, and they had no interest in being destroyed.  They just wanted to be left alone.  Help!  Kane quit his job and moved to South America.  Several years later, he published Savages, which described his exciting, chaotic, and painful adventure.

Unlike our society, Huaorani men and women really have equal status.  It is never OK to give orders, or to raise a hand against a child or woman.  Family harmony is important.  A priest was amazed by them, “They are joyful in a way that is complete and without self-consciousness.”

The Huaorani strive to be in tune with the abundance of the forest, so they will always have enough to eat.  Sharing is essential.  “There is no higher manifestation of this ideal state than unqualified generosity, and no act more generous than to give away food.”  In the days prior to contact with outsiders, most natives never encountered more than seventy or eighty people during their entire lives, most of whom they knew by name.  Imagine that — a world without strangers or loneliness.

Hunting in a dense rainforest is not easy.  Their technology included spears and blowguns.  Poison darts would kill monkeys in the branches above, requiring the hunter to climb up and retrieve them.  Over time, the feet of men who spent a lot of time in the treetops changed shape, making it easier for them to climb (see image above).  Big toes bent outward, providing a tighter grip.

Until the 1950s, the Huaorani had almost no contact with the outer world.  Then, the missionaries arrived, to save the souls of the demon worshippers.  They believed that the Indians needed to live in permanent settlements, clear the jungle, become farmers, join the cash economy, and pay taxes.  Their children needed to learn Spanish, and get a proper civilized education, so they could abandon their backward culture and language.  Maidenform brassieres were distributed to the jungle camps, so women could conceal their shameful boobs.

The missionaries were walking disease bombs, and they knew that the natives had no immunity to the pathogens they brought into the rainforest, but they were on a mission from God.  Even ordinary influenza could wipe out uncontacted people.  It was vitally important to convert the savages to the one and only genuine interpretation of Christianity, before other missionaries arrived and introduced them to one of the many false interpretations (especially Catholic), condemning their souls to the eternal fires of Hell.

The missionaries held the natives in low regard and, likewise, the natives resented the freaky aliens.  The Huaorani word for outsiders was cowode (cannibals).  In their culture, sickness, misfortune, and death were never the result of mere bad luck, they were always caused by sorcery conjured by others.  When someone died, even an infant, justice required relatives to identify the culprit and kill him or her in revenge.  While this clashes with the virtuous morals our culture has invented, it kept their numbers stable.  Their ecological ethics were far superior to those of the aliens.

Kane became friends with Enqueri, a smart but unreliable Huaorani lad who could speak Spanish.  In 1956, his father and friends killed five missionaries, because soon after missionaries visited, many died from ghastly diseases.  It was easy to determine the source of this sorcery and deliver rough justice.

Clever missionaries realized that two could play this game.  After deaths, they would accuse the native shamans of demonic acts, and grieving families believed them.  By 1991, most shamans had been murdered.  Kane met a shaman named Mengatohue.  “He could enter an ayahuasca trance and become a jaguar.”  Missionaries told schoolchildren that he was an agent of the devil.  Kids mocked him.

Rachel Saint was the sister of one of the speared missionaries, and she continued to pursue his work.  One of her first native converts, Toña, became a preacher.  He attempted to convince the Huaorani that their traditional culture, everything they knew, was totally wrong.  Enqueri said that Toña “brought with him an evil so strong that it killed a child.”  To avenge this misfortune, he was killed with seven spears.

In 1967, oil was discovered in Huaorani country, an estimated 216 million barrels, enough to fuel American gas-guzzlers for about thirteen days.  In 1969, Saint created a protectorate (reservation) for the Huaorani, with a school and chapel.  Before long, all 104 Indian residents had polio, 16 died, and another 16 were crippled.

The Company (oil interests) helped Saint create and operate the protectorate.  They wanted to clear the Huaorani off their traditional lands, so they could build roads, do seismic testing, drill wells, and construct pipelines without bloody resistance.  Saint was thankful for their kind assistance, but regretted their dark side, the booze, prostitution, and violence that came with the full-scale capitalist blitzkrieg.  However, she never doubted that God was smiling on her holy ethnocide.

Ecuador’s government was impressively corrupt and incompetent.  They excelled at boosting debt, stashing stolen funds in Miami banks, and driving up food prices.  Seventy-nine percent of the people lived in poverty.  Officials were desperate for income from the oil industry, and they cooperated in every possible way.  Soldiers kept journalists and activists out of oil country, and the Company was free to pollute the land to the best of their abilities.  Toxic crud was dumped anywhere, and pipelines often leaked.  Rivers turned black, fish died, birds died, caimans died, bananas died, and natives got very sick.  For natives, middle age was 25.

Ecuador was also eager to rid their crowded cities of poor people.  The government promoted the colonization of the rainforest.  When roads were built, a four-mile strip (6.5 km) on each side was dedicated for settlement by colonists.  They flooded into the wilderness, erased jungle, built flimsy shacks, and attempted to produce coffee and cattle on low quality rainforest soil that was quickly depleted.  Many became laborers for the Company, where the work was hard, and the pay meager.  No effort was made to interfere with widespread illegal logging.

Colonization was a rapidly spreading cancer that wouldn’t stop until its ecosystem host was destroyed, including the tribal people.  There was fierce conflict between the Indians and colonists, many died, and many shacks were burned, but the cancer persisted.  A wise guy once noted that the words “road” and “raid” come from the same root.  No place is safer than a vast roadless forest.

The struggle against modernity continued, on and on, with little success.  Kane liked his Huaorani friends, but he wasn’t willing to dedicate his life to their struggle.  To the powerful, he was an annoying troublemaker, so he was unlikely to die from old age.  Kane returned to California and wrote his book.  By the last page, everything was worse, a saga of endless bullshit, craziness, and tragedy.  There are millions horror stories similar to Kane’s, for every commodity utilized by industrial civilization.

José Miguel Goldáraz was a Spanish priest who had spent 20 years in South America.  By and by, he lost interest in soul saving, and became an activist.  He had no doubt that the natives would kill oil workers in defense of their land.  “When the Huaorani kill, there is a spiritual discipline to it.  Americans kill without knowing they are doing it.  You don’t want to know you are doing it.  And yet you are going to destroy an entire way of life.  So you tell me: Who are the savages?”

Chevron vs. the Amazon is a 2016 documentary on YouTube.  Abby Martin visited oil country in Ecuador to observe the current state of affairs. 

Kane, Joe, Savages, Vintage Books, New York, 1996.

Photo: “Feet” by Phil Borges.