Wednesday, April 12, 2017

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.


Jan Lundberg said...

Great reading, on any day, a salve for materialist toxic culture. Thanks Rick!
I particularly appreciate, "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?"

What Is Sustainable said...

Thank you, Jan!