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).