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Perfection of Hunting
Human pioneers continued their colonization of new regions. Along the way, they kept learning new hunting strategies, and inventing more and better tools. They became masters at killing big critters, and bringing home lots of meat. But the more skillful they got, the greater the risk of unintentional overhunting. Not only did many large herbivores gradually go extinct, but so did many of the carnivore predators that specialized in hunting them.
For example, several large cat species had long upper canine teeth or fangs. These cats were specialized for killing huge herbivores with very thick hides — including elephant-like species. Big, strong, saber-tooth and scimitar-tooth cats evolved in Africa several million years ago, and eventually expanded across Eurasia and the Americas — and so did elephant-like species. As hominin hunters gained skill, elephant-like species declined, as did the cats that killed them. Baz Edmeades suspected that as the number of jumbo critters with thick hides declined, the cats’ long fangs may have become a handicap for hunting other types of prey.
Evolution provided large herbivores with different self-defense strategies. One was jumbo size and thick hides. Another was the ability to flee at high speed. As evolution gradually made the prey a bit faster, it also sped up the carnivores a bit, too. Ecosystem health required that the two teams stay relative balance. If carnivores got too fast, they would deplete their prey and starve. If herbivores got too good at escape, they would overgraze the land and starve. In some regions today, speedy lions, leopards, and cheetahs have managed to survive, along with a variety of fast moving herbivores.
When the sacred dance of eater and eaten drifted out of balance, trouble ensued. Aldo Leopold wrote a famous parable that delivered a powerful ecological lesson. The sun feeds the grass, the grass feeds the deer, the deer feeds the wolf, the wolf feeds the soil, and the soil feeds the grass. In the family of life, we all feed each other. The U.S. government’s predator eradication program has nearly driven wolves to extinction, much to the delight of livestock ranchers. Leopold explained that when wolves are scarce, deer numbers soar, vegetation gets stripped off the mountain, the soil washes away, and rivers carry the future off to the sea. The deer lived in fear of wolves, and the mountain lived in fear of deer.
Over the course of four million years, hominin hunters slowly gained some advantages via genetic evolution. But it was cultural evolution that enabled them to begin a long journey down a powerful and dangerous path. More and better tools and strategies amplified their ability to hunt and eat a wider variety of animals. Their growing toolbox included gizmos specialized for killing animals of every size and shape — megafauna, small game, birds, fish, and so on.
Saber-tooth cats were doomed by hyper specialization. Human survival is not highly dependent on a narrow variety of food sources. We are omnivores. We can digest deer, rodents, eels, shellfish, locusts, worms, maggots, grass seeds, nuts, berries, roots, and so on. Dietary flexibility, tool making, and cooking technology are important reasons why humans haven’t joined the saber-tooth cats in megafauna Valhalla.
Of course, in the good old days, the preferred prey was megafauna. For the time and energy invested, they provided generous servings of high quality nutrients — far more than bunnies or maggots. Of course, large game was not an infinite resource for skilled hunters. Populations of some megafauna gradually declined, and eventually went extinct. Plan B for human survival was to adapt to changing conditions, not be a fussy eater, and dine on whatever delicacies were handy.
In the good old days, there were no hunting licenses, regulations, or game wardens. Hunters were free to do things that are restricted today. In different regions, herds were sometimes driven into traps, where the killing was indiscriminate, and excess meat was left behind to be recycled by wolves, ravens, microbes, and other scavengers. Nothing was wasted, but more animals were killed than the hunters needed. This could weaken the herd.
In Europe, several sites indicate that hunters had focused on nursery herds, consisting of mothers and their offspring. It was much less dangerous to kill a young mammoth than to attack its huge and powerful daddy, who could easily splatter you into a puddle of bloody mush.
Edmeades noted that scimitar-tooth cats also preferred to dine on youngsters. In the Friesenhahn Cave in Bexar County, Texas, excavations revealed the remains of 33 cats, and 300 to 400 young mammoths, mostly two year olds. He added that the human youngsters in ice age Europe were similarly vulnerable. Their homeland did not sound like traffic and sirens, it sounded like moaning lions and whooping hyenas. Wandering away from the camp at night was dangerous and dumb. Babies instinctively cry when left alone too long. Even our chimp and baboon cousins have been known to snatch and devour helpless infants.
Evolution continuously learns new tricks via ongoing trial and error. This is why every species produces surplus offspring, because they are insurance policies. If each mating pair only had two offspring, they would be in the fast lane to extinction. Bunnies produce many surplus offspring, and megafauna produce some extras. This worked brilliantly for millions of years — until tropical primates acquired deadly superpowers via cultural evolution. These dangerously clever critters developed new and unusual abilities far faster than the genes of other critters could evolve new adaptations to counteract them. Oh-oh!
Fernando Fernandez noted that, on every continent that humans colonized, the process of driving species extinct often took at least several thousand years. Abundant populations of megafauna could tolerate centuries of folks who sometimes hunted a bit too hard. Over the passage of many generations, it would have been normal for the hunters to remain unaware of the gradual long-term decline in game — until the arrival of hunger times, when they slammed hard into the stone wall of resource limits.
In the good old days of abundant megafauna and simple weaponry, some bands of hunters reportedly had no sense of limits at all. Dan Flores wrote that the Cree tribe believed that buffalo numbers were essentially infinite, and that the animals they killed in no way diminished their abundance. Shepard Krech wrote that the Powhatan tribe hunted throughout the year, and killed animals regardless of their age, sex, or breeding state. The Cherokee believed that every deer they killed was reanimated, each would be replaced. Eventually, unpleasant experiences of scarcity revealed the existence of limits, which inspired a shift toward a more conservation-oriented approach.
Farley Mowat told stories about the Ihalmiut people who lived in the region around Hudson Bay in northern Canada. When traders moved in, the natives learned that they could trade fox furs for cool stuff like guns and ammunition. These made it far easier to kill deer, so their traditional mode of low tech hunting was abandoned. Prior to firearms, it had never occurred to anyone that it was possible to kill too many deer. Until then, the availability of deer was as reliable as the dance of the sun and moon.
Two factors were in play here. (1) When each generation of hunters experienced adequate game, the sense of abundance could mask their gradual decline for centuries. (2) Times of abundance could also absorb some growth among the hunting clans. Dan Flores noted that the average size of coyote litters is 5.7 pups, but when food is abundant, or their numbers are dwindling, they have larger litters. As I write today, the thundering herd of 7.7 billion humans demonstrates that, like coyotes, our numbers also grow when food resources increase.
Ronald Wallace noted that in times of abundance, intensification of hunting was normal. When caribou herds were migrating, folks killed as many as they could, because winters were long, dark, and cold. They could enjoy a stable (but temporary) way of life, for as long as intensification didn’t eliminate abundance. Of course, the shadow of intensification was population growth, which had a tendency to hasten the end of easy living. Scarcity inspired the nerds to innovate new hunting gizmos, like the leister, fish hook, net, snare, and bow and arrow. Over time, as megafauna became scarcer, the menu expanded. Red deer, elk, roe deer, wild pig, fish, shellfish, and waterfowl were eaten at the Maglemose site in Denmark 10,000 years ago.
Another star in this snow country soap opera was climate change. When warmer eras moved in, ice sheets melted and retreated. Ice was replaced by tundra, then steppe, then forest. Much of Europe was covered with dense forest by 9,500 years ago. Megafauna that live in herds thrive on steppe grasslands. Forests were home to lower numbers of more solitary large game — elk, aurochs, deer, wild pigs. Expanding forests encouraged some folks to migrate to coastlines, lake shores, wetlands, rivers, and streams. Locations with abundant marine food resources sometimes developed into sedentary communities — like coastal tribes in the U.S. Pacific Northwest.
Some cultures understood the notion of limits, and the risks of living too hard. Some made efforts to live more conservatively, with greater emphasis on foresight and self-restraint. Some developed traditions and taboos intended to reduce the risks of overhunting and overbreeding.
Other cultures became less cautious, and pursued riskier paths. Today, it’s clear that the risk-takers have overwhelmed the cautious, careful, and conservative. Cultures that mindfully limit their numbers often become road kill for cultures that don’t. Sadly, the world outside your window is a monster child of the risk fiends, for whom Growth is the god word — growth by any means necessary.
Anyway, Ronald Wright wrote that maybe 12,000 years ago, hunters in some regions had become too clever, too successful, and too numerous. It was becoming apparent that their traditional lifestyle was approaching its expiration date. Cave painters put down their brushes and became rabbit hunters. Wild megafauna was not an infinite resource.
Wright called this transition “the perfection of hunting,” and he declared it to be humankind’s first progress trap. Progress traps are the unintended consequences of brilliant innovations that permit clever folks to survive by shifting to a new and improved way of life. Unfortunately, they also tend to burn the bridges behind them as they advance. Returning to the good old days is no longer possible.
For example, our transition to fossil energy has fueled explosive population growth, which makes a quick and easy return to a muscle-powered way of life impossible. It’s like we’re helpless passengers on the Titanic. Despite our legendary big brains, our capacity for foresight is often abominable. Over and over we fail to anticipate what the unintended consequences of our ingenious inventions might be — agriculture, automobiles, nuclear weapons, etc. The list is endless.
Wright concluded that the perfection of hunting put the forks to an ancient tradition, forcing humans to explore dangerous paths, like herding and farming. Hunter-gatherer cultures mostly blinked out over time. A few have managed to survive into modern times. He expected that the fossil record left behind by the Anthropocene will resemble the effects of an asteroid strike.
Mark Nathan Cohen lamented the shift to plant and animal domestication. Hominins had been hunters for four million years. He wrote that hunting “has been the most successful and persistent adaptation man has ever achieved.” Around 10,000 years ago, almost everyone lived on wild foods. By 2,000 years ago, most of humankind depended on food produced on farms.
The early days of hunting megafauna was a luxurious life. Gradually increasing population pressure was what drove the downward spiral to surviving on domesticated crops. These foods were less nutritious and far more labor intensive to produce. The engines of this decline were cultural evolution and technological innovation. These forces were highly contagious, and spread around the world.
Wright noted that in 1492, the culture of the Old World washed up on the shores of the New World. The two cultures had been separated for 15,000 years or more. The similarities between the two are striking. Both had roads, cities, palaces, schools, kings, priests, temples, armies, peasants, merchants, sports, theater, art, books, music, and so on.
Diana Muir wrote a fascinating sketch about the early human experience in New England. After the glaciers retreated, the land became home to animals including horses, musk oxen, wolves, saber-tooth cats, bison, giant bears, giant beavers, and four species of mammoths. By 10,000 years ago, a number of the megafauna species had gone extinct. The menu then featured deer, bear, beaver, moose, waterfowl, turkeys, heath hens, salmon, shad, alewives, shellfish, berries, acorns, and so on. This was a land of abundance, and the human population grew and grew.
Oysters and clams had once been famine food. By 2,000 years ago, they became a dietary staple. Digging them up was tedious backbreaking work, and a grown man needed to eat 100 every day. Many thousands more were smoked and dried for winter dining. Empty shells were dumped in huge piles. At the lowest, oldest layers, the oyster shells were 10 to 20 inches wide (25 to 50 cm), indicating 40 year old animals. In newer layers, the shells were much smaller.
By 800 years ago, agriculture was producing half of their food. Staples included corn, beans, and squash. Their slash and burn farming required tedious backbreaking work. It also depleted the fertility of the thin, rocky soils. The good old days had passed.