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), 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).