[Note: This is the fifth sample from my rough draft of a far from finished new book, Wild Free & Happy. I don’t plan on reviewing more books for a while. My blog is home to reviews of 199 books, and you are very welcome to explore them. The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews, if you are interested in specific authors, titles, or subjects.]
When our ancestors moved from the forest to the savannah, they began a journey into an entirely different way of life. Critters that evolution had fine-tuned for arboreal living were poorly prepared for surviving on open grassland. They were not big, strong, or speedy. They didn’t have horns, fangs, or claws. They couldn’t digest grass. They had to adapt to different sources of food, and different threats to their survival. It took centuries of trial and error to develop new ways of living, and hundreds of thousands of years to evolve new and improved bodies fine-tuned for their unique experiment.
In the early days, our ancestors were not apex (top level) predators, they may have been more like walking meatballs, easy prey for big cats, packs of hyenas, huge crocodiles, and other hungry carnivores. Chris Stringer mentioned genetic research indicating that today’s Earth-pounding mob of Homo sapiens trace back to an ancestral population of about 10,000 breeding individuals. Earlier, a million years ago, in the Homo erectus era, there were just 20,000 breeding individuals. For a very long time, our ancestors existed not too far from the brink of extinction. It wasn’t easy being a highly vulnerable ground-dwelling primate.
Scavenging and Primitive Hunting
Our ancestors on the African savannah were hunter-gatherers, and their diet majored in plant foods, with a regular supplement of highly nutritious animal foods. In the early chapters of the great hominin adventure, they were not expert hunters with effective weapons. Meat was acquired via scavenging and primitive hunting. With bare hands, they could grab critters like grubs, grasshoppers, termites, maggots, snails, shellfish, lizards, and frogs. They could kill animals sleeping under bushes, dig up others from their burrows, chase down slow moving aardvarks and porcupines, and snatch immature youngsters. Large birds could be knocked down by throwing clubs.
It’s easy to forget that rocks can be lethal weapons. Wendell Bennett wrote that the Tarahumara people of Mexico threw stones with remarkable accuracy, killing rabbits, birds, and animals up to the size of coyotes. Some of their groups did more hunting with stones than with bows and arrows.
Alfred Crosby wrote that any human more than eight years old, male or female, can throw projectiles farther and more accurately than any other species. This ability gave us the power to effect change from a distance. Well-thrown projectiles could drive away hungry predators or kill a plump bunny for dinner. Researcher Frans de Waal noted that stone throwing chimps also have “impressive long-range aim.” (Ouch!)
Crosby noted that a few hundred years ago, Europeans visiting Samoa got a painful lesson in the superb stone-throwing skills of the natives. Of the 61 men sent ashore, 12 were killed by well-thrown rocks. Humans also invented the rock-throwing sling, which was even more deadly, especially when loaded with lumps of lead. Many of the conquistadors visiting Mexico had life-changing experiences while getting stoned by the angry sling-twirling Indians.
Scavenging is getting meat from carcasses that you didn’t kill — leftovers from large carnivores, or animals that died from other causes. In later times, as the ancestors became more skilled at hunting, scavenging was not abandoned. Meat is treasure, no matter how it is acquired. Scavenging was often less work and less dangerous than pursuing and killing an animal.
During the day, our ancestors paid careful attention to the skies. When vultures flew in a specific direction, they might be en route to a fresh carcass. Circling vultures were strong evidence of a banquet directly below. Once you got a hot tip, it was best to move quickly, in an effort to beat other scavengers to the banquet.
Hyenas work in gangs, and can quickly strip the scraps off carcasses, leaving few leftovers, if any. Their arrival time was sometimes delayed by their need to stop, pant, and cool off from time to time. Our ancestors were far better at shedding heat, an important advantage. If hyenas or jackals arrived first, it was sometimes possible to mob them and drive them off. On lucky days, it was possible to steal lunch from a lone cheetah.
Lions were another story. To drive them away from a kill, surprise was important. You and your buddies should suddenly charge, waving your arms, shouting, throwing rocks, swinging clubs, or maybe start a grass fire upwind. Smart scavengers never tried this when lions were just beginning their lunch feast, and were still very hungry. It was best to wait until they were full and ready for a nap. Lions rarely consume brains or marrow, and sometimes leave some meat scraps for the intrepid.
It was also important for scavengers to pay attention to trees. When leopards didn’t completely consume a kill at one sitting, they stored the leftovers up in the branches. Leopards are night creatures. If you found their unguarded stash in the daytime, there was less chance of getting shredded and devoured by an angry cat.
Right now, your eyes are following a track of squiggly scratches, and your mind is comprehending meaning from them. My thoughts and actions created those tracks, and they contain specific meaning for those who have learned how to interpret them. The farther you are able to follow my tracks, the more you will learn about me.
Similarly, animals leave behind tracks and other signs as they move across the land. Folks who are skilled at reading this information can accumulate pieces of a story. They 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.
Fresh tracks left by a game animal indicated that it had passed through the area, and the direction it was moving — essential information for hungry hunters. Also, spoor left by large carnivores indicated predators on the move. Following their tracks might eventually lead to a recent kill, and a carcass to scavenge.
Louis Liebenberg is a South African lad who has spent years on the Kalahari Desert with the San people (other names include Khoisan, Bushmen, !Kung). He was not a nerdy anthropologist, he directly participated in hunts, and eventually became a skilled tracker. He wrote two outstanding books about tracking, scavenging, and persistence hunting.
One time, Liebenberg asked some San trackers if they could actually recognize the spoor of an individual antelope. They burst out laughing at his incredibly stupid question. They couldn’t imagine anyone not being able to do this. When they see a human footprint, they immediately know which individual in their band made it. Children can identify the tracks of their parents. Footprints are as unique and recognizable as faces. To see the footprints of an unknown stranger was highly unusual, and would inspire caution.
More anthropology books have been written about the San than any other wild people. Geneticists have found that they have the oldest DNA of any living culture — it is the genetic foundation of nearly all modern humans. Their genes are the closest to the ancient female from whom all living humans descend, known as Mitochondrial Eve. Thus, your family tree likely leads back to ancestors similar to the San. (Pygmies are the second oldest living culture.)
The San have been hunter-gatherers since the dawn of humankind, and they enjoyed a way of life that managed to survive into the 1970s. Eight hundred years ago, the San homeland included all of southern Africa. Since then, Bantu and European herders and farmers have displaced them from lands suitable for grazing and agriculture, forcing the San into the Kalahari where, on average, two of every five years are drought years, and severe droughts occur one in every four years.
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 vulture chow. The San, on the other hand, always know exactly where they are, across large regions, 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.
Richard Lee wrote about the San. Their primary food was mongongo nuts, which dropped once a year, but could be gathered all year long. Meat was their second most desired food. The Kalahari provided them with about 100 edible plant species, which they were careful not to overuse. The San expected periodic times of scarcity, so they reserved some plant species for drought food. Portions of their territory were set aside for lean times.
John Reader wrote about an extreme drought in Botswana that lasted three years, resulting in the deaths of 250,000 cattle and 180,000 people. The San didn’t starve. Each week they spent 12 to 19 hours foraging for their sustenance. They lived in one of the harshest environments on Earth. At the same time, hungry farming people had shifted to foraging during the drought, so the San lands were supporting a larger population than that of normal times.
Elizabeth Marshall Thomas has spent a lot of time with the San. She wrote her first book on them in 1958, and her third in 2006. Like any intelligent culture, their safety net included mindful family planning, to avoid the problems caused by overpopulation, and its trusty companions: environmental degradation, hunger, and conflict.
Because of low body fat and vigorous physical activities, San women began menstruating later. Some did not have regular monthly periods. Children were usually nursed for about four years, which further reduced their mom’s fertility. Most of the women had one to four offspring. Nomads moved frequently, and belongings and infants often had to be hauled long distances. A woman could only carry one infant, so just one twin was kept.
When a child could not be kept, the woman gave birth alone, away from the camp, and buried the newborn before it drew breath. In their culture, a newborn did not immediately become alive, so disposing it was OK. Crippled or badly deformed infants were not kept, because they would be a drain on the wellbeing of the band. To avoid unwanted pregnancies in harsh times, it was common for folks to abstain from intercourse.
Jon Young is the star of several YouTube videos on nature connection. He was an early student of Tom Brown, the famous author of many books on tracking and nature awareness. Young visited a number of wild cultures to find those that remain most closely connected to nature. He discovered that the San people were incredibly well connected. They refuse to enter houses, because people who live indoors go insane.
Young says that with the San, you always feel safe. They are super intelligent, super happy, super vital, and great problem solvers. You never feel competition. The people are in love with every aspect of the ecosystem around them, celebrating with childlike wonder through all stages of their life. Every person in that community is committed to the flowering of every other person. They are incredibly aware of their surroundings at all times, because a brief lapse of attention can kill you in lion country.