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Life in snow country was an annual roller coaster ride. The warm season was generous in dispensing food, and the frigid season was stingy. The key to winter survival was adequate fat, because maintaining body heat required more energy. Fat is stored energy. Game carried the most fat at the end of the warm season. For humans, this was the best time to acquire meat for winter storage.
Herd animals were wanderers, following their stomachs to where there was greenery to gobble. In some regions, there were large seasonal migrations of game animals. The warm months were spent in the cooler uplands. When winter approached, they wandered down into the warmer valleys. Herds often followed regular routes on a predictable schedule, and hunters knew this. As winter waned, and stored meat was running low, the spring migrations began. Hurray!
Back in Mother Africa, the annual cycle was far more stable. Because there was no need to store meat for a cold season, there was no need for a period of intensified hunting. In snow country, intensified hunting was an important seasonal tradition. In many regions, this task was best performed by communal hunting. It took a number of forms.
Communal hunting could be very wasteful. The objective was to acquire lots of top quality meat. In the good old days, game was abundant, seemingly infinite. The notion that mammoths could ever be wiped out by overhunting was a ridiculous idea (in times of plenty). They had no good reason not to live as wastefully as American consumers, because it didn’t matter. Life was grand! Eventually, starvation gave folks important lessons in limits and mindful conservation.
Předmostí is near the city of Přerov, in the Czech Republic. It is located at the southern end of the Moravian Gate, a narrow corridor that passes between the Carpathian Mountains to the east, and the Sudeten range in the west, linking southern Poland and Moravia. It has long been a strategic trade and communications route. Naturally, it was also a route for the seasonal migrations of game animals in the Pleistocene, including mammoths.
Předmostí has the largest mammoth bone accumulations in central Europe. The skeletons of more than a thousand have been uncovered so far. Mammoth bones were used in the construction of their huts. Excavations have found hearths, a cemetery, stone and bone tools, and carvings made from mammoth ivory. One carving has been named the Venus of Předmostí.
Folks inhabited Předmostí between 27,000 and 25,000 years ago, and again later, about 20,000 years ago. During this time period, at many locations in central Europe, numerous Venus figurines have been found. The figurines inspired archaeologist Marija Gimbutas to imagine a paradise of goddess worshipping people that preceded the dark arrival of patriarchy and bloody warfare, a popular and controversial theory.
Dolní Věstonice and Pavlov are small neighboring villages north of Mikulov, in the Czech Republic. In the twentieth century, when a villager decided to dig a cellar, he discovered the remains of a large dwelling built with mammoth bones and tusks. Multiple excavation sites in these villages have revealed fascinating details about Pleistocene hunters, who lived there from 29,000 to 24,500 years ago. They lived on terraces overlooking the river, where they had an excellent view of the vast treeless steppe below. These mammoth bone huts were common in central Europe.
At one camp, four huts were located close together, and the small settlement was surrounded by a low wall made of mammoth bones and rocks, covered with brush and turf. The huts were something like teepees, covered with animal skins. They had a circular foundation made of rocks and heavy bones. Between the huts was a large outdoor fire pit. Up the hill was a small hut containing a kiln for baking clay. This is the earliest evidence of making ceramics (they did not make pottery). They created a variety of figurines, including the heads of bears, foxes, and lions, and Venus figurines with prominent breasts and buttocks.
At a nearby location, the largest lodge was 50 feet long (15 m) by 20 feet wide (6 m), and had five hearths. At one hearth, two long mammoth bones were stuck in the ground, to support a roasting spit. Southeast of the lodge were piles of bones, including about 100 mammoths, mostly young. There were also bones of horses, reindeer, hares, wolves, and foxes. At one dig, they found the remains of a child wearing a necklace with 27 fox teeth. The skull was covered with red ochre, and the body was covered with the shoulder blades of mammoths.
Artists have studied the skulls found in the area, and made paintings of what the people would have looked like in life. When exhibited in Prague, the portrait of a prehistoric wild woman embarrassed the public — because she looked too modern, not like a dirty primitive beast — she looked like the proper and dignified ladies in the gallery (gulp!).
Roche de Solutré
At the Roche de Solutré site, near Mâcon, France, archaeologists have found the remains of up to 100,000 horses. Prior to 1866, when experts realized the bones were prehistoric, local farmers had been hauling them away for many years, using them for fertilizer. In some places, the surface of the ground was paved with ancient horse bones.
The valley was likely a common route for the seasonal migrations of animal herds. In the summer months, herds grazed at higher elevations to avoid heat and insects. They spent the winter months grazing in the warmer floodplain of the Saône River.
The bone beds are located fairly close to the bottom of a steep limestone cliff. For years, folks theorized that the horses had been killed by driving them over the edge. A new and improved theory disputes this, claiming that the bones were not located close enough to where flying horses should have crash-landed. Hunters probably drove the animals into natural rock corrals, or box canyons, where they were trapped. Once cut off from escape, they were killed, butchered, and smoked. Wild horses were extremely dangerous prey. Big strong stallions would aggressively attack hunters, and stomp them to bloody bits.
The bone bed covers 2.5 acres (1 ha), and is up to 29 feet (9 m) thick. The oldest bones are 55,000 years old, horses killed by Neanderthals. These were covered by six feet (1.8 m) of sterile soil. The next layer is a thick one, the remains of animals killed between 37,000 and 10,000 years ago. Experts say that they were killed by Cro-Magnons (Homo sapiens). Prior to 22,000 years ago, the majority of bones were horses. After that, reindeer bones became more common. This was an era of rapid climate shifts.
On the western plains of North America, a common method of communal hunting was driving herds of buffalo off cliffs. White folks called these killing sites buffalo jumps, the Blackfeet called them pishkuns. Pishkuns were scattered from Canada to Mexico. There were more than 300 in Montana alone. For thousands of years, prior to horses and guns, this was a primary method for hunting buffalo. At the bottom of the cliff at First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park in Montana, is a buried layer of compressed buffalo remains that is up to 18 feet thick (5.5 m). An estimated 6,000 buffalo died here over the centuries.
Jack McNeel described the hunts. When scouts observed a herd moving into the vicinity of a pishkun site, hunters moved to appropriate locations, and became noisy and animated. The herd panicked and ran away from them, moving into drive lanes that funneled the herd to the brink of doom. Brave teenage buffalo runners, camouflaged in buffalo hides, led the animals toward the cliff. The runners would disappear over the edge, but safely land on a ledge below, whilst the surprised buffalos flew over them, and plummeted to the rocks below, where butchers waited.
The Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is in southwest Alberta. It utilized one of the longest and most complex drive structures on the plains. Natives constructed drive lanes that reached up to 6 miles (10 km) into the gathering basin. They followed the contours of the land, to help the flow of animals move as smoothly as possible. The bone deposits at the bottom of the cliff are 39 feet (12 m) deep. This pishkun was in use by at least 6,000 years ago.
In the journal of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Lewis noted that on May 29, 1805 they discovered the rotting carcasses of about 100 buffalo at the bottom of a cliff, as well as great numbers of well-fed wolves that were “very gentle.” For amusement, Clark felt inspired to shoot one of the chubby blissed out wolves. Shepard Krech shared additional comments on pishkuns from other early white observers.
It was impossible to have precise control over a stampeding herd. When enough animals had died to meet hunters’ needs, the herd did not realize it was OK to stop leaping. Lots of meat, especially bulls and animals with little fat, was left for the enjoyment of happy scavengers — everything was recycled. Cows provided better hides and meat. The tongue and hump were the choicest cuts. In summer, meat was dried for winter use. Also, meat was mixed with fat and berries to make highly nutritious pemmican, which was stored.
The use of pishkuns faded out when Plains Indians acquired horses between 1700 and 1800. Until then, buffalo had a distinct survival advantage in their ability to run at speeds up to 35 miles per hour (56 km/h). When Indians got horses, the buffalo lost their speed advantage, and became much easier to kill. Later came guns.
Reindeer and Caribou Drives
Reindeer live in northern Eurasia, and caribou live in Greenland, Canada, and Alaska. The two creatures are the same species (Rangifer tarandus), but there are nine subspecies, like tundra reindeer, woodland reindeer, tundra caribou, woodland caribou, etc. Several are now endangered. The species is unique in that both sexes grow antlers. Davis and Reeves described how humans hunted them.
All around the Arctic Circle, reindeer and caribou have been hunted for thousands of years. They provided meat, sinew for sewing, bone for needles and awls, antler for tools, fat for light, heating, and nourishment, and hides for bags, snares, clothes, and tents. They made survival possible in a hostile climate.
Every spring and fall, herds made seasonal migrations along traditional routes. Hunters knew when and where to expect them. These routes often had bottlenecks that concentrated the herds, ideal locations for hunting. Commonly, groups of hunters would drive the herds into killing places. To direct the movement of a herd, drive lanes included barriers — log fences, brush fences, snow drifts, rock cairns. Some locations had corrals of wood or stone to capture the herd. In Siberia, animals were driven into nets.
Herds were sometimes driven into deep snow and then lanced or shot with arrows. In Greenland, caribou were driven off cliffs. Some hunters used snares, open loops suspended from branches, to grab animals by their necks or antlers. Snares were placed along game trails, where animals voluntarily moved, or scattered along drive lanes where hunters or dogs aggressively drove them. Records from 250 years ago report that near Churchill, Manitoba, caribou herds were driven into corrals that were one mile (1.6 km) in diameter, and 350 to 600 people participated in the kill.
The easiest method, where possible, was to drive the herd into streams or lakes, where the struggling animals were lanced by hunters in canoes or kayaks. Two hundred animals could be taken in a few hours. During a two-week summer hunt on Lake Mistinipi, hunters speared 1,200 to 1,500 caribou. One Copper Inuit settlement, inhabited between 1500 and 1700, was located close to a caribou migration route. During two centuries, an estimated 100,000 caribou were driven into the lake and killed.
Lads in canoes did not always stop killing when they had all the meat they needed. In a frenzy, they killed as many caribou as they could, the entire herd, if possible. It was a great pleasure to kill so easily, many months since the last migration. Near Hudson Bay, an observer in the 1890s found hundreds of carcasses left to rot — overkill.
In Scotland, Norway, Sweden, and Finland, many thousands of pit traps were dug in migration routes to catch reindeer. Animals could be driven into the pits during their outbound and inbound migrations. In southern Norway, trapping pits were used as early as 11,000 years ago.
Caribou herds had been following traditional migration routes for 8,000 years or more. Indians and Inuit built permanent settlements along the routes. In the nineteenth century, when hunters began using repeating rifles, animals could be killed from farther away, requiring less stalking skill. The caribou harvest sharply increased. Before long, herds abandoned traditional routes, communities starved, and their settlements went extinct — an unintended consequence of progress.
Compared to the good old days in Mother Africa, it was far more difficult for tropical primates to survive in cool climates. The selection of kill sites, and the construction of drive lanes, corrals, and pit traps, was a major effort. On the days of mass kills, large numbers of people were required for success. Preserving meat and hides took weeks of work.