Why Hunt?

Neelakantan Prakash

Since the earliest people walked up right, humans never had much difficulty gathering fruits, vegetables, and nuts. In fact, several cultures, including the Tutsi’s of Rwanda, have had a ban on meat from their diets for as long as the culture has existed (Bisangwa, 1997). Looking at diets from a pragmatic perspective seems to present a bit of a paradox. Meat eating is a time consuming task. Archaeologists guess that only one out of about every ten attempts to kill for food was successful. Yet many hunter gatherer-turned-agricultural societies continued hunting even after the rise of the domestication of animals such as cows. Since the very first time a human killed an animal for food the art of hunting has been changed by developments in technology. To understand the survival of hunting, one must first understand how hunting started.

One can imagine that the first successful human kill was predated many decades or even centuries by the scavenging of carcasses from the kills of predators higher in the food chain (Thorley, 2006). It would be very difficult for humans, with bodies less predisposed to fast movement and no tools with which to hunt even small animals such as squirrels. This left them with the option of gathering food, which ended up being their main source of nourishment.

However, the ability of humans’ to create tools would have quickly led to the development of weapons. Probably the first item used was a stone. Throwing a stone at a small animal would be enough to kill it. If the animal was captured or injured, a stone would make quick work of the animal's skull. Additionally, axes and spears would have given humans the scope to hunt larger and larger animals. Eventually, humans could work in groups to hunt some truly large animals such as bison, and even mastodons. However, before that happened, some other developments needed to take place.

The jump between killing small rodents with the throw of a stone and using teamwork and spears to take down a mastodon is not a small one by any means. In order for hunting to remain a successful and worthwhile activity, small steps had to be taken in the process of tool-making. One example is the development of different methods of creating sharpened rocks for spearheads, arrowheads, and knives.

Probably the first sharpening method used was simply banging one rock against another in a suitable spot, one or two times to remove flakes of stone. Unfortunately, the high speed needed to dislodge a flake of stone made the technique very imprecise. In addition, only certain types of stone, such as quartzite and sandstone, could be used to allow for small flakes to come off and allow the edge to take the desired shape. This meant that durability had to be sacrificed for the sake of making the blade sharp (http://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/atapuerca/discovery/stone.php).

The next method was slightly more sophisticated, though it used the same basic method. The cobble, or unhewn stone, was hit not just on one side, but on both sides repeatedly with softer objects such as bones or bits of tusk. This softened the stone in the necessary places to allow the proper sized flakes of stone to chip off. Furthermore, harder and more durable stone could be used, such as flint. This technique required more time, but time was not something the hunter-gatherers were very short of. The resulting blade was pointier, sharper, and held its edge longer, in addition to being symmetrical (http://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/atapuerca/discovery/stone.php).

The continued development led to sharper, longer, and straighter blades, that would eventually be mounted on sticks and used as axes or spears. Knives would enter the scene as well, creating the ability to cut animal flesh as well as any gathered food. While these technological developments were important, there were other developments that would be equally or more important.

The domestication of the dog has been a controversial topic in recent discussion. While it is uncertain the exact date of the domestication of canines (if such a date exists), it is clear that the ability of dogs and humans to hunt together would be a great advantage to humans. Dogs are probably descended from wolves, and wolves are natural hunters. Having dogs around to help in a hunt would probably increase the success of humans by a factor of two or three. Dogs were probably a good part of the reason that hunting persisted in hunter-gatherer tribes; it is possible that such an ineffective activity would have survived, especially in harsher climates, where energy needed to be conserved ( Science, 2002).

Perhaps the most important of all technological developments in human history was the harnessing of fire. The effect has made and broken cultures. One way in which it did this was by changing the scale on which humans were able to hunt.

Because of humans’ lack of physical speed and natural weapons such as claws, hunting required ingenuity. Some scholars believe that early humans used fire to burn animals out of the forest and into the open, where they could be more easily caught (Williams, 2003). Later on, Williams mentions how these fires were probably found anywhere there was a hunter-gatherer tribe that had harnessed the power of fire. Fire would also have been used to scare larger animals such as mastodons, when humans were trying to take down a big kill.

In addition, fire provided the ability for humans to cook the meat that they caught. This is perhaps the most important effect that fire had on the development of hunting. By cooking the meat, it was made more sanitary and therefore, meat eaters gained the benefit of extra protein and calories without the risk of diseases.

We see then how the combination of various technologies allowed hunting to not only survive but to become a preferable behavior. Through technology and innovation, man was able to change the effect of natural selection. Most meat eaters would probably have died out; instead, those who ate meat and used technology were able to reverse this situation and make themselves more successful than their competitors.

1. Alex Bisangwa. “Sins of the Flesh.” 1997. Satya. 5 February 2006 <http://www.satyamag.com/dec97/sins.html>

2. Jay Thorley. “Protein and Human Evolution.” 5 February, 2006. <http://www.iianthropology.org/JayThorley>

3. Atapuerca | American Museum of Natural History. 5 February, 2006 <http://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/atapuerca/discovery/stone.php>

4. Elizabeth Pennisi. “A Shaggy Dog History” Science Vol. 22 (2002): 1540-1542.

5. Williams, Michael. "Deforesting the Earth: From Prehistory to Global Crisis", 2003, Univ. of Chicago Press, Ch. 1 and 2, pp. 3-36.

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last updated 2/5/06