When you hit the woods this weekend for the firearm deer opener, you’re engaging in the quintessential human activity: hunting. According to a recent article in Scientific American, hunting is what made us human, what distinguished us from our earliest common ancestor with apes and what helped us develop the anatomy and mental capacity we have today.
According to the article, the earliest definite evidence of hunting was from a German archaeological site containing spears and animal remains: 400,000 years ago. But new research shows that human ancestors may have been hunting and butchering their own meat 1.8 million years ago, long before we even fully evolved into modern homo sapiens. Researchers think that those early ancestors of ours may have waited in trees with spears waiting for game to pass underneath. Pretty much what many hunters do now, except we use compound bows or rifles and sit in a treestand (with a safety harness!).
We often talk about the science of hunting, but usually we’re talking about how biologists use data, professional knowledge and field work to set hunting season limits, quotas, zones and seasons (and soon game species!). But there’s science behind how hunting helped humans evolve, too.
The article describes how our shoulders developed to throw spears, how our feet developed to run long distances to run down game (marathons, not sprints), and how the fitting of a chipped flint to a spear shaft was a significant technological achievement requiring forethought, planning and problem-solving. Between 2 million and 200,000 years ago, our brain size doubled as we thought up new ways to obtain meat.
5,000-year old Finnish rock art depicting elk and hunters. Sisu. (Wikipedia)
It’s more than that, though. Hunting large game required cooperation among multiple hunters and helped humans develop social organization, and spurred creativity and idea-sharing. 71,000 years ago in Africa, humans “devised and passed down to others a complex technological recipe to make lightweight stone blades for projectile weapons—cooking silcrete to a specific temperature to improve its flaking qualities, knapping the finished material into blades little more than a couple of centimeters long, and mounting them on wood or bone shafts with homemade glue,” according to another article from Scientific American on the origin of human creativity. G5 would have been proud.
And something that seemed like a breakthrough to researchers, but most modern hunters could probably attest to, is that hunting helped humans develop emotionally. This is an important point that researchers found, especially as anti-hunting groups try frame hunting as something evil, or as a form of animal cruelty leading to violence as adults. The scientists hypothesize that hunting helped develop self-control, rather than aggression.
And this makes sense to modern hunters, too, because the skills that make modern hunters successful – scouting, patience, being still, observant, hyper-aware of everything around you, moving slow when moving at all, paying attention to the wind – would have been necessary hundreds of thousands or millions of years ago, too. Do you think those animals would have walked under a tree our ancestors were hiding in if the wind was blowing the wrong way, or if our ancestors were making noise or moving? Hunting is one of the most controlled, disciplined activities that humans can engage in, then and now.
Non-hunters often ask us why we hunt, when we could simply buy meat from the grocery store. There are as many answers to that question as there are hunters. For some, it’s the free-range, hormone-free venison and the satisfaction of having procured it yourself. For some, it’s the challenge. For some, it’s for wildlife population management to reduce negative interactions, like car-deer accidents or crop damage. For some, it’s the camaraderie of being in deer camp. I suspect that there’s something else underpinning all of these reasons, too, something every hunter feels but is hard to describe.
We hunt because we’re human. And as humans, we’re instinctively hunters. We evolved because of hunting, as hunters, to hunt. That doesn’t mean that we instinctively have all the skills and knowledge to be successful hunters; that’s not what I’m talking about. That takes practice, time and application. But when we hunt, we tap into the human essence that has been developing since before we were humans to make us into what we are. Ironic, isn’t it, that a group that calls itself the “Humane” Society is trying so hard to take away what made us human.
Even though we’ve been farming for the last 10,000 years or so, in many areas of the world we never stopped hunting, save for a generation or two. For instance, even after Finns (some of my ancestors) developed farming, they continued to supplement with hunting and fishing because of the short growing seasons. And they kept hunting and fishing when they immigrated to the Upper Peninsula. There may have been a generation or two somewhere in there that didn’t hunt (but I know darn well they fished!), but that hardly erases millions of years of evolution before that. We didn’t evolve to type on keyboards, to watch TV or to surf the internet, though the brain functions that allowed us to create those technologies were developed because of hunting.
When you’re in the woods this weekend, that feeling you get that everything is right with the world is no accident. When you’re strapped into your treestand, being patient and still, or when you’re following a fresh track, trying to stay quiet and keep the wind off your back, or when you’re talking about the day’s hunt back at the campfire or in deer camp, you’re doing what we all evolved to do.
It’s amazing to see all that scientific research confirm what we thought we knew all along, as evidenced by many bumper stickers on pickup trucks where I come from in the northern Lower Peninsula.
We were born to hunt.
Have a safe, fun, successful and memorable deer season, and don’t forget to donate your hide at a Defend the Hunt drop-off site to protect your hunting rights!
WildLife Wednesday is the weekly blog from MUCC Field Manager Drew YoungeDyke.