The existence and survival of man is built on hunting, it is the foundation on which civilizations and kingdoms were created.
Many of the earliest records and artifacts discovered depict the basic natures of hunting and its importance amongst early man. The act of hunting has evolved over thousands of years, from the moment man hunted and harvested the very first animal to modern age technology, laws and the uses of hunting as a means of conservation.
The history of hunting is a fascinating topic not only because it highlights how man became a better hunter, but it is full of incredible stories, provides us with insight into how our earliest ancestors survived, adapted, created societies built on status and the laws implemented to ensure there is enough hunting opportunity for all.
Earliest Signs of Hunting
Many anthropologists agreed that humans began as scavengers and gatherers long before becoming skilled hunters. Animals 400,000 years ago and even as far back as 2 million years ago were very different to what we have today, this is especially true for the predatory species. Humans were low down on the food chain and had to rely on scavenging meat from the kills of larger predators in order to survive.
Until recently the earliest documented evidence of humans actively hunting for meat was at a site in Germany showing horses being brought down by humans using long spears. The estimated age of this evidence is 400,000 years old, however a recent discovery of animal bones and thousands of stone tools in the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania has led archaeologists to believe that ancient hominins were more than mere scavengers.
The indigenous San people of Southern Africa are known for their very detailed paintings found within caves and on rock surfaces that clearly show them hunting large animals such as Eland, Kudu, Giraffe and Zebra with spears and bows. These painting are believed to be around 5,000 years old are vital in creating a timeline of human’s hunting history and their adaption to certain environments.
For there to be further evidence of humans hunting dating back 400,000 years and up to 2 million years ago, highlights the importance and significance that hunting has had in the survival of human beings.
What evidence constitutes as hunting versus scavenging? From the discovery in Tanzania, archaeologists declared it hunting as whole skeletons from antelope sized animals were discovered, with cut marks on the bones which highlighted the meat was intentionally removed with a tool.
Primary predators such as lions, leopards, and hyenas in Africa will consume large amounts of the carcass including some bones before abandoning the kill to scavengers. This was not the case with the discovery in the Olduvai Gorge, where entire skeletons were clearly visible. The lack of teeth marks on the bones of the animals was another clue that they had not been killed by larger predators, rather they were hunted, and the meat removed with tools.
What Hunting Did For Human Evolution?
The physical act of hunting does not have to include the use of weapons or trapping material, records of primitive tribes from Southern and Northern America as well as Africa describe how hunters would chase their intended prey consistently over a long period of time, usually two days, until the animal collapsed from exhaustion.
There is a suggestion from Brace and Montagu (1965) that man’s near-hairlessness and wealth of sweat glands may be associated with this hunting technique. A superior cooling system would enable man to persist in tracking even in the hottest part of the day, when other carnivores are idle, and the quarry may face heat exhaustion.
Recent history shows that Plains Indians, especially the Crow Tribe of 1867 would drive bison over steep embankments or high cliffs, where the buffalo would fall to their death or break limbs leaving them incapable of running away. These drives although excessive to the needs of the tribe would involve the entire community.
The bison would be driven on horseback by those men who were considered excellent hunters, while women, children and the older members of the tribe would hide behind trees and rocks lying in wait for the bison to pass. Once passed they would wave blankets and shout to direct the bison towards the edge of the cliff, where the bison would fall to their death.
Working together would help strengthen the bonds between members of the tribe and share in the knowledge of hunting bison.
The introduction of meat as a primary diet in human’s ancestors, increased protein levels, fats and held a higher level of calories than most plants and roots. This allowed for the development of a larger brain in human related species.
Coupled with the structural changes over thousands of years such as smaller jaw bones with less obtrusive teeth, a standing up right posture, the elongation of fingers and a thumb can be directly attributed to hunting, as well as the adaptation of arms and shoulders for the task of throwing and hurling weapons.
Yet, it was not only the introduction of meat that contributed to the development of human’s hunting abilities and intelligence, but another defining factor was the size and species of animals hunted.
An interesting paper by Dr. Miki Ben-Dor and Prof. Ran Barkai from the Jacob M. Alkow Department of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University proposed an explanation for the physiological, behavioral and cultural evolution of the human species. The paper explains that as humans became more proficient in hunting larger animals, they inevitably caused the extinction of many of those large animals. With that, early human species had to adapt their hunting techniques and understanding of animal behavior to now hunt the smaller, quicker and highly alert prey species.
Over time as the adaption to hunting smaller animals developed, the volume of human brains grew from 650cc to 1,500cc which is evident in archeological discoveries and studies over many years.
Dr. Ben-Dor states “We correlate the increase in human brain volume with the need to become smarter hunters”.
It requires more energy and pressure on the brain to strategies for the hunting of many small antelope or rodent species compared to hunting one large animal such as an elephant or bison because it will sustain the hunter for a longer period. This energy use and pressure on the brain’s functions forced it to develop at a quicker rate.
An example in situation could be the need for fast tracking and decision-making as the small animal flees and the brain must analyze information such as tracks, wind, and general animal behavior to determine which direction the animal went and instruct the body to give chase.
The paper further explains that ultimately the brain developed so extensively that the concept of making tools for hunting was done so to relieve the hunter of using up valuable energy.
Early Hunting Tools
With greater discoveries from Archaeologists over the years, it was clear that not only were humans physically changing and evolving but their tools were also being adapted with each circumstance and situation.
The earliest tools discovered that can be associated to hunting, were those of daggers, hand axes and non-throwing long spears. Although it can be argued these tools were more used for the processing of meat from animals killed by large predators and to an extent digging for roots and peeling bark, they are still capable of killing smaller species.
The use of poison in early hunting tools was quite common amongst tribes and early inhabitants of tropical and heavily vegetative areas such as the forests of Central America and the Congo region of Africa. Poisons extracted from frogs, snakes, fishes and mushrooms were some of the more common sources.
Artifacts discovered from ancient Egypt depict the use of animals to assist in the hunting of other animals. The Egyptians used greyhounds, birds of prey and even tame cheetahs to help in the catching and killing of their quarry.
A huge evolutionary breakthrough in weapon creation was the innovation of the bow and arrow. This took the same concept of the spear but by shrinking it, it made it possible to project it some distance. It meant that one didn’t have to work quite so hard to bridge the distance between the animal and hunter, and that the hunter was exponentially safer, as they could keep out of harm’s way from sharp horns and hooves.
The propulsion method of the arrow by notching it and drawing it back with string, as opposed to throwing it, improved its flights accuracy as well as it’s velocity. It can be argued that the creation of the bow and arrow may have been done initially for warfare, but there is no denying it wasn’t also used for hunting.
Then came gun powder. Gun powder was discovered accidentally by Chinese alchemists who were searching for an elixir for mortality. They discovered that a mixture of potassium nitrate (Saltpeter), charcoal and Sulphur was highly explosive. It was originally discovered in or before 142AD and used in the manufacture of fireworks, until it was weaponized by the Song Dynasty in 904AD to fuel the trajectory of an arrow used in war against the Mongolians.
The simple fire arrows soon evolved into more complex gunpowder fueled projectiles, better known as rockets. The Song Dynasty’s success in war encouraged military innovators with rich incentives for new gunpowder ideas to be presented before the court. This led to improvements and increased mass production.
An entire new industry full of opportunities for artisans, carpenters, tanners and the like sprang up. There is no direct evidence that the Song Dynasty used gun powder for hunting, but it is also not unlikely that they did not, as it would have made for a very efficient hunting tool. Still the discovery of gun powder itself, is a major milestone in the history of hunting.
The first reference to gunpowder in European history was in 1267, and the two strongest theories of how it was brought to Europe is either during the Mongolian invasions or by being traded along the Silk Road through the Middle East. The first guns more closely resembled hand cannons that fired long arrows out of them and wasn’t until the 1320’s that guns became prevalent in European history.
Hunting as a means of status in society
In early times the best hunters would bring home the most meat and their families would be physically better off. Hunting also gave warriors a chance to show off their battle skills and therefore hierarchies were established long before pre-dated civilization.
There are documented theories of how hunting became recognized as an elitist activity in that only the nobles had sufficient time to pursue such a leisurely pastime, that it was a means for practicing warfare, or that it was a means that developed from gentry protecting peasants from dangerous animals.
Royals, especially from European nations and regions were the ones who really established hunting as an activity reserved only for the highest members of society. They also pioneered many of the rules and regulations still enforced today. These are explained in depth further on.
In ancient Egypt, after the first three dynasties extended their cultivated areas, ultimately draining the marshes around the Nile River, much of the larger game species moved on. With that chariot were then used to find, chase down and hunt those species. Pharaohs and noblemen were the only ones privileged enough to hunt large game and because domestication of animals was occurring at a rapid rate, hunting was regarded as the sport of kings and dignitaries.
Greeks and Romans shared an enthusiasm for hunting, but the Romans distinguished between hunting by professionals and hunting by amateur sportsmen. Professionals sold the game they killed, at a market or hunted for their masters. Roman emperors enjoyed hunting for sport and the emperor Hadrian was famous for his skills as a hunter of lion, boar and other big game. Famous hunts were immortalized in poetry, paintings, songs and feasts were often held to celebrate a hunt.
While all these aspects have a role in setting up hunting as an elitist hobby, the biggest change in the status of hunting within a society especially in the US most likely came about as a direct result of the industrial revolution. Large farming practices and agricultural production increased, which in turn decreased the need for hunting as a main protein source and de-elevated hunting from a survival necessity to a past time.
Early firearms were expensive to purchase because of their scarcity but also because of the added costs associated. Farmers and low-income families could not afford the powders and projectiles needed to operate the firearms and so the hunting of animals with firearms was often only done by wealthy citizens.
Even today many African cultures that still have strong ancestral ties, require a young man to complete a successful hunt in order to reach manhood. It is a rite of passage that needs to be completed so that they accepted amongst their peers and to remain in good standing within more traditional societies. One of the most famous examples of these is the Masai Mara lion hunts.
Another example from Africa with regards to the importance of hunting in a societies’ history is the San people of Southern Africa. The San had no chiefs or leaders, and nobody was given special importance. At a wedding the young man would have to bring an animal that he had killed as proof to his in-laws that he could provide for their daughter.
Hunting also created conflicts between societies and civilizations. This is evident in the conflict between colonists and Indians over the ability to hunt on and access the rich hunting areas in the Ohio Valley, known today as West Virginia, Eastern Ohio and Pennsylvania was referred to as Lord Dunmore’s War.
A sustainable food source meant the expansion and opportunity for a community, nation, tribe or race to thrive was far greater. These food sources were fiercely guarded and, in many cases, poached by rivals.
Introduction of Hunting Regulations, Laws and Legislation
Arguably the first officially documented rule in hunting was introduced by the initial Norman kings to England in the 11th century. William I, who ruled in 1066 to 1087, initiated the Law of the Forest which outlawed any hunting on land declared as the King’s Forest, reserving hunting in these designated areas for the Monarch and aristocracy by invitation only.
In Portsmouth, Rhode Island 1646 the first closed hunting season was established in response to the decline in deer populations in the area. There was a 5 pound fine for anyone discovered harvesting game during the period of 1st May – 1st November. This set a precedent for other colonies to establish similar closed season and penalties to protect periods when animals were most vulnerable or during key breeding seasons.
In the 1700 and 1800s states established laws that prohibited individuals from hunting in states that they did not have residency in or had not significantly contributed towards. For instance, in North Carolina in 1745 if one wanted to hunt in the state without owning land you would have had to have planted and tended to 5000 hills of corn in the preceding year in order to qualify for a hunt. Many other states had similar laws during this time that earmarked the local wildlife for the profits of citizens only.
In 1872 certain counties of Maryland established a special license law that prohibited the use of sink boxes or sneak boats while shooting at wild waterfowl, except when in possession of a special license, that was available for sale to residents only.
Similar special license laws started forming more commonly in order to protect local wildlife from external exploitation. Eventually, states started to realize the financial gain that they could obtain from charging non-residents a hunting fee, as opposed to excluding them completely.
The first of the like was a membership certificate in 1873 to the West Jersey Game Protection Society, which was obtainable by paying a yearly fee and was a prerequisite for non-residents to hunt in New Jersey. It was only in 1895 when Michigan put in place resident hunting licenses to restrict deer hunting that general hunting licenses became the norm. Even then, residents obtained massive discounts on their hunting licenses when compared to non-residents.
When the American settlers began to move onto the plains during the expansion of America in the early 1800s, the bison, who were already an important food source to the Native Americans who resided there, became a valuable trading currency between Indians and new settlers. They were prized by both communities for their meat and hides.
Indians traditionally hunted bison on foot with primitive weapons and it was a very sustainable system with the thousands of bison available at the time.
The arrival of European settlers brought with them horses and guns, which made the bison easier to hunt. Mass hunts where members of the public were encouraged to fire upon herds from a moving train was encouraged to reduce the bison numbers, as there was a belief that by destroying the Native American’s primary food source, they would accelerate the civilization of the Indians.
In 1864 Idaho state became the first state to pass legislation to protect the bison, however, there were already no more bison left there. In the 1870’s people began to capture bison and establish private herds as they recognized the economic value of them, and the wild herd populations continued to decline.
In 1871 Wyoming introduced laws which forbad the waste of bison meat but didn’t outlaw the hunting of them. The same law was attempted in 1872 by Kansas legislation but was vetoed by the Governor, and in Colorado where it was passed but doubtfully enforced.
In 1872 President Grant established the Yellowstone National Park, where it was against the law to kill any animal or bird. The surviving herd of 300 bison were protected in the park initially by the military and then by the formation of a special wildlife unit, or park rangers.
Initially, the strongest penalty issued against poachers was their immediate removal from the area, but as public pressure increased the allowing penalties grew more severe. Upon Yellowstone’s success other wildlife parks where established and eventually the bison numbers recovered back to about 200 000 animals.
Similar behavioral patterns from settlers and their adverse effects on native game populations were documented in other European colonies, such as South Africa, Kenya, and India. Game populations were decimated as settlers exploited what seemed to be an inexhaustible supply.
Along with hunting, native animal populations declined due to the introduction of new diseases brought with domesticated animals, and the loss of their natural habitat as agriculture practices expanded.
In the 1800s various African colonies started implementing legislation to protect the indiscreet slaughter of certain species. These came in the form of closed hunting seasons, protection for immature animals, and by the late 1800’s the formation of national parks. Frustrated by the failure of individual colonies’ efforts in game preservation, colonial powers met in London in 1900 for the formation of an international hunting treaty.
During the convection they identified 8 species in Southern Africa “on account of their rarity and threatened extermination” and afforded them protection by prohibiting the killing of the adolescences and females accompanying young.
They also limited the number of certain animals which could be hunted per year and agreed to the establishment of large tracts of lands as game parks.
The original idea from the 1900 convention was the creation of breeding grounds with sustainable game cropping, but due to interruptions to efforts made by World War One, the great depression, colonists’ resentment towards game regulations and disease pressures from tsetse flies, the necessity for another conservation convention was called in 1930.
This appealed for the establishment of sanctuaries or wildlife preserves that focused on complete segregation from human settlements and congregated animals into zoo-like reserves to be viewed and preserved for future generations.
The original idea was for more practical and forward thinking but faced unfortunate application issues such as the timing of the war and disease pressures which forced conservationists at the time to try and find another solution, in the form of these stringently controlled, artificially manufactured game reserves. The likes of which we still see dominating the conservation structures of today’s wildlife management systems in many countries.
After the end of World War II applications for hunting licenses nearly doubled, and states used Pittman-Robertson funds to restock animal populations that were floundering. The Pittman-Robertson Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act was established in 1937 and has been amended several times since its conception.
It fundamentally procures a percentage of tax from sales of firearms, archery equipment and ammunition to be used in the acquisition, restoration, management and improvement of wildlife habitats and their associated animal populations. In addition, funds are made available for education and research that is related to wildlife conservation.
The hunting regulations and laws introduced over the years have to a degree been beneficial to the hunter in the long run. Apart from the most obvious being to prevent the over exploitation of natural resources, the introduction of these laws seemed to break the mold and perception that hunting was only reserved for the wealthy and highest members of society. Because limitations were introduced it meant for opportunity to those that would otherwise not of been allowed to hunt.
Technological Developments of Hunting
Since the discovery of the first known hunting tools almost 2 million years ago, up to modern day hunting weaponry, the advancements have been exceptional and ever changing. The capabilities of today’s hunters far out-weighs what hunters were able to achieve 1,000 years, 100 years and even 20 years ago.
Certainly, the biggest advancement in the history of hunting was the invention of the firearm. In 1607 when the first settlers arrived in Jamestown, Virginia they brought with them matchlock and wheellock styled firearms that were designed in Europe. These basic firearms were mostly used for defense and the hunting of wild game, but they were also traded with local Indian tribes for other resources.
As the colonies expanded and more settlers arrived, so did their ideas and engineering skills. German settlers to Pennsylvania brought with them rifled firearms, which soon evolved into the classic American long rifle and laid the foundation for many hunting rifles used today.
Today’s technical advancements are a sign as to how the history of hunting has allowed humans to adapt and improve.
It is not only the developments in rifles and archery that are impressive but also optics, clothing, electronics and transportation.
Quality binoculars, spotting scopes and rifle scopes allow the hunter to see further and with more clarity. The first documented telescopic rifle sight was invented between 1835 and 1840 and although they were primarily used on military rifles, it wasn’t long until they were adopted by hunters.
Advanced clothing allows the hunters to blend in with surroundings, making them almost invisible to their targeted species and can also hide their scent. The introduction of boots and footwear means hunters can travel further and will be less affected by the adverse conditions experienced while hunting.
Hunters have learnt how to communicate with animals over time and use them to their advantage for example, through electronic callers for coyotes and bobcats, mouth pieces to imitate a bugling elk, callers to bring turkey’s closer and duck imitation devices enticing them within shotgun range.
Transportation has been another massive key point in the history of hunting. Not only has the invention of automobiles allowed hunters to travel further after animals, but it has allowed hunters to reach areas rich in wildlife that were previously impossible to get to.
The historical succession and improvement of hunting artillery has introduced a new paradox as to what technological advances should be embraced by modern hunters, and which of those are infringing on the unwritten rules of fair chase. As much hunting has developed, there may very well be a point at which it cannot develop further.
The question which has recently developed is, at what point have the weapons evolved to such an extent that the hunter has an unfair advantage?
Most of the time that decision is left up to an individual’s own conscience and what feels right to them. However, there are some instances that governments decided that the technology has circumvented hunting ethnics and laws have been introduced to ensure continued sustainable hunting practices.
For example, some states have outlawed the use of “smart” machines, including smart phones, certain gun calibers or computer operated gun technology. Several states have instated regulations and restrictions on drone usage during hunting, including locating and tracking wild animals.
It can be reasoned that the benefits of improved equipment are swifter kills that diminish the animals suffering and more meat is recovered from the carcass. One could argue that just because the technology is there doesn’t mean that it must be used. There are still individuals who advocate hunting with traditional bow and arrows and even ancestral handheld spears in the 21st century.
Shannon Hobson of Houston Chronicle said of modern hunting advancements “If it doesn’t deepen their connection with, and appreciation of, the land and life on it, don’t use it. If it does, it’s a direct connection to those first hunting tools created more than 2 million years ago.”
Regardless of the moralities and ethics that hunting technology faces today, it remains impressive just how far the history of hunting has come from etching stones to make spears and arrows, to rifles, optics and windage tools that allow a hunter to successfully kill an animal almost 700-yards away.
Hunting as a Sport
Hunting shifted from being a necessity to a sport during those early years when societies used hunting to establish one’s status and importance as previously explained.
From royalty wagering bets on who could hunt the largest wild boars and stags, to the Indian tribes of North America that would challenge fellow hunters to see whose horse was quickest at chasing down antelope and bison across the prairies and even the ancient Egyptians reserving the right to hunt as a means of entertainment for the Pharaoh. Correlations between hunting and sport can be found.
Many of today’s sporting events that are showcased in the Olympics are derived from hunting. The javelin, hammer throw, archery, target shooting and even the modern-day pentathlon all has their origins firmly set in hunting.
Early Games often held events that directly involved hunting. Live pigeon shooting was held in the 1900 Olympic Games in Paris, where the competitors had to shoot as many pigeons as possible in an allotted time. The first shooter to miss two birds in a row was eliminated. Protests from animal rights activists forced the International Olympic Committee to replace live pigeons with the clays they use today.
Although a large majority of people today may perceive the action of hunting as a sport, the real definition of it is a lifestyle, an act of providing food for one’s family, whether it be directly through hunting the animal or through a business related to hunting. Because many sports such as the ones mentioned above stem from hunting, it is understandable as to why it may be viewed as a sport, but that is not the case.
Certainly, sport has been used to improve on one’s hunting skills, through cardio exercise, muscle memory training or consistent practice using firearms and bows but hunting is not classified as a sport.
The Hunting Industry
The development of hunting through the centuries and decades with its beginnings purely as a means of survival, invariably created a massive industry on many different levels.
Gun and archery manufacturers, ammunition companies, camo clothing, optics, hunting outfitters, lodges, ATV builders, airlines, decoys, tree stand and blind makers, hunting clubs, television shows, conventions, exhibitions and many more are all businesses that directly and indirectly contribute towards the hunting industry.
With focus on just the North American hunting industry alone, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in the 2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation reported that 13.7 million people aged 16 or older went hunting that year and spent over $38.3 billion on equipment, licenses, trips and more. Businesses in the US directly related to hunting employ well over 680,000 people. The report further explains that hunting generated $11.8 billion in tax revenues for federal, state and local tax coffers.
The hunting industry has helped develop income sources, created jobs and contributed towards conservation efforts in less developed countries in Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia.
An example of this is the trophy hunting safari industry in South Africa where $341 million is generated annually and it contributes directly to over 17,000 employment opportunities.
The establishment of a large self-sustaining industry that provides opportunities to millions of people can be viewed as the pinnacle and culmination of hunting’s long history.
Hunting as a Means of Conservation
Ancient history shows that the physical preservation and management of wildlife species and areas was almost non-existent. Hunting was merely used to obtain food, not as a means of conservation and management. This is evident by the mass killings of the bison and other large species. It was only in recent history that man began to implement productive wildlife management conservation models.
Wildlife management is a term that has evolved over the years. It was probably first used to describe the protection of people and their livelihoods from predators and pests by managing problem animals. Now it has progressed to include and even favor the protection of animals by managing their numbers and ecosystems to ensure their survival.
The wildlife populations in North America suffered substantial losses after the expansion of the railroad in the 1860’and 70’s, which made shipping meat and hides more convenient.
A census in 1886 revealed that the bison herds had dwindled to only 540 animals, and people began growing increasingly aware of the unsustainability of unregulated animal harvesting. Theodore Roosevelt, along with other influential hunters who are also advocates for conservation, formed the Boone and Crockett Club in New York in 1887, whose primary mission was to preserve the big game of North America.
Many other hunting clubs were established during the 1880’s and were organizations that lobbied for stricter laws to control animal product trade and reduce wastefulness in sport hunting.
The Boone and Crockett club championed the philosophy of Fair Chase hunting, which as defined by the club is “the ethical, sportsmanlike, and lawful pursuit and taking of free-ranging wild game animals in a manner that doesn’t give the hunter an improper or unfair advantage.” These principles have been adopted around the world and influenced hunting cultures and game laws throughout the years.
One of conservations greatest success stories through the history of hunting is the hunting industry itself within Southern Africa. As the demand for hunting grew, so the economic value of game reserves grew hand in hand. Land that was previously unsuitable for crop farming and not aesthetic enough for eco-tourism suddenly became variable investments as a hunting area.
The reintroduction of game to arid and semi-arid game reserves in rural parts of South Africa helped grow the previously dwindling game populations back to healthy numbers. Certain species such as the Bontebok, white rhino and black wildebeest’s numbers have improved so radically that they are now considered recovered from the edge of extinction. A large percentage of these animal populations are on privately owned game reserves that are only viable thanks to international hunters who reinvest into the local wildlife industry.
There are many other great examples of how hunting through the years has been beneficial to conservation and wildlife management.
The history of hunting cannot be traced from one exact moment in time precisely through the ages to modern day. Rather the history of hunting is entwined in the evolution of man, the civilizations that were built, wars fought, industries created, and wildlife habitats preserved.
There is no doubt that hunting was crucial to man’s survival and development, which is evident in early discoveries by archaeologists and studies performed by scientists.
Although hunting is viewed negatively by many people in modern day times, there are just as many people that hold onto the principles and lifestyle of hunting which means its strong history will remain and there is no denying that without hunting, things today would be very different.