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Insane Ways to Hunt: Looking Back on Our Ancestors14 min read


Humans are hunters. We kill animals because it’s hard-wired into our brains to get enough meat and fat to keep us alive. Sorry, Bambi: It’s you or me. Even though it isn’t strictly necessary today for us to track down and kill wild critters (“Judy! That pot roast looks great! Get out of the line of fire!”), it still seems to be built into our basic instincts to head off to the wild country and shoot stuff. But, have you ever wondered if using a Ruger M77 .308 with a 4x20 scope from a tree stand is exactly fair?

Of course not. What is there wrong with having a technological advantage? It wasn’t always that way, though. Human beings are – let’s face it – kind of bald and weak and have lots of important stuff dangling between our legs. How the heck did we hunt down big, scary animals before somebody came up with high-powered rifles? Apparently, our half-naked forefathers (the ones who survived, anyway) had gone out into the field when everyday was hunting season. It wasn’t a matter of being fair. Anything that worked, that was good enough. How did they do it?

As a team member of International Huntress, I wanted to share some interesting hunting techniques used by long ago ancestors.

1.The Blackfeet Buffalo piskun

The Blackfeet, the most bad-ass Indians on the northern Plains of North America (just ask them, I dare you), had this really great solution to feeding themselves a few thousand years ago. Your basic buffalo – bison, if you insist on being all accurate and everything – is about a month’s meal on the hoof for a party of four. Problem is, the bison travel in herds, have horns and a habit of stomping predators into red paste. Long before horse showed up (thanks, Spanish guys!), the Blackfeet came up with a way to get a few hundred buffalo to dive, lemming-like, off a cliff.

How? Well, they’d find a herd roaming conveniently near a cliff. Then, the tribe would convince a young boy to dress up in a buffalo calf skin, stand near the cliff edge and begin dancing around while making distressed-calf noises (we’d love to have heard that conversation: “Two Eagles, we have this idea… now just hear us out here…”). So, this kid would drape a calf skin across his shoulders and start making distressed noises. Which would not be difficult, considering that he was facing an entire herd of ton-sized bison. Then, the leader of the bison herd – they’re always female – would get worried about the supposed calf in trouble and begin to lead her herd across the plains towards the lure. The lead cow would lead her herd faster and faster and then – half the tribe of really hungryBlackfeet would jump out of the grass and stampede the herd towards the cliff, where they’d all pile over and fall hundreds of feet to their death, making a nice dish of tartar. Oh, and the kid? Well, he was kind of on his own: he had to dodge out of the way before the bison stomped him on their way by.

The bison, by the way, would stampede over the cliff and fall far down and, well, die. Only, not, exactly. The first bison (who were probably thinking, in their little bison brains, “Oh, crap!”) were then piled down on top by the rest of the herd following them, because, you know, bison, okay? The rest of the herd off the cliff were killed in the surround (that’s the Blackfeet definition of piskun, “a surround”, or a corral made of logs).

The kid who was the “caller of buffalo”? Well, if he survived, he got a lot of praise and certainly a big plate of ribs.

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2.Makah Whale Hunting

Everyone who has ever read Moby Dick(yeah, no) knows about the “Nantucket Sleigh Ride.” That’s what it was called when whaling ships would spot a whale swimming on the surface of the ocean and send a crew into a dory (an extra-large rowboat, basically) to get up close to the whale and heave a big steel harpoon into its side. Then, they’d tie the end of the rope attached to the harpoon onto the front of the boat and just hang on while this animal about the size of a small island decides to drag them along for a few miles. Okay: Bunch of New England guys drag their sorry bodies across the wide ocean until the whale dies and gets chopped up into meat and the fat rendered into oil for lamps.

How did you think that anybody would come up with such an insane idea? The Yankees learned the idea from the Makah, a tribe of Native Americans who live in the Pacific Northwest, on the north coast of what is now Washington State. These guys were either extremely brave or very hungry – or both. They came up with this pretty desperate way to get some of that sweet, sweet blubber using dugout canoes, rope braided from cedar bark and harpoons made from wood and bone. In the early 1800s, when New England ships started showing up along to coast to trade for fur seals, they saw the Makah doing this insane thing and said – “Hey, cool. Let’s try that!” And, why not? – it works! The energy it takes for the whale to drag a boat full of guys around for an hour or so tires it out, so it’s a lot easier to kill it.

Ancient whale hunting
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3.Maasai lion hunting

The Maasai have been nomadic herders for thousands of years, moving their cattle from one place to another in East Africa (what’s now called Kenya), to find good grazing. They love their cattle, but not for the reason you think. For the Maasai, cows are money; they’re wealth on the hoof. A man’s status has traditionally been marked by how many he has. Even getting married required a bride-price of a certain number of cows.

There’s one small drawback to cattle ranching in East Africa. They’re called lions. Before Europeans started showing up in the area, there were a lotof lions in East Africa, and they didn’t pay a lot of attention as to whether their lunch buffet was wildebeest or cattle. For the Maasai, this was like having the local wildlife dip into their savings account whenever they felt like it.

You see where this is going, don’t you? The older, rich herd owners convinced the young men of the tribe that killing lions was a really good way of proving their courage and earning a few cows to offer to potential in-laws. So, a group of young (bachelor) men, armed only with cowhide shields and long spears tipped with blades pounded out of really soft, bendy iron, would go out onto the plains and find a male lion. (Note that female lions do most of the hunting and killing, but male lions have much cooler manes). When the Maasai found a male lion, they’d slo-o-o-owly surround it at a distance and begin to approach the lion, gradually shrinking the size of the circle. Eventually, the lion would get annoyed at having his afternoon nap interrupted, and charge one of the Maasai, trying to break out through the line of these dicks. In a game not unlike dodgeball, the young warrior-to-be facing a charging lion would try to spear it before he became the after-dinner dessert.

If he survived, he could get married. Yay! After that sort of entry fee for a wedding, you can imagine that anniversary presents were a snap.

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4.Eagle hunting

Think of Plains Indians and then those eagle feather headdresses immediately come to mind. What most people often neglect to ask, though, is howthey got those feathers. Well, they didn’t wait around eagle nests waiting for the molting season; they went out and huntedthose guys.

How? Yes, the Blackfeet again. Sorry, but they really were – are – a pretty much amazing tribe. They would find an area with a lot of eagle activity (not hard in the days when the buffalo were still in the millions) and dig a pit in a place where it could be easily spotted from the air. The pit would be just deep enough for a man to stand in, and the excavated dirt had to be carefully carted away from the site so it wouldn’t look suspicious; eagles are birds, but they’re not stupid. After the hunter spent a few days in prayer and fasting (wouldn’t you?), he’d kill an antelope or a wolf – we toldyou these guys were hard-core – and cut some branches from a cottonwood tree. Then, he’d climb down into the pit and have a friend lay the branches over the pit and place the dead animal on top as a lure.

After that, it was a waiting game. If all went well (for a given value of “well”), an eagle would then land and start eating the bait. The guy in the pit would reach up through the branches and grab the eagle by the legs – an eagle with a freaking six- to eight-foot wing-spanand with talons the size of your fingers – and pull it down into the pit. Since both hands were kind of occupied, strangling the eagle wasn’t an option, so it was a matter of trying to crush the life out of this large, angry bird without getting clawed. Yeah, about those talons: since bald eagles like to eat carrion, their talons are septic as hell, so a scratch could lead to a fatal infection. Eventually, one of the two would win: either the eagle would have twosnacks to choose from or the guy would have some feathers to use in a headdress.

Keep that in mind the next time you see one of those old-timey photographs of a Plains Indian wearing an eagle headdress. They earnedthem.

bird hunting
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5.Bear spearing.

Trust the Eastern Europeans. Got bears? Well, let’s not just trap the critters, let’s just spear them on foot!Well, why not? Oh, and this isn’t just something from the day of Vlad the Impaler: This is now, right now, Romanian hunting guides will lead American and European hunters to hunt bears by spear. They even have their own website.

There are no rules – of course, there are no rules! – so it’s a matter of (a) find a bear, (b) point out the bear to the hunter and (c) hand over a spear to someone who is probably re-thinking this whole deal, if not wetting his pants. We assume the guides get their money up front.

spear hunting bears
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6.Hunting elephants, on foot (with spears)

Elephants are big, which not only makes them potentially dangerous (particularly when hunters get all stabby on them), but it also means that there’s a lot of good eatin’ on those beasties. It only takes one elephant to feed a village. That’s why, despite the risks, hunters have been trying to get them some of that elephant meat for thousands a years. Obviously, the safest way to go about this – particularly when all you have are spears – is to sneak up on the elephant while it’s busy feeding or asleep.

Not the Nuer people. They’re a tribe living in the Southern Sudan who make their living by raising cattle and growing crops, with the occasional forays into hunting. When they go after elephant, they consider it cowardly to sneak up on an elephant. Instead, they go up and challengea six-ton elephant to a duel. With a shout of, “Cane nyieny!” (“We are fighting!”), they give the elephant a warning before the spears start flying.

This isn’t old-timey, Neolithic (stone-age) hunting, either: an American anthropologist witnessed this kind of hunt in the middle of the 1940s. Of course, as far as we can figure, the Nuer haven’t continued this hunting system, either because they’ve run out of insane adult men or they’ve acquired AK-47s.

elephant hunting
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So, basically, every hunter has, shall we say? challenges. Even with a high-powered 30-.06 or a .30-30, though, there is the difficulty of the stalk and the hunt. It’s a strange and wonderful adventure.

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