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Hunters Must Have Been Smart, They Invented Agriculture: A Review of Jack Brink’s “Imagining Head-Smashed-In” and George Frison’s “Survival By Hunting”

Imagining Head-Smashed-In, by Jack W. Brink

Imagining Head-Smashed-In,
by Jack W. Brink

One of the primary conceits of history is that nothing happened before agriculture. The Great Leap Forward! Between the Tigris and the Euphrates, the cradle of civilization! Page 1 of any sixth-grade world history textbook.

And before that?

Nothing, as far as we’re told. Unremitting savagery, a life nasty, brutish, and short, cavemen killing each other with clubs and dragging women by the hair. A life not worth a chapter, or even a page, to describe it.

Yet an awkward fact remains: these ‘savages’ were modern humans. In fact, they were taller, stronger, healthier, had larger brains and better teeth, and were longer-lived than the farmers that replaced them (see: Jared Diamond, Claire Cassidy).

And somehow these ‘savages’ managed to invent agriculture—a task much more difficult than practicing it. They discovered how and when to sow. They discovered how to plow, how to weed, how to protect crops against birds and rodents, how to harvest and thresh and grind and cook and bake…a suite of tasks that remained essentially unchanged for 10,000 years after their original discovery.

In other words, those ‘savages’ must have been pretty damned smart.

But how did they become so smart? It can’t have had anything to do with agriculture or anything we consider ‘civilized’, because they invented all that. What caused little 65-pound savanna apes with 350cc brains to evolve into Late Paleolithic modern humans with 1500cc brains?

Clearly there was much more to Paleolithic life than dumb savagery.

I will now turn this essay over to Jack W. Brink, archaeologist and author of “Imagining Head-Smashed-In: Aboriginal Buffalo Hunting on the Northern Plains.” From the Preface:

The book isn’t about what are traditionally considered the great historic achievements of our species. There are no magnificent cities built, no colossal monuments erected, no gigantic statues carved, no kingdoms conquered. It was very much this deviation from classical concepts of “civilization” that motivated me to write this book. Modern society seems to equate human achievement with monumental substance and architectural grandeur. Asked to name the greatest accomplishments of ancient cultures you would certainly hear of the Great Wall of China, Stonehenge, the Great Pyramids, and the civilizations that ruled Greece and Rome. Shunted off to the side are many ancient cultures that achieved greatness through their skill, knowledge, and ingenuity – cultures that managed to survive in demanding environments for extraordinary lengths of time without leaving towering monuments to themselves. In the coming pages I hope to show how simple lines of rocks stretching across the prairies are every bit as inspirational as rocks piled up in the shape of a pyramid.

This is a book about one of the truly remarkable accomplishments in human history. It is the story of an unheralded, unassuming, almost anonymous group of people who hunted for a living. They occupied an open, windswept, often featureless tract of land. They lived in conical skin tents that they lugged around with them in their search for food. A life of nearly constant motion negated permanent villages and cumbersome material possessions. They shared this immense landscape with herds of a wild and powerful beast – the largest animal on the continent. In a land virtually without limits, people of seemingly unsophisticated hunting societies managed to direct huge herds of buffalo to pinpoint destinations where ancient knowledge and spiritual guidance taught them massive kills could be achieved. It was an that guaranteed survival of the people for months to come, a that ensured their existence for millennia. Using their skill and their astonishing knowledge of bison biology and behaviour, bands of hunters drove great herds of buffalo over steep cliffs and into wooden corrals. In the blink of an eye they obtained more food in a single moment than any other people in human history. How they accomplished this is a story as breathtaking in scope and complexity as the country in which the events unfolded.

What follows is a fusion of archaeology and narrative, as Brink attempts to reconstruct the details of a buffalo jump—an event that last occurred in the 1800s, far outside anyone’s living memory. As he puts it:

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump in southern Alberta, Canada, is but one of many places where herds of bison were brought to their deaths by the Native inhabitants of the Plains. It forms the nucleus around which my story unfolds. But this is not so much the story of one place, one people, or one time. It is the story of countless people who thrived over an enormous expanse of time and territory by orchestrating mass kills of bison. There were two reasons I wanted to write this book. First, to bring to a wider audience a story that I felt was so compelling and inspirational that it should not be allowed to fade from contemporary memory. And second, to do justice to the people who orchestrated these remarkable events.

The text of “Imagining Head-Smashed-In” runs to over 300 pages, which should be our first clue that this was not a trivial task. Indeed, reading it gives a nearly vertiginous sense of the skill, ingenuity, and sheer tenacity required to survive in the extreme environment of the Northern Great Plains. What we modern humans think of as “wilderness survival” basically consists of avoiding immediate death until someone in a helicopter rescues us—or, worst case, walking in one direction until we reach the safety and familiar problems of ‘civilization’, which is to say: other people. Obtaining food is not a concern, because humans can survive several weeks without food: ‘wilderness survival’ is a temporary state of privation, to be escaped as quickly as possible.

Yet for millions of years—the entire span of time and circumstances that shaped us from small, dumb apes into modern humans—daily life was far more challenging that what we think of today as ‘wilderness survival’. The problems of everyday life could not be postponed until we reached a hospital, a supermarket, or even a paved road—and they had to be addressed without maps, compasses, Gore-Tex, matches, or even a metal knife. Sickness, injury, and childbirth. Freezing cold, searing heat, pouring rain. And the continual, omnipresent drive of all life: hunger. The need to eat something nutritious so that you have the energy to live one more week, one more day, one more hour.

Yet Paleolithic humans met that challenge and mastered it—for we spread out of Africa and around the entire world, even to the smallest, most isolated Pacific islands. We survived in humid jungles and parched deserts, in howling blizzards and torrential downpours, on prairies and forests and valleys and mountains and beaches and anywhere there was living flesh for us to kill and eat. And we were such accomplished hunters and killers and eaters that we drove most of the big, slow animals to extinction.

Pyramids, in contrast, are uninteresting. All you need is tens of thousands of slaves to stack rocks until they die. Hunting is the real human history. Yet since it left behind nothing but stone points and bones smashed open for marrow, its stories are lost to us forever. All we can do is imagine.

And that is what Jack Brink does for us: he imagines one of the uncountable stories of the real human history.

Who could imagine that a book of North American archaeology could leave me near tears?

“Imagining Head-Smashed-In” is available directly from Athabasca University Press in hardback, paperback, and as a free Creative Commons-licensed PDF, or from Amazon.com.

Thanks to Tim Rangitsch (@acmebike, Acme Bicycles) for bringing this book to my attention.

Survival by Hunting, by George Frison

Survival by Hunting,
by George Frison

While “Imagining Head-Smashed-In” creates a strangely poignant narrative out of archeology, George Frison’s “Survival By Hunting” is a far more utilitarian book. If IHSA is a beautifully-constructed diorama in the museum located at the jump site, “Survival By Hunting” is one of the shovels used at the dig.

Just as IHSA is a combination of archaeology and narrative reconstruction, “Survival by Hunting” is a combination of archaeology and biography. Frison briefly tells his story as a child growing up in rural Wyoming on his grandfather’s ranch, and of both the culture and essential privation (he grew up during the Depression) that led to becoming a subsistence hunter at a young age. As a hunter he found many tools and traces of the Native American hunters who had previously inhabited the area, hunting the same game he had. An abiding interest in these remains led to a career in archaeology, which combines with his decades of experience hunting large animals to make him the leading authority on Prehistoric hunting techniques.

Though written very dryly, the book is an entertaining combination of factual academic recountings of artifact sites and his own personal experience. Instead of simply speculating how prehistoric hunters might have butchered mammoths with stone tools, Frison flies to Africa and tries it himself on an elephant carcass culled from a nature reserve—proving that stone tools are indeed sufficient to the task of cutting through elephant hide. And not content to guess at the force of a dart or spear thrown by an atlatl (spear-thrower) and whether it might be sufficient to kill a mammoth, he learns to make them himself—and tests them, again on an elephant carcass. Only someone with Frison’s experience at real-life game hunting, and Frison’s willingness to test his theories by experiment, could accumulate the knowledge he does—let alone assemble it into charmingly tentative hypotheses about the nature and significance of an archaeological site.

Reading “Survival by Hunting” is a bit like being on an dig oneself: startling artifacts of knowledge are strewn randomly about the narrative, often covered with dirt and mentioned only in passing. For instance:

Woodruff said that during the last half of the nineteenth century, [mountain] sheep were so plentiful that any time they were short of meat they hitched up a wagon, drove along the base of the steep east slope of the Absaroka Mountains, and loaded the wagon with sheep as they were shot and rolled to the bottom.

This offhand anecdote provides a glimpse of the cornucopia that must have been pre-contact North America, even after thousands of years of Native American hunting and subsequent extinctions. In contrast, our few remaining scraps of modern ‘wilderness’ are, for the most part, beautiful but lifeless high-altitude tundra. And hunting today is either completely prohibited or carefully managed, with thousands of would-be hunters vying for a tiny number of tags handed out by lottery—those tags costing many times in excess of the value of the meat.

As the book progresses, we learn that an elk antler tip can serve as an atlatl hook; that bison can squeeze through openings which cattle cannot; that pronghorn can run at over 45 MPH but refuse to jump or crash through a flimsy ‘fence’ made of brush; and hundreds of other small knowledge artifacts that only assemble themselves into a coherent whole in retrospect and upon reflection.

To summarize “Survival by Hunting”, I’ll quote the Preface:

Equally disturbing to me is the attitude students are acquiring towards hunting…students questioned about animal procurement strategies commonly respond, “When they got hungry, someone would kill a bison or whatever other animal was selected as the target for the day and bring it back to camp.” I believe such interpretations to be totally inadequate, and I hope that the contents of this book convince others of the vast reservoir of learned behavior involved in hunting.

All I have to say is: what George said.

(His criticism can be applied equally to many archaeologists, whose ignorance of basic physics, let alone hunting strategies, is blatantly obvious—but that’s another article for another time.)

“Survival by Hunting” may not have the grand narrative scope of “Imagining Head-Smashed-In”. But if you want to understand another tiny fragment of the real human history—which is how Plains hunters managed to kill mammoths, bison, and antelope on foot, using only sharp rocks and their wits—this book will get you there.

You can buy “Survival by Hunting” directly from the UC press, or at a discount from Amazon.com. (Sorry, no free PDF for this one.)

Live in freedom, live in beauty.


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You might also enjoy “How Glaciers Might Have Made Us Human” and “When The Conclusions Don’t Match The Headlines: Darwin Is Still Right“.