Hunting History - Hunting and Gathering
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Hunting for Food

San hunters in Africa

April 2017 - People have been hunting for a long, long time; even monkeys hunt meat with sticks. So men and women have been hunting since before they even became people. The oldest kind of hunting may be persistence hunting, where you just keep chasing an animal until it is too tired to run anymore, and then you come close and stab it with a sharpened stick. People are good at this because we are good at sweating, so we can cool off enough to keep running. Still, early people probably didn't rely on hunting for food as much as they relied on gathering shellfish and fruit, which is more reliable and much easier.

As people spread out from Africa around the world, they learned to hunt different animals in different places, depending on the environment. But their main hunting methods did not change very much from the Stone Age right through the Middle Ages.

hunting with nets
Hunting with Nets - Piazza Armerina, Sicily (ca. 300 AD)

There were two kinds of hunting. The older kind was hunting for survival, hunting for food. When people went hunting for food they didn't worry about being sporting, they just caught as many animals as they could in the easiest way. One way to catch birds, for instance, was to put sticky lime on the branches of a bush, and then put seeds birds like to eat on the branches. When birds landed there they would get stuck, and then people came and threw nets over them and caught them. People usually caught rabbits, squirrels, and other small animals in traps and snares, or in nets. Many of the larger animals - aurochs, mammoths in North America, bears in Greece, lions in West Asia - became extinct because people hunted them so much.

lion hunting
Lion hunting - Assyrians

The other kind of hunting was hunting for sport, as a sort of dangerous thrill. This kind of hunting was basically something rich people did to show that they were rich, like going on safari today. Sport hunting, after the Early Bronze Age when horses came to the Mediterranean, you mostly did on horseback, with bows and arrows or with spears and nets, and with dogs. You hunted deer, or boar (wild pigs). You did eat the meat after you killed it, but if all you wanted was dinner it would have been easier to eat farm animals or go fishing.

black and white photo of chinese tile showing men shooting arrows at birds
Han Dynasty China: hunters shooting birds
(see people harvesting below?)

In West Asia, there was also a tradition of ritual lion hunting for the king. In Northern Europe in the Middle Ages, kings kept whole forests for their own private hunting use: Fontainebleau in France, or Sherwood Forest in England (of Robin Hood fame).

Learn by doing: Archery project
More about bows and arrows
More about going fishing

Bibliography and further reading about hunting:

The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers, edited by Richard Lee and Richard Daly (1999).By specialists, but accessible to interested adult readers.

Hunting in the Ancient World, by J.K. Anderson (1985). Greek and Roman hunting.

The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China, by Mark Elvin (2004). An account of how people from the Stone Age on gradually changed the environment of China (and hunted the elephants that used to live there).

The Hunt in Ancient Greece, by Judith Barringer (2002). Barringer discusses the hunt, and also the ways that hunting was a metaphor for courtship in ancient Greece.

History of Gathering
History of Fishing
History of Farming home

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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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  • Carr, K.E. . Study Guides, . Web. 24 April, 2017