The following is an excerpt from A Man Made of Elk by David Petersen (TBM Inc., Boise, Idaho, 2007). In this beautifully written exploration of the hunter’s heart, Petersen, former Western Editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS, traces humanity’s evolution in cooperation with wild creatures and shares his own personal tales of the hunt — tales in which meat and antlers are secondary rewards compared with the pleasure of just being out in the wild. Petersen also presents ways in which we can shape stronger and more meaningful hunting ethics for ourselves and for the next generation of hunters. This excerpt is from Chapter 28, “Modern Hunting, Ancient Philosophy.”
The out-of-doors is our true ancestral estate. For a mere few thousand years we have grubbed in the soil and laid brick upon brick to build the cities; but for millions of years before that we lived the leisurely, free and adventurous life of hunters and gatherers. How can we pluck that deep root of feeling from the racial consciousness? Impossible! — Edward Abbey
Why do we hunt?
More precisely: Why do so many among us want to hunt, and why does it feel so deeply satisfying when we do it well? Digging as deeply into our hearts and minds as we can manage and bear, what might be the ultimate source of our shared need to hunt, the prime mover underlying all other, more visible and measurable motivations? What hidden engine powers the more obvious drives — those things we so often name as “reasons” for hunting but which in fact are merely among its more easily identifiable rewards — including meat, trophies, challenge, companionship, and the far-flung pleasures of being outdoors?
Assuming that such a prime mover can be identified, we then must ask whether it provides a suitable foundation upon which to base a revitalized hunting philosophy today. If not, we may well be in trouble. But I say yes, and yes. There is a universal, bottom-line reason we hunt, and it does provide a rock-solid base for rethinking and revitalizing our current hunting philosophy, which is horribly crippled.
As often as possible in mid-August, just before elk season opens, I visit the San Luis Valley in south-central Colorado to camp and bowhunt the wily pronghorn. It’s a vast, eerily beautiful place, wrapped around by blue-green mountains, with the big beige crotch of Great Sand Dunes National Park anchoring the northeast corner. The area I hunt is heavily vulcanized, sparsely vegetated, dramatically lonely-looking, and holds a special attraction in that it, like the Alaskan tundra, makes me feel that I’ve time-traveled back to the Pleistocene. And in fact, the San Luis Valley is rich in deep-time archeological sites.
At the wild tail end of that great icy epoch, 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, the human denizens of the San Luis Valley were semi-nomadic spear and (probably) atlatl hunters known today as the Clovis and Folsom cultures. Perhaps, as has long been accepted, they were the recent descendants of adventurous Asian hunters who migrated to America via the Bering land bridge and then spread their population like wildfire throughout the continent — somehow reaching the East Coast long before they were thought to have arrived on the West Coast, even as they miraculously left abundant evidence of occupying South America thousands of years before they were believed to have arrived in North America.
That’s the old, apparently flawed yet tenacious official view, and while still popular in some True Believer scientific circles, an increasingly accepted and far more engaging hypothesis asserts that the Clovis culture, thought to be America’s first people, may not have been descended from Mongolian emigrants at all, but rather from caucasoids (bearing Caucasian facial features but not necessarily white) who arrived much earlier than the Asians — 18,000 to 25,000 years ago, perhaps, traveling by land, sea and ice from southern Europe’s Iberian Peninsula. Or maybe from the Sea of Japan. Opinions vary and no one claims to know for sure. Nor does it matter much to this discussion. What matters is that these prehistoric Americans — whoever they were, whenever they came here and from where — were full-time foragers who earned good honest livings following and hunting mammoths and other Pleistocene megafauna.
But the Clovis paradise was short-lived, as coincident with the retreat and disappearance of the continental ice sheets, the stodgy old mammoth, overspecialized, suffered a meltdown of its own, unable to adapt to rapid climate and habitat changes and slow to reproduce. While human hunters, Neandertals in Europe and Clovis hunters here in the Americas, doubtless facilitated the finale, it was most likely climate and habitat change — not hunting — that most significantly doomed the big pachyderms to extinction. And with the end of their traditional prey species, the Clovis culture (and Neandertals elsewhere) faded out. Or so it seems fair to speculate.
With the great tuskers gone, the Folsom folk, who seem to have immediately replaced their Clovis predecessors in the San Luis Valley and elsewhere, focused their predatory attention on giant, wide-horned bison, which they ambushed at glacier-gouged potholes throughout the valley. The stone rings containing these ancient hunters’ campfires — Folsom and Clovis — even the very coals from those fires, along with artful stone tools and the tool-scarred bones of butchered prey, continue to be unearthed throughout the San Luis in exciting abundance.
It follows, naturally, that each time I visit this magical place with its ancient hunting history and preternatural Pleistocene ambiance, my thoughts run to one of the primary influences in developing my hunting and life philosophy. I’m referring to Dr. Paul Shepard: Pleistocene prophet, deep-time philosopher, and father of the vital new science of human ecology — the study of humanity’s evolution in cooperation with wild creatures in shared wild settings.
In Shepard’s vision — in fact a radical revisioning of the standard take on our so-called savage ancestry — our human hunting heritage leaps to lively, meaningful life, reconfirming our convictions, yours and mine, that the hunter’s life is the good life, today as it was for time immemorial, until the advent of domestication and agriculture … but only if we do it right.
And “right” in hunting means hard work, wrap-around respect and no guarantees.
Among my favorite Shepard quotes is this: “In defiance of mass culture, tribalism constantly resurfaces.” True hunters, past and present, no matter our differences in geography, culture, gender and experience, are kindred spirits, a scattered tribe united by our shared love for what Shepard, employing clever double meaning, calls the Sacred Game — that is, the elk is the sacred game, just as the elk hunt is the sacred game.
Nor, Shepard counsels, does humanity’s built-in, eons-evolved attraction to wild nature and wild animals reveal itself through hunting alone.
Why, for instance, do young children, across all cultures, respond more enthusiastically to animals, real and toy, than to any other category of objects?
Why are the names of animals and the sounds animals make among the first words uttered by most children worldwide?
Why is the color green so commonly perceived as restful and reassuring, while red excites and agitates?
Because all of these natural-born affiliations with nature in general and animals in particular — collectively called biophilia (love of nature) — arise from a common source: our long evolution, not merely among, but as wild animals.
Even as a pre-teen I was already wondering why I felt such a gut-churning drive to hunt, fish, camp, hike, explore and be outdoors. It has never been something I take for granted — no mere “recreation” or “sport,” but a heart-pounding requisite to personal contentment, satisfaction and sanity. Why did I become a passionate hunter from the age of 8? It wasn’t just for the meat, though almost from the start I ate everything I killed. It wasn’t just for fun, though the best of fun it was. It was rarely (just once in fact) for trophies, and never in a competitive, record book sense.
Certainly, companionship played an early role, insofar as the best of my friends and their fathers — our chauffeurs, guides and teachers — all were avid outdoorsmen. Yet, from the day I could legally drive, I’ve hunted mostly alone, and mostly with a bow. For me, hunting has never been so much a social as a solo passion, like a bird’s urge to fly, a fish’s fervor to swim … like instinct.
The “why” behind all of this was always fun to think about, though definitive answers remained beyond my grasp … until I met Paul Shepard, who explained my life to me; in fact, he explains all life on Earth to anyone who’s willing to listen, with hunting at its heart.
In overlapping careers as scientist, scholar, philosopher, teacher and writer, Paul Shepard, who died in 1996, spent an active life examining the skin-tight fit between human nature and wild nature, leading to his widely celebrated proposal that millions of years of evolution, under the live-or-die tutelage of hunting and gathering (together termed foraging), made us human.
As a hunter, of course, this strikes me as very cool.
But far cooler — far more important to hunting today and tomorrow — is Shepard’s revelation that while the last 10,000 years (ever since foraging was replaced by herding and farming) have radically altered the way we live, they haven’t changed the way evolution shaped us to live … which is in small, mutually supportive clans and larger tribes linked heart-and-gut with wild nature via hunting and gathering. In our cores, Shepard proclaims, we remain Pleistocene foragers.
This radical retake on the traditional Big Three questions of philosophy — Where do we come from? Why are we here? How should we live? — has led human ecology to be dubbed “the subversive science,” by disciples and critics alike, because it shakes the very foundations of civilized culture: economics, politics, religion, gender roles, health, diet, child-rearing, education … everything we have been led to believe now comes into question.
Biologically, as a species, we’ve not had sufficient time in just 10,000 years of agriculture, and only half that of civilization (defined by literacy and city living), to have evolved any meaningful change (that is, adaptation) in our collective DNA wiring diagram (the 10-cent word here is genome), which was shaped across millions of years of evolution and alters, on average (says scientific consensus), no more than 1 or 2 percent per 100,000 years in the human animal. Just as the American and Asian wapiti, likewise separated for only 10,000 years, remain one and the same species in every way, so do we remain essentially unchanged across those same 10 millennia.
Genetically — mentally and physically — we are the Clovis folk who roamed the San Luis Valley and its surrounding mountains some 12,000 years ago — Ice Age-adapted predatory omnivores. And compared with contemporary life, it strikes me that life back then was far richer in quality, if far leaner in quantity. As described by Pleistocene evolutionary biologist Valerius Geist: “The picture that inevitably emerges of our distant ancestors as shaggy brutes is absolutely false.” Rather, “they were apparently fun-loving, brave if not a little reckless, altruistic, intelligent, and deeply emotional — in short, a magnificent people. The advent of agriculture … was indeed a ‘fall from grace.'”
Why do we hunt? In some apparently significant part, we hunt because we are biologically and psychologically predisposed to do so. Hunting, fair to say, is a central thread of our genetic fabric, part of our generic heritage, its roots as deep as our species’ tenure here on good green Earth. DNA evidence suggests that humanity’s prime ancestor split with a common ancestor to us and the chimps and began the long evolutionary trip to sapience more or less 6 million years ago. By 4.5 million years ago, pre-humans had achieved upright posture and moved out of the shadowy jungles to become creatures of the ecotones, those rich “edge cover” habitat seams where forest meets savanna and the richest of both wild worlds overlap.
Skipping forward through another 2 million years of stop-and-go evolution, the earliest hominid, or man-like creature, thought to have possessed the uniquely human abilities of fashioning stone tools and using them to butcher large animals was Australopithecus garhi. He and she would not have been professional predators quite yet, but active scavengers and opportunistic hunters who roamed the Ethiopian savanna edges 2.5 million years ago in search of fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, roots, and easy meat in the form of insects, sluggish reptiles and amphibians, bird’s eggs and infant, injured or disadvantaged (say, trapped in a mud bog) birds and mammals, plus the remains of larger animals killed by predators or accident.
Because a specific need for specialized slicing, chopping and crushing tools, logically, would have pre-existed and provoked their invention, our ancestors’ carnivory can logically be said to have precipitated the invention of tools designed to help satisfy that meaty appetite. The gathering of fruits, nuts and seeds requires nothing more than fingers. And root-digging technology need progress no further than the tip of a sturdy stick. But to peel off a hide and slice meat from bone, to carve out the tongue and get to brains inside a skull or the marrow inside a femur, specialized tools become a priority. While you can do it all with the crudest sharp shard of dense rock, you can do it all better with better, more specialized tools. And evolution is all about getting better.
This point — that eating meat facilitated proto-human inventiveness, pointing the gradual way to sapience — was well put long ago by Canadian bio-philosopher C. H. D. Clarke, who proclaimed that “man evolved as a [meat eater]. In South Africa, there were at one time [2 or 3 million years ago] two types of pre-men. One was a great shuffling hulk with a dentition that shows he was a vegetarian [Australopithecus robustus, et al.]. The other [A. africanus] was small and active, and fed on flesh as well as vegetable matter. This is the one that can be identified as having a place in the human pedigree. Vegetable gathering produced no tools, no forethought or planning, no tradition, no social organization. Pre-man the hunter, in developing and using all of these for the chase, became man.”
That view belongs to the adaptive, or “behavioral,” school of human evolution. The complimentary trophic, or nutritional, approach tells us that the brain is a high-metabolism organ and can evolve — gradually attaining greater size and complexity — only on a diet rich in the exact blend of fats, calories and other nutrients found in wild red meat, which, though low in cholesterol, contains five times the essential fatty acids of modern “bad fat” domestic red meat, plus high concentrations of iron and other minerals, vitamins and proteins imperative to brain development. Had our deep-time ancestors in fact been strict vegetarians — as some vegan extremists wish to believe — we would not be human today.
In two direct and providential ways, then — by promoting the development and refinement of manufactured tool technology (stone, of course, but also bone, antler and wood) and by providing the right nutritional stuff for dynamic brain growth — did eating meat facilitate our progress toward humanity even before we became true hunters. The stage was now set for the third crucial contribution of carnivory to human evolution: systematic, organized group hunting with its mandates for upward-spiraling intelligence, cooperation, communication, food sharing and bartering, altruism, family and social bonding and lifetime cohesion, forethought, and planning. While many animal species demonstrate some of these characteristics in various degrees, only humans embody them all to the nth degree.
And so it transpired that by the opening of the icy Pleistocene, about 1.6 million years ago, that our forebears had already been scavenging and hunting opportunistically, catch-as-catch-could, for thousands of generations (much as chimps do still today), having progressed from gregarious bipedal brush apes to our immediate ancestor and arguably the first dedicated professional hunter, Homo erectus — who, at least toward the end of his long tenure, had mastered fire, good clothing, sturdy shelter, a sophisticated tool kit, the beginnings of art and, most students accept, both complex spoken language and a rich spiritual life — just one short evolutionary step from whole-hog humanity as we know, love and bemoan it today.
By the close of the Pleistocene, 10,000 years ago at its most recent, we were a done deal, exactly as we are today in every little detail and had been for 100,000 years at least.
And what got us there, what got us here for better and worse today, was our daily give and take not only with one another, but with the natural wildness that housed, fed and shaped us, carving and honing us across untold generations of hunting and being hunted by large wild beasts. Certainly, hunting wasn’t the only evolutionary force at work. But as Shepard sums it up, organized hunting was primary and indispensable: “The dynamic of escape and pursuit is the great sculptor of brains. Hunter and hunted are engaged in an upward, reciprocal spiral of consciousness with its constituents of stratagem and insight … a progressive refining of mind by cycles of predator and prey whose dances [through time and natural selection toward optimal adaptive survival] became less and less random, more and more choreographed.”
And so the human urge to hunt, which feels so much like instinct, almost certainly is instinct, springing from the deepest primitive core of our racial memory. And the flip side of this same coin — something that few modern people seem to grasp — is that a complementary instinctive “need” to be hunted is built into such dedicated prey species as elk, deer and antelope. Without the continuation of the precise sort of physical and intellectual exercise provided by predation and evasion, our spectacular prey species, so beautifully sculpted by the artful knife of natural selection, would soon devolve into mere meager shadows of themselves, as pampered park and suburban deer are even now becoming in many parts of North America.
Predation and evasion is a sacred game, without which nothing in nature would be the same — without which nothing would even be. In a world with no predation — where no living organism feeds on other living organisms — there would be no food, no adaptive evolution, no quality control via culling of the easiest to catch and, absolutely, no intelligent life on Earth. (Not that there is much anyhow, at least in the exclusively human realms of culture, religion and politics.)
Certainly, we are the most intelligent animal this world has ever known. And the greater an animal’s intellect, the less its actions are dictated by instinct. Consequently — as a particularly hypocritical segment of hunting’s critics howl — instead of killing our own meat, we could join the civilized majority in ignoring our predatory instincts to become full-time supermarket carnivores, rejecting our evolutionary roots as so-called bloody savages even as we hire professional killers and cutters to do our dirty work for us, politely off-camera, while in the process contributing to what social critic Gerry Mander rightly calls “the commodification of the sacred.”
That is, to true hunters present and past, hunted meat is sacred meat.
Industrial meat is soulless product.
But there’s more to this story than nutrition. A whole lot more. For countless millennia, hunting not only facilitated our physical survival, it was the wellspring of the world’s first and only universal spiritual worldview, or religion — flowering repeatedly, spontaneously, without any missionary effort, everywhere unspoiled hunters lived or continue to live today. This ancient, universal hunter’s philosophy is animism, a word whose root meanings include “soul” and “breath.” To an animist, every aspect of the natural world — from mammoths to monsoons to mountains – has self-awareness, a sense of dignity, indignity and reciprocity, and possesses intrinsic worth independent of its utilitarian value to man. Through the so-called superstitious workings of animism, primal hunters are guided to maintain high ethical standards while practicing sustainable conservation via enlightened self-interest.
Another way of stating the animistic view is that what we call “luck” in hunting is controlled by a cosmic karma or Golden Rule of reciprocity: Respect the animals we hunt and the habitat that sustains them, and they will look kindly on our needs as hunters. No more mythical than any other religion, all of which is supernatural, I like this idea a lot, as it facilitates individual dignity, order and justice in an otherwise chaotic universe.
For a contemporary example of animism in action, anthropologist, writer (The Island Within) and hunter Dr. Richard Nelson reports that among the traditional Koyukon Indian subsistence hunters of northern interior Alaska, to disrespect an animal — by boasting of your hunting skills, using taboo hunting techniques or technology, speaking disrespectfully of the animal or mishandling and wasting meat — will spoil your entire tribe’s luck when hunting the offended species, until and unless tradition-prescribed ceremonial amends are made.
With a belief system like that, it’s easy to imagine that the peer pressure to hunt, speak and think ethically regarding prey animals is tremendous, and tremendously effective — which is exactly the sort of self-restraint and self-policing that “recreational” hunting needs today. In short, modern hunting needs a conscience, and the animistic viewpoint, better than any other spiritual guidon, provides it.
A modern manifestation of animism is the biology-based philosophy of deep ecology, whose academic terminology camouflages the spiritual elements of animism, yet its premise is identical: Everything in creation has intrinsic value and deserves fair treatment and respect. By any name, this ancient hunter’s philosophy is a winner, promoting personal humility while viewing egoism, waste, greed and cheating as taboo, counterproductive and utterly unthinkable, and celebrating life and biological diversity, bonding humans spiritually as well as physically to the rest of creation, and providing the truest and most defendable basis for morally and ecologically sound wildlife ethics.
Yet, in blatant opposition to our animistic hunting roots, the modern techno-hunting culture embodies what biologist and hunting ethicist Tom Beck poetically dubs “a failure of the spirit,” leading to the parallel erosion of hunter ethics and the public disrespect we suffer today. Simply put: You can’t defend acts and attitudes that are morally indefensible according to the value system of a majority of your culture or tribe. As Shepard says, modern “hunting is an easy target … the commercialization and perversion of the hunt — the game hogs, the drunks, the shooters of cows, the facades of camaraderie — make the war against the hunt both easy and facile.”
The handwriting is on the wall, writ large by Shepard, Aldo Leopold, Tom Beck, Val Geist and a growing number of awakening others — yet precious few hunters and even fewer hunters’ organizations, the outdoor industry, the outdoor media, or wildlife management agencies have taken note, preferring to dig ever-deeper bunkers of denial while chanting that tired old losers’ mantra: “We won’t give an inch!”
Such heads-in-the-sand refusal to think and welcome change where necessary is an arrow to the heart of hunting, as evidenced by the current — and, I must say, often justified — popularity of wildlife ballot initiatives. If we don’t start striving more seriously to clean up at least our most obviously flawed attitudes and behaviors — those words, practices and tools that blatantly disregard the dignity of wildlife, wild places and “fair chase” — if we don’t move soon to clean up our own act, an increasingly concerned cultural/tribal voting majority will do it for us, occasionally misled by the false claims of the antis and occasionally making big mistakes, yet voting honestly from their own true sense of moral right and wrong.
My message in all of this is that the shortest and surest path to hunting’s salvation is to be found by looking into our pre-agricultural past for ways of living and thinking that evolved, were continually tested, refined and proven to work through more than 99 percent of human history, but which increasingly are ignored today — lessons that remain wholly valid and can help us to cope with this ecologically simplified, technologically complex and culturally confused world we’ve made for ourselves and that so negatively influences hunting (and so much else) today.
No one is talking about “going back” to living in caves or tipis and hunting with spears and atlatls, or even exclusively with stickbows. Nor are we talking about rejecting all of the many positive aspects of modern life — such as, for example, George Dickel, blues music and Victoria’s scintillating secrets. Rather, we’re talking about looking back, listening back, and learning anew the lessons accrued through millions of years of acquired experience in hunting and living honorably, sustainably and therefore wisely and well.
The ancient lessons to which we should be listening all confirm that humans are not separate from and the intended cruel rulers of the rest of creation, but an equal and inseparable piece in the grand mosaic of life and death in this hands-on heaven we call Earth. The animistic philosophy demands that we give something back — not material offerings or sacrifices, but love, respect, protection and, when necessary, a willingness to forego a tithed portion of our personal desires — in return for all we take away.
As Abbey advises: “We are kindred all of us, killer and victim, predator and prey.”
Coming at this same argument with different words, the poet e.e. cummings cautions that “A world of made is not a world of born.” Too much of modern hunting, with its industry, media and ego mania for gadgetry, shortcuts, celebrity, convenience and selective-species management, belongs to the morally and materially unsustainable world of made.
Meanwhile, true hard hunting reunites us with, celebrates and strengthens the world of the naturally born.
Going beyond these general comments regarding the philosophic value of the animistic worldview to modern hunting, I’ll suggest a few specifics that can help us shape stronger and more meaningful hunting ethics, both personally and as exemplars to the next generation of hunters, if there is to be one.
1. Mentoring. All primal peoples place strong emphasis on the structured guidance of youngsters in proper ways of living and hunting. Mentoring takes two primary forms: teaching and example. By praising the benefits of ethical hunting in our hunter education classes, we are positively mentoring novice hunters. Yet personal, one-on-one guidance remains essential to the successful evolution of a positive personal hunting ethic. Recognizing this need, even I, a selfish old hermit of a hunter, have in recent years emerged from my cave to give mentoring a go — and the rewards have been munificent. If personal mentoring doesn’t fit into your life or personality, at least explain and encourage it among your hunting tribe.
2. Rites of passage were and remain integral to primal hunting cultures. Among the most universal, for males at least, was the “vision quest,” wherein a young man, after receiving proper spiritual instruction, was sent alone into the wilds, under stressful yet controlled circumstances calculated to induce personal, life-changing bonding with wild nature. When the initiate returned, he or she was considered to be and expected to act like an adult. While perpetual immaturity is a curse of all civilized cultures, which have no formal rites of trial and passage, childish adults are nearly nonexistent in primal foraging societies. Although the ancient hunter’s tradition of the vision quest has recently been co-opted and bastardized by New Age muffin-heads and goo-roo profiteers, it remains quite valuable when practically applied and should be incorporated into the mentoring of all young hunters. With a bit of imagination and creativity, the possibilities are endless and can easily be tailored to individual needs.
3. Personal and tribal rituals of respect for slain animals are universal among primal hunters. Nothing sappy or soppy is required — merely a few moments of quiet admiration for the animal, combined with some form of thanks: stroking the animal’s body, perhaps an apology or assurance of respect and appreciation voiced aloud, followed through by ongoing respect and dignity in the way the animal is handled, photographed, spoken of, prepared for the table, consumed and recounted in stories of the hunt. (At this juncture I’m tempted to digress into a rancid rant against the blatant disrespect so often shown for the prey by modern hunters, particularly in sloppy, tongue-bulging, blood-drenched photos appearing in hook-and-bullet magazines and ads for hunting services and products … but I won’t, because it only makes me angry.)
4. Gender equality among hunters. While we’ve gotten a good start on this one in recent years, we must continue openly and honestly to accept women among the ranks of true hunters. All unadulterated hunter/gatherer cultures, so far as anthropology can determine, were far more egalitarian than any civilization has ever been. (With sedentary agriculture came the concepts of proprietary ownership and the innate superiority of men as defenders of the homeland, which, in turn, led to the rise of patriarchy, or male dominance, and even the concept of women as property.) In nomadic hunting cultures, while men and women played different social roles and performed different physical tasks according to biological dictates and physical capabilities, neither sex overtly ruled the roost. Not only were primal foragers apparently far more socially egalitarian than we are today, their women likely played far more active roles in hunting than most moderns realize. According to recent research, women (and children) served as game scouts, set and checked snares, nets and other traps, assisted in game drives and, in some cases, joined the men in actively hunting big game.
Certainly, fewer women than men want to hunt, and should never be pushed into it by overly eager male partners. But should you know a woman — wife, daughter or friend — who wants to give hunting a try, you’ll do well to help her out.
Across millions of years, our ancestors evolved to live the natural, healthy, comparatively relaxed (working just enough to feed, clothe and shelter themselves), spiritually sane and ecologically sustainable lives of foragers — predatory omnivores. Scholars are coming to view the advent of agriculture about 10,000 years ago not as an eager “revolution” toward which our species innately aspired, but as a survival adaptation necessitated by a growing human population stressed by post-glacial climate changes and overhunting leading to decreased prey populations. As clearly demonstrated by archaeology and other careful investigations, agriculture was adapted at first by only a relative and regionally circumscribed few cultures, then gradually forced upon the rest, as it continues to be today.
In sum, over thousands of years, as we gradually traded hunting for herding and gathering for growing, we came increasingly to view our fellow animals less as sacramental flesh and more as mere property. More recently, we’ve relegated even the tasks of farming and herding to professionals, giving rise to a sheltered culture of de-natured supermarket foragers, vegetarian and omnivore alike.
In happy contrast, ethical hunters are active participants in the essential Sacred Game. As such, we cannot deny that life feeds on death, nor do we even want to. Paul Shepard’s Sacred Game is a game that all wild creatures simply must play, predator and prey alike. To quote Sitting Bull: “If we do not hunt, we will die of heartbreak.” And, I say again: so will the antelope, the elk and the deer. In order to stay wild, healthy and free, they need us, even as we need them. That’s the way life’s meant to be, as designed and clearly demonstrated by the ongoing process of selective evolution. That’s the way life is. Anything less is a dangerous attempt to squeeze a universal morality from post-agricultural metaphysical dogma and personalized “perfect world” preferences.
Shepard says: “Wildness is what I kill and eat, because I too am wild.”
Certainly, we hunt for meat, for challenge, for trophies, for companionship and for the visceral joy inherent to the whole glorious process. But again I must ask — one last time — why do we find wild meat, big antlers, personal challenge, campfire companionship, crisp September sunrises and stinky elk wallows so uniquely and viscerally joyful … even when the price we have to pay to experience these joys includes the deaths of fellow creatures, blood and guts on our hands, and the wrath of those who don’t understand?
To rephrase that question less charitably, as our harshest critics are wont to do: How can hunters claim to love the same lovely creatures we take so much pleasure in killing?
Because — one last time — hunting is “what we are meant to do,” insofar as it is a major part of what, until the most recent moment of human times, we have always done. When done right, hunting is in fact an expression of our instinctive (biophilic) love for the animals we hunt.
No child is born a Catholic or Jew or Muslim or doctor or lawyer or Republican or Democrat or priest — we must be made into these things by culture and personal experience. Rather, every child is born an animist, with a natural affinity for animals and the outdoors and freedom, with a body and mind perfectly adapted to a life of nomadic foraging. To prevent these born instincts from flowering, they must be subverted from the beginning by a censorial culture, as they so successfully and tragically are today. Through this cultural brainwashing process, depending on our circumstances and experiences, many among us become utterly de-natured, while a lucky few, you and I, retain our natural traditional wildness.
In the end, culturally invented moral values, especially as applied to our relationships with wild nature, are fickle and unreliable. They are made. Wild nature, as embodied in our genes — that is, in our biological souls — provides the only absolute and unchanging truth regarding life and death on Earth: past, present and forever … and thus offers the only reliable basis for sustainable hunting ethics and felicitous life philosophies.
Onward then, out of the shadows of our formative past, through the flickering firelight of this terribly confusing life, back into the great unknown.
Reprinted with permission from A Man Made of Elk, published by TBM Inc., Boise, Idaho, 2007.