Earning the daily bread means one thing to Westerners but means something quite different to indigenous cultures. At the best of times, a Westerner simply goes to the street market early in the morning and buys some fresh bread and vegetables then goes home to cook up an omelet for breakfast. For indigenous people, however, the tasks around earning the daily bread were always much different.
Leaving from North Dakota and traveling nearly two thousand miles northward to Nunavut Territory, Canada you will find that the winters average minus 50 Fahrenheit. Everything stays frozen so nobody has much need for a refrigerator. Trees never grow this far North because of permafrost, so food could not be conveniently cooked with wood; therefore everyone consumed their food raw.
Though food was plentiful, getting it was a challenge. For one thing, an Eskimo man, his wife and children and the dog team, needed around fifty pounds of food daily. Different seasons meant differing foods; animals migrated or the sea froze over. The Eskimo’s repertoire of skills for finding food can only be measured by techniques developed over millennia—and tough persistence.
Sometimes the ice over a frozen lake remained translucent and one could see fish moving right below one’s feet in shallow lagoons under the ice. For Eskimos, catching fish meant cutting a hole in the ice. Using an ice chisel, an Eskimo on a fishing expedition could cut through two feet of ice in minutes. The Eskimo hunter then arranged a few large snow blocks to act as a windbreak. In one hand he held a special lure or jig, made of delicately carved bones, articulated in such a way as to appear alive when bobbed up and down in the water. The Eskimo kneeled by the hole in the ice for many hours bobbing the lure up and down, up and down, while in the other hand clutching a barbed, trident spear used to capture the fish once they became attracted to the lure. On a lucky day he might catch dozens of good-sized fish.
Circle of Life and Death
At other times an Eskimo hunter might feel quite ambitious and prepare to hunt the mighty polar bear. High powered rifles and snowmobiles revolutionized hunting for Eskimos, but in times before rifles, killing such a large animal meant using a creative strategy passed down from the elders. For that task the hunter took a one-foot piece of seal bone and carved it thin and sharp. He bent the bone in a circle and froze it inside of a piece of meat. Leaving the meat where he hoped a polar bear would find it—he waited for that time when, finally, a great bear came by, smelled the meat and swallowed it whole. Polar bears do not chew their food as much a gulp it down, letting their stomachs do the work of digestion.
At some point, the warmth of the bear’s stomach caused the meat to soften, and the bone hidden inside sprung open, resulting in the bear receiving lethal puncture wounds to its stomach. A polar bear, however, does not die easily and the hunter might have to follow it for many days, waiting for it to succumb to its internal injuries. If the bear finds a way to elude the hunter, if there’s a blizzard, or if the bear swims off somewhere to die, the hunter will be deprived of his reward.
Because of the intimate relationship between hunter and hunted, Inuit custom demanded proper ritual respect be paid to a deceased animal. Inuits say: “The great peril of our existence lies in the fact that our diet consists entirely of souls.” Inuits believe that all things, including animals, have souls like those of humans. Lack of proper ritual respect paid to the deceased animal means the spirit of that animal might seek to avenge itself. Eskimo life was difficult—they acknowledged the help that animals provided them for sustenance. Because of their adaptability, and the fact that civilization was mostly too soft to seek colonization of the far-North, Eskimo culture survived.
Hot and Cold
As cold, featureless and forbidding as the Arctic can be, there is another place, just as forbidding, but quite the opposite in climate. In Southern Africa, the deserts of Botswana, Namibia, and Angola have rainfall averaging around 6 inches a year. Animals migrate constantly to find food, and if the !Kung people want to eat they must nomadically follow in the path of antelope and other animals in order to survive.
In order to hunt them, men needed intimate knowledge of their prey. They had to know when the animals migrated, and where. Sometimes a large herd could be funneled down a manmade alley, which narrowed towards the end. At the narrow end panicked animals, chased by hunters, bounded over an obstacle that, unbeknownst to them, led to a chasm or deep ditch. Animals might die by the dozens this way.
For large and medium sized game the classic bow and poisoned arrow could also be used for hunting. Wild animals have an incredible vitality and the hunter must follow the poisoned animal, sometimes for many miles, waiting for the poison to take effect. A partner to humans for thousands of years, dogs came to the field in helping bring down smaller game. In return they got bones, scraps, and the communal protection offered by the tribe. Other game might be uncovered by digging into their burrows. In the tribe everyone had a purpose—older hunters and young boys set snares for smaller animals. This way knowledge was shared with younger generations.
Barely Tolerable Meat
In the !Kung culture, everyone has a place and food is divided equally. Even the meat killed by the hunter does not belong to him but to the man who made the arrow the hunter used. Back at the camp the arrow maker, before distributing it, insults the meat; so do the other hunters, as well as the hunter who killed the animal. Praise for the hunter is not given. Even the villagers insult the meat, regardless of how prime the steak is. It is thought that this prevents the successful hunters from gaining disproportionate status.
Insult or not, the animal still needs to be caught. Perhaps the ultimate hunting skill is what is known as “persistence hunting.” Most likely practiced by humans for over two million years, even before the invention of weapons, persistence hunting exercised the physical advantages enjoyed by humans over animals. Humans are much slower at a sprint than animals—but have much more endurance for long distance running.
This long-range efficiency is attributable to human sweating mechanisms, hefty gluteus maximus, springy tendons in the legs, short toes, and a special ligament that stabilizes the head when running. That, and the fact that a man can carry water, allows humans to run long distances without having to stop.
During a persistence hunt, an animal such as an antelope is simply run to exhaustion in midday, desert heat which ranges from 104-108 degrees f. The hunter may chase the animal for up to five hours and 25 miles. The animal sprints, then must stop to rest, but the hunter, at a persistent, jogging pace prevents it from recovering. Finally the animal suffers a heat stroke, can no longer go on, and simply falls down. The hunter kills it, and then offers a prayer enabling the animal’s spirit to return to the desert soil from which it came—and thanking it for giving its life so the tribe can eat.
Spear That Time Clock
The hunt for food has been human’s main occupation for millions of years. Instead of sharpening our spears, modern humans punch in the time clock, put in our eight hours of work at a desk, assembly line, or manual labor, then go home, eat and rest.
Many of us are bored at work and wonder about some excitement that we might be missing. For many of us it’s an easy life, maybe too easy. Our boredom is the shadow of some primordial instinct—a skilled hunter that still swims in our gene pool. That instinct still lives, and subconsciously charges at some bellowing creature fighting its slaughter so it can end up on our table.