Remaking Hunting as Human

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It is a day under the African sun. A herd of Thomson gazelles browses between Mopane trees. In the dry grass of the savannah two lionesses prowl closer and closer to the group. Their silhouettes become flatter, and they move more and more slowly. One step after another, yard by yard, they are working their way toward the herd. In a split second before the leader scents the hazard, the attack begins and the wild hunting starts. For a spell the pack is fleeing, but then it runs directly toward a waiting lion that has placed itself along the escape route. A weaker fawn lags behind, and the life of the young gazelle ends in a cloud of dust. The lion pack shares the kill among themselves, strictly according to the hierarchy. Life and survival are secured for another day.

On a cold morning somewhere in Scotland at the same time, some ladies and gentlemen in tweed jackets begin the day with hot soup, savory sausages, and a bit of gin before they go afield. When they enter the hunting field, the drivers approach, and as the distance between the drivers and the shooters shrinks, pheasants begin to flush. Shots ring out and some of the birds fall into the green grass. In the evening, the shooters are sitting together in the lodge eating pheasant breast with vegetables and a good glass of wine. Laughing, speeches, conversations, and jokes alternate.

The primordial and the contemporary scenes have much in common: The game, the hunter, the stalking, the flurry, the death, and the ritual consumption of the prey. In both examples the million-year-old game of pursuit and death is rewarded by death renewing life. Based on this, you will hardly be able to say that hunting makes us human. It is much older than humanity itself, and thus it might be said that hunting keeps us wild.

But as soon as we have uttered the words “hunting” and “hunter,” we need to pause. We share much with other predators, but we humans are the only beings on this planet who can apprehend and review hunting in a logical way. As a result of our λόγος (logos)—and by this I mean not simply our speech but more generally our rational mind—hunting leads us from the mere existence of nature to moral and ethical issues in the trade-off between bondage and freedom, and in the aesthetics and the meaning of becoming and passing.

It is the logos that names the hunter and the hunting, and therefore names the concept. Hunting would not exist without humans, because no one would recognize it for what it is.

For 3.9 billion years there was no life on earth, and thus no idea of the hunt. Over the next 600 million years, the hunt was limited to the pure action, without having a term for it. Animals who hunt exhaust themselves in their existence. They do not name their actions, and so long as hunting remains nameless it lacks a kind of reality, the reality conferred by significance. Against this background, one is inclined to write: It is not hunting that makes us human but the naming of it; taking hunting out of the darkness of the nameless confers humanity upon us. In other words, it is the cognition of hunting itself, the awareness of the hunter in hunting, and the adjustment of conduct accordingly. So it is not hunt that makes us human, but our consciousness to hunt. As soon as hunting reaches the human consciousness, it is completely itself and steps out of the circle of unconscious nature.

Let us look back to our initial example of the two groups of hunters. The outward appearance of lion hunting and human hunting is similar, but the hunters’ understanding of what they are doing is very different. The lion is a being whose existence is exhausted in the here and now, knowing no yesterday and no tomorrow. The human as a cultural being, however, is planning his life, giving himself direction and self-reflection. This brings him, the human hunter, inevitably out of unconscious nature and makes him into a “naturally unnatural animal,” as Helmuth Plessner has put it.

This process is expressed, for example, in the variety of tools that humans have developed to facilitate hunting over the millennia, from the spear to the bow; from the crossbow to the rifle; from the smokeless powder to the rifle scope; from the rangefinder to the night-vision device. There is a long series of inventions that were enabled by the logos of hunting man. These inventions made it possible for the human to hunt down wild animals over increasingly long distances. They led him at the same time further and further away from the origins of the hunt in nature. The technical development makes the humans, even as hunters, become more refined cultural beings. In the current phase of humanity, in which more than 80 percent of Europe’s population lives in cities, we should not be surprised if the talents of the hunters suffer under the cultural pressure. So we observe a widespread decline in peoples’ practical understanding of hunting and the behavior of the animals. There is also a loss of professionalism or artistry in hunting as hunters employ increasingly sophisticated technological devices. However, in hunting, as in other areas of life, technique removes humans further away from nature.

The risk of this development is located in a continuing alienation of the hunter from nature. The logos—the same human mind and culture—that first gave hunting significance and meaning now also erases the hunter from hunting and from nature in its entirety. For the modern hunter, therefore, the main challenge will be to remember where he came from and where his roots lie. To defeat the oblivion of nature and to heal the soul of man in all culture—this is the modern task of hunting. Humans have brought it out of the darkness of the nameless. Now the hunt heals the soul of man and leads him back into the arms of nature, back to the homeland he originates from. Indeed, under this aspect hunting does not make us human, but it brings us back to nature and thus knots a bond that threatens to be severed in modern society.

  • Florian Asche

    Florian Asche studied law and history at the Universities of Göttingen and Würzburg and was an assistant lecturer at the Faculty of Civil and Comparative Law at the Friedrich-Schiller University in Jena.

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