Does hunting make us human? My answer is yes, in the sense that seeking edible animals — whether mammals, birds, fish or shellfish — can help us understand what it means to be the species of animal that calls itself human.
Growing up in Western Australia, I was taught to avoid hurting other people and other living things, but I was also taught to fish using a hand-line. Catching my first edible fish as a child was an exciting moment. But I was also troubled by the harm we were doing, especially to fish that we couldn’t eat.
Today I’m in my early sixties, and live on the other side of Australia, in a suburb of Sydney. Last few summers I’ve been doing some foraging in the Botany Bay area using a mask, snorkel, catch-bag and spear. One reason I like this method of fishing is its selectivity — you don’t get any by-catch.
Through most of my life, I’ve wanted to know why catching my own food was both attractive and disturbing for me. I’ve fished for clues in all sort of places, including books and articles about human evolution.
As mentioned in the question background. there is little doubt that hunting played a very important role in the emergence of our species.
Evidence has been building up for over a century now. It comes from studies of current non-agricultural societies, from the fossil bones and implements of our not-quite-human ancestors, and from observations of our nearest living relatives, the chimps and bonobos. This article by paleontologist Briana Pobiner gives a useful overview of the fossil evidence.
Yet, there are still those who try to minimise the role of hunting in our evolutionary history.
I recently read the book Man the Hunted (2005, 2009), by Donna Hart and Robert Sussman. They argue that the character of the human species was formed not by the experience of hunting, but by the experience of being hunted by other creatures. These authors present a strong case that our australopithecine forebears were treated as meat-on-the-hoof by a range of carnivores, including big cats, canids and birds of prey; and therefore had to develop strategies for self-defence.
But their argument falls down because they assume that “man the hunted” couldn’t be “man the hunter” as well. They don’t consider the possibility that both hunting and being hunted were formative in making us humans — men, women and children — what we are today.
Hart and Sussman do, however, come up with some interesting one-liners. For instance: “We are no more born to be hunters than to be gardeners.”
My answer to this is that we probably are born to be gardeners. Otherwise, why would so many of us like to garden?
The way we dig our gardens developed historically from the way our ancestors gathered edible roots, leaves, seeds and fruit. Human ancestors not only learned to dig the ground with sticks, but also to distinguish between plants of different species and different stages of development. They learned to respect the plants they used — to avoid doing things that would mean less edible plants next season.
While they were doing these things, they were also learning to identify, approach and kill other plant-eating animals, and to prepare their flesh for eating using stone cutters and eventually fire.
Hunting was not only a direct way of getting food, but also a way of limiting populations of animals which competed with our ancestors for plant food. Which is still a consideration today — e.g. Australians who live in regions with a high population of kangaroos have to find ways the stop the kangas from eating plants that humans plan to eat…
Of course there are differences between the ways different human cultures have dealt with plants and with other species of animal.
But underlying the differences there is continuity. Like other animals, we humans have our instincts, which are the foundation of all our cultures. Just as there is natural bedrock underneath every sort of artificial building.
If humans have instincts that impel us to hunt, why are we conflicted about hunting? Is there any other hunting animal (outside of animated cartoons) that something thinks it should treat its prey as friends, not food?
Believe it or not, the answer seems to be yes. Bonobos sometimes catch and eat monkeys, just as chimps do. Yet, bonobos have also been seen engaging in grooming behaviour with monkeys. That is, a bonobo will sometimes treat a monkey in much the same way the bonobo treats its friends and its family.
This suggests to me that human ambivalence about other species may go back a long way — back to the days before our ancestors split off from the ancestors of the bonobo and the chimp.
The most likely explanation for the conflicts we experience about hunting, is that we not only have hunting instincts, but also instincts that hold us back from indiscriminate hunting — instincts that tell us to value other living things, to consider the consequences of harming them.
Instincts like these have led us to develop cultural rules and taboos about what, when and how we can and can’t hunt.
Holding-back instincts would have been favoured by evolution, because indiscriminate hunting would harm rather than help the tribes that did so.
Bottom line… No animal is born as a blank slate, not even the animal we see in the mirror. We’re not only born hunters, fishers and gardeners, we’re probably born gamekeepers too…