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Ancient blinds and hunting practices

Pic-1By Rean Steenkamp

Ancient Native American hunting blinds for taking bighorn sheep. >

I get quite a few reports about hunting from all over the globe. The headline of one such report attracted my attention: “Ancient caribou hunting site discovered under Lake Huron”.

According to the report underwater archaeologists had discovered an ancient hunting site at the bottom of Lake Huron. The site, complete with what are believed to be ancient hunting blinds and storage structures, was found on the Alpena-Amberley Ridge underneath 121 feet of water.

In the report John O’Shea, professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan writes: “It is noteworthy that V-shaped hunting blinds located upslope from Drop 45 are oriented to intercept animals moving to the southeast in the autumn.

Pic-3< A painting by Alfred Jacob Miller (1810 – 1874) showing Native Americans driving bison over the edge of a precipice. Alfred Miller is a well-known artist, best known for his painting concerning the northwest United States.

“This concentration of differing types of hunting structures associated with alternative seasons of migration is consistent with caribou herd movement simulation data indicating that the area was a convergence point along different migration routes, where the landform tended to compress the animals in both the spring and autumn,” says professor O’Shea.

“The larger size and multiple parts of the complex drive lanes would have necessitated a larger cooperating group of individuals involved in the hunt,” O’Shea explains. “The smaller V-shaped hunting blinds could be operated by very small family groups relying on the natural shape of the landform to channel caribou towards them.”

This was interesting! I thought a blind was a new concept devised by modern bowhunters. So I did a little research.
In a Wikipedia search I read about a mural in the ancient Egyptian tomb of Khum-Hotpe (1900 BC) in which a man is shown in a hunting blind capturing swimming ducks in a trap.

Crossbow hunters in the Middle Ages hunting animals from treeblinds. >Pic-2

I also read that in the Middle Ages hunting wasn’t so much a food-providing necessity as an obsession among the nobility. The peasants hunted for food on their table, but that was done mostly illegally, since the Forest Law stated that of the 69 royal forests in existence during the Medieval Era, only monarchs and their servants could hunt in them. Peasants who dared to hunt in royal forests were subjected to severe punishments like hanging, castration, blinding, or even becoming prey themselves by being sewn up into a deerskin and hunted by dogs. As with modern hunting, Middle Age hunting had a strict code of rules that, if broken, were punished accordingly. But, we will get back to this particular point later.

It seems hunting was often quite an organised affair, with horseback riders working in tandem with archers. The horse riders would sight a deer and then drive it downwind towards the archers that hid behind trees – who would shoot at the deer as soon as it was driven close enough.

I read in Natural History of the White-Inyo Range, Eastern California (edited by Clarence A. Hall, Jr., University of California Press, 1991, p. 479) that many of the Native American blinds in this area were found along ridge tops, on hillsides or on rocky outcrops overlooking springs and meadows or at narrow defiles where two drainage channels joined together.

These hunting blinds were low breastworks of stone, just large enough to conceal a hunter. It seems that other teams of hunters would drive the game in the direction of the blind, since the blinds were mostly not positioned directly on the path, but rather along the routes the animals would use to escape. The hunters were capitalising on the fact that deer would stop to look back at their assailants. It was at this spot that the hunter in the blind would be waiting, sending off an arrow the moment the animal stopped.

Pic-4< Hunters in the Middle Ages on horseback hunting deer with the help of dogs.

In the Bible one reads about hunters using nets to catch animals such as the wild bull. Isaiah mentions this method: “as a wild bull [antelope] in a net” (Isaiah 51:20). The Bible gives us a clear picture of the hunting methods that have been practised for years. Pitfalls for larger animals were often employed. These pits were covered over with a thin mat of rushes and brush to hide their presence, and sometimes approaches were constructed to the place of the pit, which made it possible to force the animal into the hole. The prophet Ezekiel tells of this method of catching a lion: “And she brought up one of her whelps: it became a young lion, and it learned to catch the prey; it devoured men. The nations also heard of him; he was taken in their pit” (Ezekiel 19:3-4) (Manners and Customs of Bible Lands, http://www.baptistbiblebelievers.com).

When the pitfall or net was not used, the hunter used arrows, slingstones, the spear or the dart. All of these are referred to in the Lord’s message to Job: “The arrow cannot make him flee: the slingstones are turned with him into stubble. Darts are counted as stubble: he laugheth at the shaking of a spear” (Job 41:28-29).

In catching birds, the snare was often used. David was evidently acquainted with bird traps, for he compared his escape from his enemies to the escape of a bird from a trap: “Our soul is escaped as a bird out of the snare of the fowlers: the snare is broken, and we are escaped” (Psalm 124:7). This bird trap was made in two parts and when set and spread upon the ground, was fastened lightly by means of a trap stick. When the bird touched this stick, the parts flew up and enclosed the bird in the net (Manners and Customs of Bible Lands, http://www.baptistbiblebelievers.com).

In ancient Egypt meat was not eaten very much by the peasant farmers; they stuck mostly to bread and beer, vegetables and dried fish. It appears that hunting was reserved for the richer nobles. As hunting lost its economic importance, “the chase” became a matter of sport for kings, courtiers and dignitaries “in which they could display their strength and valour”, according to The Life of Ancient Egyptians on the Web.

In the early days, a desert hunt took place on foot, but after the chariot was introduced, the Pharaoh and his colleagues galloped after their prey. According to Egyptian Life by Miriam Stead, “the technique of hunting was to await or lure a large number of animals to a restricted area, possibly around a water hole, and then to attack them en masse with volleys of arrows”.

The nobleman would be accompanied by professional huntsmen. Animals were also used as accomplices in the hunt. There were a couple of types of hunting dogs depicted throughout Egypt’s history, but the favourite seems to resemble the greyhound. Some evidence from tomb paintings suggests that tame cheetahs may also have been drafted into the hunt.

The Egyptians wielded a number of different tools in the hunt: spears, arrows, throw-sticks, nets which had been driven into a wadi and a boomerang-type of weapon to take down birds from the sky. Hunting in the marshes included fowling, fishing and possibly the killing of hippopotami. The techniques of the hunt and its pleasures are summed up in a fragmentary papyrus called The Pleasures of Fishing and Fowling (http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/hunting.htm).

In an article “Native American Hunting” by Matthew Fulton the author writes of a very wasteful way of hunting by the native Americans in ancient times. The hunters would start large circular fires that would move toward a herd of mammoth or bison. The animals would then run frantically away from the fire in giant stampedes, which resulted in them all running straight to their deaths when they fell into a ravine. This was very wasteful, since the hunters were only able to use the meat and other useful materials from the top layer of animals, as they could only eat so much and could not preserve meat for very long. This technique is credited for helping to lead to the demise of the mammoth, with hundreds to thousands of animals being killed in single stampedes.

Two things come to mind when reading these articles: firstly, hunting from blinds or at waterholes is just as old a hunting method as hunting on foot.
Secondly, it seems that only some subsistence hunters hunted animals by walking and stalking, while many others devised methods to make it easier to kill animals – often wasteful methods.

Noblemen have been hunting animals for sport for thousands of years, this is also clear. However, it seems to me that the ethics of the modern hunter are in favour of the game hunted. Only the modern hunter seems to consider the way the animal dies as of any consequence. Modern trophy hunters who are ethical and who adhere to the principles of fair chase, will do their utmost to find and kill a wounded animal. It is also of the greatest importance to an ethical modern hunter to kill their prey as quickly and as painlessly as possible.

I am certainly in favour of hunting on foot and intend to hunt that way for the rest of this season, but it is also clear that hunting from blinds has historical backing as a bone fide and acceptable hunting method.


About the Author

Rean Steenkamp

Rean Steenkamp

Rean Steenkamp, editor and owner of Africa’s Bowhunter magazine, is an enthusiastic traditional archer and bowhunter. He started hunting with a longbow in 1997 and has since bagged many African plains game with traditional bows, compound and black powder rifles. He also dabbled in bow building and published a bowhunting book titled “Let loose the arrow!”

Rean started his career in journalism in 1984 at a newspaper in Pretoria, South Africa. He interrupted his career at the end of 1991 when he joined the 37th weather team expedition to Gough Island, where he worked for 14 months as the communicator. The team consisted of only seven people living in isolation on the seven by 16 km island. Rean started the Africa’s Bowhunter magazine in 2000 while working as editor for the Game and Hunt magazine.


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