Hunting has been a part of human life for as long as people have existed. The earliest evidence of hunting has been found in the tooth-wear patterns of Homo erectus, a human ancestor who probably started hunting small game and gathering plants for food. By 500,000 years ago, these hunter-gatherers were also hunting large game, hundreds of thousands of years before the appearance of modern humans. The human species developed as hunters, thus hunting has been part of most human cultures from their earliest beginnings.
Later in human history, the Romans took great pleasure in staging wild animal hunts in the arena, but were only one of the ancient cultures that placed great importance on hunting. In Europe, hunting became the sport of kings, and early American settlers relied on it, just like many native peoples, to survive. Today, hunting for subsistence is still widespread in many parts of the world. Many sportsmen engage in hunting for both recreation and food, others hunt for trophies or to control wildlife populations.
Historical Background and Scientific Foundations
The most essential use of hunting has always been to obtain protein-rich sources of food. Hunting also produced a great deal of other animal products that early humans made use of, including hides and furs for clothing, bone, teeth, and horns for tools and weapons, and sinews for string or thread. Prehistoric hunting was a very dangerous activity, in which hunters either thrust or threw spears from close range to dispatch prey. Hunting was so important to prehistoric peoples that prey animals became an important feature of their art. The famous caves of Lascaux, France, dating from 30,000 years ago, are heavily decorated with paintings of animals, including horses, deer, wild cattle, wild mountain goats, and bison.
As agriculture spread across the ancient world, humans began to domesticate more food animals. This meant that hunting of certain species, like wild cattle, decreased. However, some large animals, such as several deer species, were never domesticated and continued to be hunted as a significant source of food. With the development of cities, more people ate meat from domesticated animals, or no meat at all, but hunting remained important in more rural areas. The Greeks and Romans used specially bred dogs for hunting boar, deer, hares, birds, and other small game. Even though few Romans engaged in hunting, like the Greeks before them, they idealized it as a noble confrontation between man and beast, and a glorious representation of the natural life. This pattern, with rural people partially subsisting on hunting and elites enjoying it as sport, continued in Europe through the Renaissance.
Issues and Impacts
Although few people in the developed world still rely on hunting to provide their food needs, many indigenous peoples and natives of developing countries subsist at least partially through the hunt. The Inuit and other native Alaskans are notable for their reliance on hunting whales and other marine mammals; they continue their traditional hunts with exemption from anti-whaling treaties. Today, much hunting in western countries is primarily for sporting purposes, though the meat of some animals may be consumed or sold by the hunters.
Some animals are hunted not for their meat, but for their skins, ivory, or for use in folk medicines. Many of the most desirable animals are protected by law, and their illegal hunting is referred to as poaching. Tigers
WORDS TO KNOW
HUNTER-GATHERER: A person who subsists on game and gathered vegetation.
INDIGENOUS PEOPLES: Human populations that migrated to their traditional area of residence sometime in the relatively distant past, e.g., before the period of global colonization that began in the late 1400s.
SUBSISTENCE: Having secured enough provisions to cover basic needs.
are widely coveted in China for their bones, which are used in traditional arthritis remedies. Poaching of tigers in India has resulted in a 50% decline since 2002 in the already-depleted tiger population. Rhinoceros are hunted for their horns, an ingredient in Chinese medicine used to treat fever. The horns are also used to make ceremonial knife handles in Yemen. Demand for these products led to a 95% decrease in rhinoceros numbers between 1970 and 1989, with poaching continuing today. Despite the worldwide ban on trade in ivory, elephants are still threatened by the desire for their tusks, much of which also comes from China. Lack of economic opportunity for local peoples often
drives poaching as much as demand for the animal products.
Hunting practices throughout history have impacted the viability of many species, some of which have been driven to extinction. The extinction of predators allows prey species populations to explode, while overhunting prey species causes predator species to disappear. In the northeast United States, the elimination of wolves and mountain lions as well as restricted hunting by humans due to animal rights concerns has resulted in unprecedented numbers of white tailed deer, which now threaten forests in this region as the deer eat saplings that would otherwise replace mature and dying trees. This in turn has resulted in the expansion of eastern coyotes from Canada into New England and the Mid-Atlantic as well as the growth of the black bear population. At the same time, cougar populations are slowly expanding eastward from the Mountain West toward the Mississippi River. These predator movements together with longer hunting seasons and the shooting of female deer (rather than just males as trophies) could eventually bring the Northeastern deer herd back into an ecological balance with the forests.
Although most hunting practices are considered humane, some are widely seen as cruel, with groups working to ban them. Fox hunting was outlawed in the United Kingdom in 2004, and Kenya has banned trophy hunting in its national parks. So-called canned hunts,
where a docile or drugged animal is presented for a paying customer to shoot, are also widely criticized. Although many people in developed countries are unaccustomed to it, hunting for sport and subsistence will continue to play an important part in many cultures throughout the world.
Browne, Malcolm W. “Folk Remedy Demand May Wipe out Tigers.” New York Times (September 22, 1992).
Tsui, Bonnie. “Trophies in a Barrel: Examining ‘Canned Hunting.’” New York Times (April 9, 2006).
American University. “TED Case Studies: Rhino.” http://www.american.edu/projects/mandala/TED/RHINOBLK.HTM (accessed March 9, 2008).
Mongabay.com. “China Drives Elephant Poaching for Ivory Trade.” February 27, 2008. http://news.mongabay.com/2007/0226-elephants.html (accessed March 9, 2008).
National Shooting Sports Foundation. “The Ethical Hunter.” http://www.nhfday.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=105&Itemid=87 (accessed March 7, 2008).
Palomar College. “Early Human Evolution: Early Human Culture.” November 28, 2007. http://anthro.palomar.edu/homo/homo_3.htm (accessed March 6, 2007).
The Times Online. “Bengal Big Cats Face Oblivion as Medicine Trade Fuels Poaching.” February 14, 2008. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/asia/article3366053.ece (accessed March 9, 2008).
Kenneth Travis LaPensee