The Aztec Sandstone contrasts gray and tan limestone in an expanse that is today called Valley of Fire State Park. Inside these 40,000 acres of protected ground in the Mojave Desert is a message many thousands of years old. Rock art known as “petroglyphs” can be found like plotted points on an ancient map, carved into crumbling stone shaped by water and wind. They depict the culture of hunter-gatherers that lived here and their timeless story of life and death.
Prehistoric inhabitants of the Valley of Fire include the ancient Pueblo farmers, or Anasazi, and their predecessor, a pre-ancestral tribe known as the “Basketmaker culture.” They first appeared in this harsh, dry land around 300 B.C., likely as purely nomadic hunter-gatherers traveling in small bands. They hunted desert bighorn sheep and other game, following the movements of the sheep with a dependence on their meat for survival. They camped on open ground and took shelter in caves when the weather forced them inside. They lived hard and died young. In their drawings are often hunting tools like throwing sticks, primitive bows and atlatls surrounded by human-like figures and depictions of bighorn sheep. Not much is known about this primitive culture, but in their carvings on this rock we find the tenants of early human life: hunt, gather and survive.
Countless historians have offered explanations for the meaning of this rock art, but in its simplest form these petroglyphs shed light on the core of our humanity. The Basketmaker and Anasazi people evolved through generations to become farmers, live in complicated dwellings and eventually create a more established social and cultural structure. Nonetheless, they left their story as hunters for us to appreciate, learn from and carry on. It’s a primitive journey, laid out across time in these indelible markings. It informs our relationship with wildlife, wild lands and our role in the natural world—our role as evolved people and as hunters. The ancient Pueblo tribes are gone now, but the bighorn sheep still remain. Each year in the state of Nevada a few modern hunters get to take part in a scene very different in practice than what is carved into the red rock, but at its core the pursuit and the pursuer remain the same.
Much like the Pueblo people, all human life is measured by change. Most scientists agree that the most basic evolution of our bodies and brains happened through the introduction of hunting.
In 2012, a group of anthropologists led by the European Society for the study of Human Evolution (ESHE) made a startling discovery at an ancient butchery site in Tanzania that changed our understanding of how hunting shaped our species.
Our human ancestors, who were diminutive apemen, began hunting for meat almost 2 million years ago, the ESHE said. Professor Henry Bunn of Wisconsin University made this discovery, which he noted to be a stark departure from the previous theories on the history of humans and hunting. This new idea meant that complex hunting techniques had been implemented by humans much, much earlier than we once thought.
Speaking at the ESHE’s annual meetings, Bunn laid out his case: "We know that humans ate meat 2 million years ago. What was not clear was the source of that meat. However, we have compared the type of prey killed by lions and leopards today with the type of prey selected by humans in those days. This has shown that men and women could not have been taking kill from other animals or eating those that had died of natural causes. They were selecting and killing what they wanted. … Until now the oldest, unambiguous evidence of human hunting has come from a 400,000-year-old site in Germany where horses were clearly being speared and their flesh eaten. We have now pushed that date back to around 2 million years ago.”
This was a major finding, no doubt, but just one breadcrumb in the search to understand hunting’s role in how we came to be human. There is no argument, though, that the desire to procure wild meat by means of hunting brought along major shifts in how early humans interacted with their world and how their bodies adapted. The anthropology community’s work in studying animal bones, primitive tools and our lineage have helped to fill knowledge gaps in these theories.
The earliest hominins that used Bunn’s Tanzania site as a butchering table helped us to understand that not only did these early humans discover hunting for meat as a means to get fed, they made that meat a staple of their diet, becoming the first hunter-gatherers on record.
This new diet helped shape their digestive tract and pushed them to develop new motor skills and problem-solving techniques. Access to calorie-rich food pushed forward brain growth and dramatically altered cultural and societal norms. We began the path to predation.
This science dictates that we are predators at our core. We may not have the same natural skills as other apex killers in the wild, but we are undoubtedly the same beings as those who shaped stone into spear tips and crouched in trees waiting for their prehistoric prey. An idea we must honor in this modern age as a way to remember where we’ve been and carve a new path forward.
Think about this fact from “Your Future is Your Dietary Past” by paleo expert Jack Challem: “100,000 generations of people were hunter-gatherers, 500 generations have depended on agriculture, and only 10 generations have lived since the start of the industrial age, and only two generations have grown up with highly processed fast foods.”
Our minds and bodies thrive when hunting. Wild protein allows hunters to look far beyond the mass-produced, chemically-enhanced protein pushed by the American food industry. If our modern diets are out of sync with our genetic requirements, then hunting can be the missing link.
But this should all come naturally. Hunting has been a staple of our consumption for millions of years. It has regulated our interaction with wildlife for longer than most can imagine. It has allowed our social structure to evolve and provided perspective on what it means to be human.
So why do we have this modern dilemma with hunting and killing? Why do the over-evolved among us reject the idea that animal protein taken by your own hand is as essential now as it was when man first discovered it? Why do hunters feel persecuted in today’s society?
The idea is widespread and it isn’t new. Take American writer, critic and philosopher Joseph Wood Krutch’s comments for example: “When a man wantonly destroys one of the works of man we call him a vandal,” he said. “When he destroys one of the works of God we call him a sportsman.”
Krutch made these comments nearly 50 years ago, but it hits all of the points of opposition we hear today: Killing an animal for sport or to satisfy ego is wrong. Animals are God’s precious gift, and killing them will always be wrong. It’s a fundamentally emotional argument against hunting that has no end in sight.
In the modern world, coming to terms with the gritty, bloody nature of killing a game animal is a difficult premise. Liberal intellectuals are seemingly unable to enjoy their venison steak without a side of misplaced guilt.
Hunters, though, tend to be pragmatists. We see the life hunting provides us, without focusing on the death. We see the realities of the world around us and understand that we can care deeply about wildlife while pursuing and killing them. We know that hunting is a way to combat the diseases of civilization. We understand that it’s in our blood and, better yet, in our genes to hunt. Those genes control our very being, and are basically the same as those of our early ancestors.
If it’s true that he who controls the past controls the future, the hunting lineage will continue for many more generations. Just like those petroglyphs carved in a seemingly random red rock, hunting is an indelible mark on the human condition. While the realities of hunting may change over time, the pursuit and the pursuer will always remain the same.