Category Archives: Ethnozoology / hunting

Harvester Ants (Pogonomyrmex sp.) Used as Ritual Hallucinogen by California Indians

Pogonomyrmex sp., probably P. californicus – harvester ants; were used as a hallucinogen and medicine by southern California Indians (Blackburn 1976, Groark 1996).

This genus of ants has the greatest mammalian toxicity known of any arthropod (Schmidt and Blum 1978, Groark 1996), with an intravenous LD50 of 0.3-1.1 mg/kg (Schmidt and Blum 1978, Groark 1996).

For use as a ritualistic hallucinogen, in the context of a “vision quest” of Indian youth, harvester ants were eaten after three days of fasting from food, water, and sex and not contacting blood (Groark 1996). In the daytime at an isolated location fully exposed to the elements, an experienced elder administrator, the ant doctor, would lay the youth on their back and feed him, somewhat forcibly, balls of moistened eagle down with about 5 ants inside each (Blackburn 1976, Groark 1996). The dose was regulated, from dozens to ninety or so balls, and the ant feeding stopped when the eyes of the youth turned red and he became lethargic and refused more (Groark 1996). The ant doctor then acts as if they are leaving momentarily, then sneaks up behind and pokes the ribs hard to startle the youth, provoking the ants to all sting his insides at once, causing the youth to pass out (Groark 1996). In most cases, the ants were eaten just once, but in some cases, when the youth awoke several hours later, he would be asked if they can take more ants, repeating the process if able for 2-4 days (Groark 1996).

In the near-death state, the youth would have visions, wherein he would obtain spirits of animals, dream-helpers, to help him in certain abilities in life (Groark 1996). For 4 days afterward, the youth must stay alone and he and the ant doctor must not speak to anyone (Groark 1996). To obtain shamanistic powers, the ants would be eaten in a similar mannar every summer until the powers were obtained (Groark 1996). The ants were also eaten similarly for a variety of ailments, from paralysis to severe colds (Groark 1996).

 

References:

Blackburn, T. 1976. A query regarding the possible hallucinogenic effects of ant ingestion in south-central California. The Journal of California Anthropology 3(2): 78-81.

Groark, K. P. 1996. Ritual and therapeutic use of “hallucinogenic” harvester ants (Pogonomyrmex) in native south-central California. Journal of Ethnobiology 16(1): 1-29.

Schmidt, J. O. and M. S. Blum. 1978. A harvester ant venom: chemistry and pharmacology. Science, New Series 200(4345): 1064-1066).

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Cricket Hunting Method of Nevada Indians

Eastern Nevada Indians hunted Mormon crickets at certain times, getting huge returns of meat for their time. American Indians all ate grasshoppers, crickets, and katydids in large numbers, and had many different methods of hunting them. The Mormon cricket is a large member of the katydid family found in the US Southwest.

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Mormon cricket (Anabrus simplex)
From: http://pubs.usgs.gov/of/2008/1305/

Here was an interesting method used for capturing them:

On flat lands below foothills, quite a number of trenches were dug measuring a foot wide, a foot deep, and about 30-40 feet long, shaped like a new crescent moon with the horns facing uphill. The trenches were in a row, with ends joined or very close. The trenches were covered with a thin layer of stiff wheat grass straw.

At the hottest part of the day, the Indians divided into two parties, each going to one end of the trenches, and lined up single file uphill towards the foothills. Each individual was armed with a bunch of grass, which they swung back and forth as the line advanced toward the trenches (the description of the exact positioning is vague, but I’m assuming the Indians advanced from uphill, going diagonally, with one end of each line near the end of the trenches, and the other near the foothills but still far from the other party, and as they advanced, they covered all the space between them), driving the crickets [Anabrus simplex (Orthoptera: Tettigoniidae)] towards the trenches, leaving few behind, and creating a thick black tumbling mass of crickets before the drivers.

The crickets, when disturbed, can jump about one foot down hill, but only half a foot uphill, so will always go downhill to escape if possible. The Indians were exploiting this behavior.

As they reached the trenches, the Indians went slower to give the crickets time to crawl through the grass covering the trenches, into the trenches where they stopped, thinking themselves hidden and protected. Once all the crickets were driven into the trenches, the Indians set fire to the grass bunches in their hands and scattered it atop the grass over the trenches, causing a big blaze of smoke, which killed or stunned all the crickets inside within a few minutes.

The trenches were over half full of crickets, and only about one out of a thousand passed by the trenches without entering. The crickets are dried and ground whole on the same mill used for pine nuts and grass seeds, making a fine flour that will keep a long time if kept dry. A bread or cake is made with them, or the cricket flour is added to pine nut or grass meal to make a bread, making it sweeter.

Reference:

Egan, Howard. 1917. Pioneering the West, 1846-1878: Major Howard Egan’s diary: also thrilling experiences of pre-frontier life among Indians, their traits, civil and savage, and part of autobiography, inter-related to his father’s. Howard R. Egan Estate, Richmond, UT.

Boomerangs are awesome!

I was at the library checking out a book on sling and slingstone archeology, and next to it was a book on boomerangs! So of course I got it. My dad had a nice wood boomerang when I was a kid, and I played with that and some plastic ones at one point too. They are much harder to get to return than you might think. I never got the wood one to work, and I was always scared it would hit me on returning.

We tend to think of the boomerang as a toy, or novelty, but it was a nearly-ubiquitous and very important weapon, tool, and religious object for aboriginal Australians (Jones 1996). Every hunter had at least a few, often many of various designs for many functions (Jones 1996). They called them “karli,” “belo,” “iringili,” munartajartu,” “pirrkala,” “wallanu,” “warlanu,” “warraka,” “wana,” “murrawirrie,” “ngamiringa,” “yarrakoodakoodari,” “karra,” and many more names, but most commonly, “kiley,” with different types having different names, and for different language groups (Jones 1996). Aborigines in Tasmania did not have boomerangs, nor did most in the tropical north or those in the western central desert regions (Jones 1996).

There are two main categories of boomerangs: returning and non-returning (Jones 1996). The latter are kind of like the rabbitstick that was a common weapon of American Indians to throw at rabbits and small game. This type of weapon is a major improvement over just a plain stick since they are carved thin and have a bend in one end or near the middle. This shape makes them go much further, straighter, and have more force upon impact. These sticks were found in many aboriginal societies, as well as ancient Egypt (Jones 1996).

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rabbitsticks or throwing sticks, including some returning boomerangs, from Tutankhamen’s tomb (Jones 1996)

The non-returning boomerang was perhaps more common than the returning form, the latter which may have been mainly used for small game hunting, hitting flocks of birds or to mimic a hawk in order to make waterfowl fly low into a net (Jones 1996, see more on this down below).

The non-returning and returning boomerangs were used for many purposes other than throwing for hunting: they were used for hand to hand combat (esp. the longer, straighter ones), a knife, a hammer or club, a digging tool, making fire by friction (fire plow technique), for clapping together as a percussion instrument, and for many ceremonial or religious purposes (Jones 1996). The diversity of shapes reflects their diversity of uses, and for hunting, there was many different shapes depending upon the prey and the desired flight path.

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hand to hand combat with boomerangs (Jones 1996)

The returning boomerang was sometimes thrown over a flock of waterfowl, the boomerang having a hole drilled in one end to make a whistling sound like a hawk, while hunters also made a hawk cry, in order to flush the birds towards a low net that had been previously strung across the body of water, since the boomerang-hawk made them fly low, and rapidly in fright. Upon hitting the net, hunters at each end would let it drop, trapping the birds.

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flushing waterfowl into net with hawk-mimicking returning boomerangs (Jones 1996)

The returning boomerang was also thrown into flocks of birds, being superbly effective with its high velocity and eccentric flight path making it very difficult to dodge by the birds, though the boomerangs flight path would be well-known to the hunter (Jones 1996). Of course, whenever the returning boomerang hit its mark, it fell and did not return.

The returning boomerang was used also for games and sport by the Australian aborigines, some similar to today’s contests with boomerangs, where one person throws and tries to get it to perform particular flight patterns like figure eights, or return accurately to a circle drawn around the thrower, or hit a peg (Jones 1996). A game was played mimicking war, where a line of warriors threw one by one at eachother, holding shields, and trying to dodge or block incoming boomerangs, which was difficult given their erratic flight path (Jones 1996).

Depending upon how it was thrown, a boomerang can have drastically different flight paths:

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flight path of an illuminated boomerang at night (Jones 1996)

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variability of flight path based on throwing technique (Jones 1996)

One special type of (non-returning) boomerang was biconvex, short, and wide, with a pointed handle and sharp edges (Jones 1996). This type was thrown into water to kill fish near the surface. This type was also made with metal when it became available (Jones 1996).

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fishing boomerang (Jones 1996)

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diversity of boomerangs of Aboriginal Australians (Jones 1996)

Some boomerangs were cross-shaped, others had hooks on one end, but mainly they varied by length, angle, sharpness of ends, and thickness, wood, and weight.

Often boomerangs were incised and / or painted with maker’s marks or ancestral designs. One common incising was fine flutings down the length of boomerangs (Jones 1996). I suspect this may have had an affect on performance, since overly-smooth boomerangs don’t fly as well. The dimples on golf balls really enhance their flight, and this may be analogous with these flutings (Jones 1996).

Once boomerangs became a popular tourist item, aboriginal manufacturers starting focusing more on carving and painting designs than quality of functional design (Jones 1996).

Modern boomerangs are often manufactured, and are made of plywood, plastic, or cardboard to be a safe toy (Jones 1996). Some are in made in novelty shapes (Jones 1996). Competition boomerangs include tri-bladed designs for “fast catch” events, while unequal-limbed designs (also often found in aboriginal boomerangs) are used for “maximum time aloft” competitions (Jones 1996).

The returning boomerang uses two opposite-facing airfoils blended at the center, a slight positive dihedral, and a bend in the middle around 107 degrees (lefties need to reverse the side of the airfoils). The fly using the principles of gyroscopic stability, gyroscopic precession, Bernoulli’s principle of differential air pressure and the Coanda effect along with Newton’s laws of motion.

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technical boomerang design

http://www.researchsupporttechnologies.com/boomerang_site/boomerang6.htm

Normally, a boomerang is thrown overhead, “V” pointing forward, held nearly vertically, gripped in the hand or between the thumb and forefinger. The flat side faces away. Throw at about a 45 degree angle from the incoming wind. A boomerang can be tuned by test flights, then altering the wing shapes to correct the flight errors. See the link below for more info on tuning.

http://www.angelfire.com/nc/conally/manual.html

I collected some nice bent branches of madrone the other day, and I’m going to carve some traditional returning boomerangs! I’ll post a photo-methods record when I do.

Here is a great photo documentation blog post about making a non-returning boomerang (it’s an awesome blog in general too): http://naturalskills.wordpress.com/2011/06/17/boomerang-build-a-long/

REFERENCE:

Jones, Philip. 1996. Boomerang: behind an Australian icon. Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, CA.

Hunting… good photos

campsite by cache creek

campsite by cache creek

This photo of our campsite at Cache Creek (see blaze orange for location) is about the best thing I “caught” during our recent trip to hunt and camp. We went two weeks before to the same spot to hunt… and got some good views of the “hunter’s moon” (full moon):

hunter's moon

hunter’s moon

Apparently, stillhunting with bow and arrow and pistol pellet gun is not so easy. I stalked up a few rabbits, some quail, pheasants (I think), and a large grey squirrel. But they all were wary and escaped. I had a good shot at the squirrel (which came right up to a tree by the campsite while I was cooking breakfast), but it escaped when I set down my bow to take better aim with my pistol. You win this time, my furry and feathered friends. I’ll have to keep eating these farm (/animal prison)-produced animals for now. One day I’ll get your pelts for making gear. I was really hoping for a turkey, but they just made a turkey out of me, since all I got from days of scrambling through brush was a single turkey feather. Got my first hawk feather though. Also found some bobcat claw marks on manzanita, as well as some late-blooming manzanita berries:

bobcat claw marks on manzanita trunk

bobcat claw marks on manzanita trunk

manzanita berries

manzanita berries

here are some more photos I took during our not-exactly-failed trip:

breakfast that seemingly attracted the squirrel

breakfast that seemingly attracted the squirrel

Oyster mushrooms (too old and tough to eat)

Oyster mushrooms (too old and tough to eat)

caught a great blue heron taking off over cache creek

caught a great blue heron taking off over cache creek

nice fall colors from the valley oak and digger pines (black cottonwoods and willows in the middle)

nice fall colors from the valley oak and digger pines (black cottonwoods and willows in the middle)

B. astutus

At first I thought it was another raccoon… then a cat. But as I slowed to pass the crushed body alongside the Capitol of Texas 360 Highway, I realized it was something in between: a ringtail cat. It was the first I’d ever seen. It was dead; blood oozing from crushed eyes, guts splayed on the asphalt.

By now other drivers honked and cursed and glared through their glass domes since I’d slowed to near halt in the busy traffic. I glanced around for pigs, and seeing none, I pulled over into the gravelly shoulder with my flashers on and ratched up my e-brake. For show I propped open my hood then set out back down the median amid knee-high bobbing flowerheads of indian blankets and mexican hats towards the mangled corpse.

My heart sank as my gullet flamed in stifled rage. Sure enough it was a ringtail cat. Sick bastard probably had to swerve to hit it there. Shaky, I knelt, tears welling despite awareness of my spectacle. It needs a proper burial I thought and started back to my car for a plastic grocery bag.

I looked to my right across the street into the thick forest from whence it must’ve crossed, cursing its stupid carelessness while simultaneously regretting the curse. I imagined its mate and brethren looking back from the forest’s edge at that spot. But this vision was real. I halted in vertigo and stared back, finally moving my head and eyes slightly side to side to look at them with my peripheral vision, as if it were night and I couldn’t make out my center view as well. They turned and tucked singlefile under the barbed wire, disappearing into the underbrush.

I nearly ran into traffic then thought of the 17 year old boy from my highschool killed near this same spot a few years back chasing his basketball unthinking into the street, a scene I always associated with a watermelon dropped onto pavement. After that they closed the de facto trailhead to a popular swimming hole here. I waved frantically, instinctively gesticulating my loss of some object from my car on the other side that I was trying to retrieve.

Finally cars slowed enough to let me sprint across towards where the ringtails ducked under. The brush was too thick for me there so I hopped the fence a few yards down and thrashed towards their path. This is crazy, people saw me, even if I did see that they’re long gone now I thought.

Still I kept scrambling low under the snapping dead juniper branches and hit a deer trail. Too dry for tracks. I followed it anyway, already envisioning pigs dismayfully sauntering about my car. Doubtfully I pressed on down the widening path as the junipers made way for live oaks.

Then I came upon an Oak Lord I knew, as always pausing to look upon its magnificence. And there they were. In the canopy, together, as if in conference, looking down upon me.

ringtail looks down

Two burst off in opposite directions, nimbly scampering through the treetips, then gone. The last warily climbed down and when it hopped to the ground it glanced in my eyes, then continued down the same deer trail at a gallop.

Wait, I breathed. Hands and knees I scampered after it through the low brush, just glimpsing the swish of its fine brush. The forest soon opened up into a small grotto with smooth-trunked sycamores and little black walnut treelets wading on thin sandbars amid limestone flags awash with clear springwater. On the other side was an overhang where under thick moss mats and dripping maidenhair boughs glassy black eyes just barely shone.

I crossed the waters with the ninja stealth of a juvenile delinquent with creaky floors in his parents house. It watched. As I neared, it silently turned into the blackness with that provocative tail swish. I pulled out my lighter and flicked it on. There was only one place it could’ve gone; a small hole at the far end of the overhang, where chalky dust caking the floor teemed with various tracks, including fresh ringtail tracks marching straight into the hole.

Even if I could fit through there its gonna bite me when I do I thought. Or something will. Cautiously I brought the flame closer while inspecting the darkness. It went deep, maybe even opened up back there. Thousands of harvestmen pulsed as one above me. It’s spring; it must have come back here worried about its kits or whatever you call baby ringtail cats.

Ringtail cat kit
Ringtail cat kit

I found myself seemingly pulled magnetically into the earth, only realizing my depth when almost fully swallowed. Claustrophobia gripped my heart and throat with cold panic. My head bashed against the hard, cold, wet rock and clay roof. My body length was fully enclosed in the narrow cold stone artery. I was afraid and urged to run but a faint chittering beckoned me irresistibly. My hands pulled me forward, arms straight out, feet and toes pushing.

Then the chamber suddenly widened and I pulled into a small domed room. There was no ringtail cat, or kits, or exit. Some dead juniper branches lay against one wall. Ringtail tracks and sign of other animals were everywhere. Surely somewhere is its flush hole or something, these caves don’t end like this I thought. I frantically scoured the walls, black dread gripping me anew.

Someone has graffitied even here I noticed. But the markings were in no script nor stylistic scribbling recognizable to my eye. Nor were they like those red ochre rock pictographs. Someone had faintly scratched symbols or perhaps diagrams into the soft wet limestone. They appeared fresh.

I stepped back and tried to make sense of the scene, flame flickering the roughness shadows as I traced it along the walls in a search pattern. It was a mural of sorts. A large circle about four feet diameter spanning the dome was punctuated with three smaller circles each about one foot diameter, which if connected with lines would form a triangle. Inside each of these smaller circles were a similar crude drawing of a man and woman. In one, the couple were inside a square, and the line forming the side of the square below their feet extended outward to connect with the edge of the circle. The next circle was the same, except the side of the square above their heads was missing. In the final (or first depending how you saw it) circle, the figures were surrounded by myriad fractal designs.

I stayed there until I had absorbed the design, then caterpillared my way out, barely squeezing through the narrow exit. I retraced my steps, returned to my car, got the plastic bag, and picked up the dead ringtail, I’m sure to the horror of passers-by. I took it to the Oak Lord, and buried it (without the plastic bag) at her feet, covering its grave with a choice limestone flag, whereupon I burned some dead leaves, inhaling it with the trees. Then I left, returned to my car, and drove off.

Ringtail

http://www.arkive.org/ringtail/bassariscus-astutus/

http://www.wtamu.edu/~rmatlack/Mammalogy/Species_accounts_2003/Bassariscus_astutus_account.htm

Native American Dogs

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Belgian Shepherd looking glorious climbing a California bay laurel tree in Wildcat Canyon of the East Bay Hills.

Dog – Canis lupus familiaris

The oldest known records of dogs in the Americas are from over 13,000 years ago in Hell Gap, Colorado, and Agate Basin, Wyoming (Snyder and Leonard 2011). Dogs were used by American Indians for pulling sleds, pulling travois, carrying packs, assisting in hunting, for eating, ritual sacrifice, and for weaving their fur into high-quality blankets (Snyder and Leonard 2011). Dogs were also appreciated by the Indians as companions and sentries. Many dogs have been found buried at archeological sites just as dead humans were buried, sometimes even with offerings (Snyder and Leonard 2011).

American Indians had large, strong, wolf-like dogs, who howled rather than barked (Snyder and Leonard 2011). Genetic analyses suggest there were multiple independent origins of dogs from wolves, and it is likely that back-crossing with wolves, coyotes, and even foxes occurred (Snyder and Leonard 2011). Whether this genetic introgression occurred via intentional breeding, by “accident,” or feralization is unknown (Snyder and Leonard 2011).

Some of the earliest archeological evidence of domesticated dogs being used for a particular purpose is pulling sleds over ice and snow in Siberia and Alaska (Snyder and Leonard 2011). In, fact, dogs probably pulled the sleds that carried the very first humans to populate the Americas! Good doggies! Ten to twenty thousand of their descendents were mercilessly slaughtered as policy by the Canadian police in the mid-1900’s (http://fortheloveofthedogblog.com/news-updates/the-inuit-sled-dog-killings).

An Inuit seal hunter, wife, and dog team cross sea ice in Nanavut, Canada.

Dogs were used to carry packs extensively in the Western Arctic, and were a important fixture of the bison hunting Plains Indians societies, where they pulled travois, especially when moving camps (Snyder and Leonard 2011). Such dogs could pack loads of 40 to 45 pounds and pull loads up to 75 to 100 pounds (Snyder and Leonard 2011). They often carried firewood, meat, tents, and other supplies (Snyder and Leonard 2011).

neps pack2

Belgian Malinois magnanimously carrying backpack full of quartz crystals near Inyo National Forest, CA.

Not all dogs would suffer a load, being too defiant, young, or small, and these “freeloaders” would often gleefully harass the burdened dogs en route (Catlin 1973:43-44). A village of 500 teepees might have several thousand dogs carrying loads, in addition to over a thousand horses (Catlin 1973:43-44). Their travois (simple drag-sleds) were made from two poles about 15 feet long with the thinner ends secured to the dogs’ shoulders and the butts of the poles dragging on the ground (Catlin 1973:43-44). A short bracing pole was tied to both long poles just behind the dog, and a bundle or wallet was secured to these poles behind the dog (Catlin 1973:43-44).

These poles were almost certainly from the lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta var. latifolia) that grew in the nearby Rocky Mountains. Such pines supplied the poles for the lodges and teepees of many Plains and Rocky Mountain Indians. Poles were cut from trunks in the winter or early spring while the sap was down, their bark removed, and left to weather until fall, when they were collected for use (Peattie 1950). Such poles were preferred since they were very light, of nearly uniform diameter throughout their length, and extremely hard, stiff, and nearly impossible to split (Peattie 1950). Plains Indians would not use cottonwood or willow, instead they traveled all the way to the Rockies or bartered with Rockies tribes for these poles (Peattie 1950).

Painting of Sioux Indians moving camp, drawn first-hand by George Catlin in the 1830’s (Catlin 1973:Plate 21).

The accounts of Plains Indians’ relationships with dogs came after the introduction of the horse plus the fur and hide trade. Dogs may have been much more important before horses were available. In the later years of the Plains Indians, dogs were reduced to being an emergency food source, no longer being esteemed highly enough to feed and maintain (Snyder and Leonard 2011). Among the Plains indians, women were the chief companions of dogs, using them to gather firewood and other materials, and leading the burdened dogs when moving camp (Snyder and Leonard 2011).

On our recent backpacking adventure at Cache Creek BLM wilderness in CA, Emily’s dog Neptune cheerfully bore our heaviest load: water. That pack must’ve weighed over 40 lbs… what a hoss!

Dogs were used in hunting throughout the Americas, especially in forested areas (Snyder and Leonard 2011). They were not used much for hunting in the Plains (Snyder and Leonard 2011), but they may have been used more there before the introduction of the horse. Eskimos trained their dogs to find seal breathing holes (Snyder and Leonard 2011). Subarctic Indians had dogs assist in hunting bears, beavers, and even musk-ox and polar bears (Snyder and Leonard 2011). The latter two were highly dangerous, and dogs chased and brought them to bay for the Indians to kill (Snyder and Leonard 2011). In heavily wooded areas, dogs were used routinely to hunt turkey, deer, and squirrels (Snyder and Leonard 2011).

Neptorian digging for ground squirrels.

In some areas, dogs (such as the Mexican Hairless) were raised specifically for eating, while in other areas dogs were only eaten as part of certain ritual feasts (Snyder and Leonard 2011). In some areas of the American northwest, dogs were bred for long thick coats that Indians sheared, spun into yarn, and wove into blankets of high status and value (Snyder and Leonard 2011).

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The fur of my dog Kitsune would make for a good blanket. But she’s a terrible pack dog now that she’s learned how to throw her backpack off by running, then suddenly stopping with her head ducked and front legs out front, like the “down dog” stretch pose… that cunning, load-shirking bitch.

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Kitsu in Yosemite after swimming in the chilly waters

No other species has lived alongside humans for as long as the dog, since cats were first domesticated (or more accurately, domesticated themselves) at most ten thousand years ago, when people began to store large amounts of grains that attracted abundant rodent prey of cats. It’s no wonder so many people instinctively feel a kinship and understanding of dogs. Their social structure and hunting methods are very close to humans, making them perfectly suited for companions and assistants. Dogs are the only other species (I know of) besides humans that exhibit cursorial hunting; running after prey for as long as it takes, and finally catching their exhausted quarry since we both have such incredible long distance endurance. The !Kung bushmen in Africa still run down gazelles in this manner that is also displayed in many nature documentaries showing wolves hunt.

So If you’ve got a dog, please use any knowledge I may have given here to reinvigorate the human-dog bond; go running for hours, get it a backpack and have it haul water. Try to understand what makes your dog happy, and it just might infect you!

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Kitsu chasing mirages in Death Valley, CA.

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Kitsu confused by mirages again in the Great Salt Lake, UT.

References:

Catlin, G. 1973. Letters and notes on the manners, customs, and conditions of North American Indians. Dover Publications, Inc. New York, NY.

Peattie, D. C. 1950. A natural history of western trees. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston MA.

Snyder, L. M., and J. A. Leonard. The diversity and origin of American dogs. Ch. 21 In B. D. Smith (Ed.). 2011. The subsistence economies of indigenous North American societies: a handbook. Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, Washington, D.C.

Grisly Grizzly Hunting

Grizzly bears (Ursus arctos) used to be in every state in the USA (except Hawai’i) until European settlers began systematically extirpating them. Grizzlies had been respectfully lived with in (relative) peace by the American Indians for ten thousand years, but they were seen as a threat to settler’s livestock and feared as vicious killers. Quickly, the new “shoot on sight” approach to bear management killed off their populations everyone except the remote mountains.

Nowadays, only the most distant fastnesses of mountain wilderness in Montana, Idaho and Washington, or throughout Alaska are the only places in the US these awesome, hulking beasts are still found. If we respect them and allow them space, maybe one day they will return to the wild undeveloped Rockies and Sierras, as the black bear has been making such a comeback after being similarly viciously oppressed (very recently, the black bear has returned to the Chisos mtns. of Big Bend, TX, and are thriving in CA so that here a week-long, archery-only hunting season is allowed).

Grizzly bears are light brown to dark brown and have a more predatorial look than the smaller, pudgier black bears (which actually range from light brown to black). Grizzlies are distinguished by their powerful jaws, strong arms, muscle-bunched shoulders, and a trim body. They are more likely than black bears to attack, kill, and eat people with no (apparent) provocation. Oh and if you’re lucky enough see a polar bear, it is surely lusting after your blood. Without a powerful gun, fast vehicle or sturdy building, it’s probably going to hunt you down and eat you.

BEAR ATTACKS

A grizzly being aggressive is most likely a sow with cubs nearby that to her you are seemingly threatening. Otherwise, it may be defending a carcass cached nearby, or it’s a worked-up, frustrated boar in mating (=fighting) season, or maybe it’s a mean one and it just doesn’t like your stupid fucking face. Usually, slowly backing away while facing the bear, but not looking directly in its eyes (them’s fightin’-eyes in bearspeak), or going far to one side and around the bear to continue on your way will make the bear calm down and not kill you. Or the bear will step up the aggression.

Now black bears will bluff charge, meaning they’ll rush you head-on, but stop just short if you don’t flinch (good luck). But grizzlies aren’t known to bluff charge, and they can easily out-sprint Usain Bolt (and running from a predator tells them you’re prey), so you have several options if an attack is imminent:

1) Kill the bear. Only a high powered rifle (.357 cal +) shot in the head or chest is a reliable bear-stopper. Any lower caliber not perfectly placed in the heart (it’ll still have a good few minutes of steam then) will just infuriate the bear more.

2) Bear spray. These formulations of aerosol pepper-spray may burn and temporarily blind the bear and cause its retreat, but it could still catch and kill you.

3) Climb a tree. Bad move if the bear can knock the tree down or climb it up to you, so choose a sturdy tree and climb high, fast.

4) Play dead. Curl in a ball, protecting the back of your neck with your hands, and hope it gets bored of batting you around. This will take balls and luck. A large backpack may help protect you so if you have one, keep it on.

5) Be a complete and utter badass and use a wooden club to break all of its legs (one per charge), then smash its massive skull when it’s disabled (see story below).

Really there is no fail-safe method of avoiding or mitigating a bear attack. The best response is to gauge the bear’s behavior and try to prevent it stepping up the aggression. It’s recommended to speak loudly regularly or wear a bell or something in grizzly country because bears have poor vision and hearing compared to us and are often incited to anger when spooked by people unexpectedly coming too close for their comfort. Bears, grizzlies or blacks, are not inherently malicious (ok the polar bear is pretty bloodthirsty), and if they have a choice to avoid confrontation, they will.

I got a lot of this info from “Longbows in the Far North” by E. Donnell Thomas Jr, a guy who’s hunted and killed both black and grizzly bears with his longbow.

DIET

After hibernation, grizzlies scavenge carcasses killed by severe winter weather or kill and eat animals weakened by the winter (Frison 2004). As plants become available, grizzlies eat more as the spring progresses (Frison 2004). They eat rodents, newborns, and very young of many animals, especially elk (Frison 2004). Spawning salmonids are a classic grizzly food (Frison 2004). Pine nuts, and army cutworm moths (Euxoa auxilaris) are important late summer foods (Frison 2004: 187-188). Grizzlies are known to love lots of berries, honey, and lily roots, but are highly omnivorous and can learn to exploit many new food sources, including from humans.

GRIZZLY ROPIN’

Grizzlies were hunted by 18th century Spanish vaqueros (cowboys) in California, who threw rawhide reatas (lariats / lassos) from horseback around the bear’s neck (Frison 2004). To bait the grizzlies, the hunters would kill a mare and open its intestines in a spot that bears would find and have little cover or escape holes nearby (Storer and Tevis 1983). Covering the carcass with brush prevented vultures from stealing the bait (Storer and Tevis 1983). The first night, the bait was left alone so the bears would be less wary and more bears may come (Storer and Tevis 1983). The second night, 2-5 hunters with horses would wait quietly downwind of the bait (Storer and Tevis 1983). The most experienced bear-hunting horse would notify the hunters when the bear arrived (Storer and Tevis 1983). Then the hunters would ride down and lasso the grizzly around the neck, body, or legs (Storer and Tevis 1983). The rope must be kept taut or the bear can easily remove the lassos (Storer and Tevis 1983). Larger grizzlies required multiple lassos (Storer and Tevis 1983).

Despite extreme danger to horse and man, the horses displayed “remarkable …sagacity and skill” in the hunt, and “delight in mastery of the bear” (Storer and Tevis 1983). Experienced bear hunting horses exhibited great agility dodging the lasso ropes being violently pulled about that could otherwise disastrously entangle their legs (Storer and Tevis 1983). Such horses would not run away from or to the side of attacking bears, instead knowing it is easier to wait until the last moment while directly facing the grizzly, then leap over it completely, and turn around to face the grizzly before it did (Storer and Tevis 1983). Grizzly hunting horses would tremble with loud heartbeats from as soon as a bear is seen til the moment it was taut on the lasso, when it would then be in the highest glee (Storer and Tevis 1983). Damn, horsey! I guess that’s why horses (especially stallions) were so useful for mounted warfare. I think it was Cormac McCarthy who wrote something like “a man doesn’t know the true spirit of horses until he has been into battle with one.”

An account of a bear taken this way describes how it was then brought down to a ranch and secured by its hind feet to a sturdy timber and had its forepaws tied to a strong stake: “The bear lay with his head between his huge paws, covering his eyes, save occasionally, when he would furtively lift his eyes, like a sulky child, to look at his captors; then covering his eyes again, remain a moment, and steal another look. Soon he gave heavy sighs, and some one said, ‘He is dying! … he is not wounded, but his heart breaks—he dies of rage.’ And, in a few moments he had breathed his last…” (Storer and Tevis 1983).

CA GOLDEN BEARS

Depredation of livestock by grizzlies whose former forest had been razed for rangelands incited the killing off of grizzlies from much of their former range in America (Frison 2004: 52, 189). Formerly, grizzly populations were denser in California than anywhere else in the world. The largest individual grizzlies ever recorded were from California. Many grizzlies in California had a golden yellow or light brown coat, and became known as the “golden bear” (CA is the “golden state”). The golden bear was first featured on a flag in California during the Bear Flag Revolt of 1846, which made California a Republic. The Bear Flag became the state flag of California in 1911 and the last California Grizzly Bear was shot in Tulare County, CA in August 1922. Over thirty years later, in 1953, the golden bear became the state animal of California.

INDIANS AND BEARS

The California Indians had a really different relationship with grizzlies. Their similarity to man, both in appearance and diet, made the Indians much more aware of their kinship, calling them brothers. It was said that the first men learn to fish from the heron, to hunt from the coyote, etc. but some foolish hunter killed the bear before they could learn its trick of sleeping all winter, so now they have to tough out the cold and hunger.

Women out gathering were really likely to encounter bears since they were often after the same foods; berries and roots. Especially in manzanita berry season, when bears basically lived in the manzanita groves in which the women would go out to each day to pick. When a grizzly or other bear was encountered, it was addressed in a normal voice something like; hey bear, I’m just out picking berries too, don’t mess with me; go away, leave us alone. Then the bear would go away or the people would. Sometimes though, some ornery old boar or sow with cubs would get aggressive. In such a case, a good tree would be climbed, or a hunter would try to kill the bear.

Here’s one bear fight story: mountain mohogany (Cercocarpus betuloides) wood is extremely hard, and used for making arrow foreshafts, digging sticks, and clubs (Chesnut 1902). One Indian reported how when he was a small child, a grizzly threatened his father and him, whereupon his father placed him into a high fork of a tree for protection, and when the bear charged the man, he waited til the last instant, then leaped aside, simultaneously striking the bear’s leg with his mountain mahogany club (Chesnut 1902). Enraged, the bear continued its charging attacks, and the man repeated clubbing its legs one by one until the bear was crippled, and could no longer walk (Chesnut 1902). At this point, the man walked up to the stricken bear and clove its skull with a mighty blow, instantly killing it (Chesnut 1902).

Now that’s so much more hardcore than lassoing the poor bear with your mounted buddies out on a trip just to torture and kill bears.

Many Indians bore old scars from wounds inflicted in bear fights. The Fresh roots of Oregon ash (Fraxinus oregana) were mashed and used by the Yokia Indians to cure wounds inflicted in fights with bears (Chesnut 1902).

Even polar bears were hunted and killed by the Inuit. They would exploit the bear’s relative inferior mobility while swimming and harpoon the bear from their kayak.

Another effective, but cruel, trick of the Inuit for polar bear hunting was to carve out a thin, wide strip of springy whalebone about a foot or so long, then roll it into a fist-sized ball, keeping it that shape by covering it with fat, then tying a string around it and freezing it. When the fat froze it kept the bone rolled up and the string was untied, and more fat applied and frozen around it. Then they simply left the ball somewhere the bear would find it, whereupon the bear would swallow it whole, thinking it was just a tasty ball of fat treat. But once its body heat and stomach acids melted the fat, the whalebone would spring back out into its long shape, puncturing the bears stomach and intestines, making it die a slow and painful death. Then the Inuit would track it from the spot they left the ball and collect a massive pile of meat and bones, and its huge pelt.

References:

Chesnut, V. K. 1902. Plants used by the Indians of Mendocino County, California. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.

Frison, G. C. 2004. Survival by hunting: prehistoric human predators and animal prey. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

Storer, T. I., and L. P. Tevis, Jr. 1983. California grizzly. University of California Press. Berkeley, CA.

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