Tag Archives: ethnozoology

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.

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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