Ancient Hunting - Subsistence Strategies Before Agriculture

What Ancient Hunting Strategies were Available to our Ancestors?

Archaeological evidence suggests that we humans were hunter-gatherers for a very long time indeed--tens of thousands of years. Over time we developed tools and strategies to make hunting a viable and secure option for feeding the family.

This list includes many of the techniques that we used then to make the dangerous game of tracking wild beasts for our dinner more successful.

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Slovenia - Ljubljanica river - Medieval Arrowheads
Slovenia - Ljubljanica river - Medieval Arrowheads. Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

Projectile points are sometimes called arrowheads, but more generally the term refers to any stone or bone or metal pointy object that was affixed to a wooden shaft and shot or thrown in the direction of some tasty animal. The oldest ones we know of date as long ago as 70,000 years in South Africa, but the use of a shaft with a sharpened end as a hunting tool no doubt dates to a much older period. 

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Stone Arrowheads, Prehistoric Ute Culture. James Bee Collection, Utah
Stone Arrowheads, Prehistoric Ute Culture. James Bee Collection, Utah. Steven Kaufman / Getty Images

Arrowheads are the most commonly recognized stone tool of all those seen in the archaeological record, and they are often the first thing found by budding archaeologists at nine or ten years of age. That may well be why so many myths have been promoted over these little stone tools. 

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Atlatl Display, Gold Museum of Bogota, Colombia
Atlatl Display, Gold Museum of Bogota, Colombia. Carl & Ann Purcell / Getty Images

An atlatl (pronounced in all kinds of interesting manners) is the Aztec name for a very ancient tool, also called a throwing stick. Atlatls are bone or wood shafts and when you use them correctly, they effectively extend the length of your arm.

An atlatl increases the accuracy and speed of throwing a spear: a 1-meter (3.5-foot) long atlatl can help a hunter​ fling a 1.5-m (5-ft) spear at a rate of 50 miles (80 kilometers) per hour. The earliest evidence of atlatl use dates to the European Upper Paleolithic of some 30,000 years ago; we use the Aztec name because the rest of us had forgotten this useful tool when Europeans met the Aztecs in the 16th century.

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Mass Kills: Prehistoric Communal Hunting Strategies

The cliff ridge at Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump near Fort Macleod, Alberta, Canada
The cliff ridge at Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump near Fort Macleod, Alberta, Canada. Michael Wheatley / Getty Images

A mass kill is the generic term used to describe a form of communal hunting strategy such as a desert kite or buffalo jump, that has the intent of killing dozens if not hundreds of ungulate animals all at once.

Mass kill strategies were used by ancient hunter-gatherer groups all over the world--but only rarely, probably because our ancient hunter-gatherer relatives knew that to kill more animals than you could reasonably store for future consumption was wasteful.  

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Illustration of an Enclosure for Stag Hunting by Pietro Santo Bartoli
Illustration of an Enclosure for Stag Hunting by Pietro Santo Bartoli. Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

Desert Kites are what a form of hunting enclosure, an ancient communal hunting strategy and type of mass kill structure which was used in the Arabian and Sinai deserts. Desert kites are stone structures built with a wide end and a narrow end that led into an enclosure, a deep pit, or a cliff edge.

The hunters would chase animals (mostly gazelles) into the wide end and herd them to the back end, where they could be killed and butchered. The structures are called kites because RAF pilots first discovered them, and they look like the children's toys from the air. 

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Fish Weir Near Pango, Efate, Vanuatu
Fish Weir Near Pango, Efate, Vanuatu. Philip Capper

A fish weir or fish trap is a type of hunting strategy that works in streams, rivers and lakes. Basically, the fishermen build a structure of poles that have a wide entrance upstream and a narrow enclosure downstream, and then they either guide the fish into the trap or simply let nature do the work. Fish weirs are not exactly the same thing as a mass kill, because the fish are kept alive, but they work on the same principle. 

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Channel Islands crescent and stemmed point in a hand
Channel Islands crescent and stemmed point in a hand. University of Oregon

 Crescents are stone tools shaped like a crescent moon, that some archaeologists such as Jon Erlandson believe were used to hunt waterfowl. Erlandson and his colleagues argue that the stones were used with the curved edge outward, as a "transverse projectile point". Not everyone agrees: but then, no one else has come up with an alternative explanation. 

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A G/wi Hunter Hunting Springhares
A lone G/wi hunter prepares to snare some Springhares (Pedetes capensis). The hares are a major source of protein for the G/wi. The G/wis use a long hooked rod to catch the Springhares in their burrow. Peter Johnson/Corbis/VCG / Getty Images

Hunting and gathering is an archaeological term for an ancient lifestyle that all of us once practiced, that of hunting animals and gathering plants to sustain us. All human beings were hunter-gatherers before the invention of agriculture, and to survive we needed an extensive knowledge of our environment, in particular, seasonality.

The demands of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle eventually required that groups pay attention to the world around them, and maintain a vast amount of knowledge concerning the local and general environment, including the ability to predict  seasonal changes and understand the effects on plants and animals throughout the year. 

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19th Century Limba Arrows, Sierra Leone
19th century Limba arrows held by Mamadou Mansaray, town chief of Bafodia, Sierra Leone (West Africa). John Atherton

​Complex hunters and gatherers is a relatively new term invented by archaeologists to better fit what the real-world subsistence strategies that have been identified in the data. When hunter-gatherer lifestyles were first identified, archaeologists and anthropologists believed that they maintained simple governing strategies, highly mobile settlement patterns, and little social stratification. But research has shown us that people can rely on hunting and gathering, but have far more complex societal structures. 

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San Bushman Rock Art, Sevilla Rock Art Trail, Traveller's Rest, Cederberg Mountains, Clanwilliam, Western Cape Province, South Africa
San Bushman Rock Art, Sevilla Rock Art Trail, Traveller's Rest, Cederberg Mountains, Clanwilliam, Western Cape Province, South Africa. Hein von Horsten / Getty Images

Bow and arrow hunting (or archery) is a technology first developed by early modern humans in Africa, perhaps as long as 71,000 years ago. Archaeological evidence shows that people used the technology during the Howiesons Poort phase of Middle Stone Age Africa, between 37,000 and 65,000 years ago; recent evidence at South Africa's Pinnacle Point cave tentatively pushes the initial use back to 71,000 years ago.