In some societies, men hunt together and this is probably a part of male bonding. Before you write off the idea of male bonding as facile pop psychology, please step back a moment from the term, which is so overused in mostly cynical contexts that it has probably lost its meaning. Let me try to put some fresh meaning on those old bones.
Men are somewhat obnoxious and hard to be around unless they are purposefully trying to be nice (and that can be worse). Many of the tasks in which men engage, depending on the society, require what we would probably call “training,” whereby a complex series of sub-tasks must be carried out fairly accurately, quickly, and often in direct cooperation with other people, without thinking about it. Practicing these tasks … most of the time together with those whom you will likely carry them out … may mean the difference between success and failure when the time comes. And, exposing one’s own inadequacies (by openly demonstrating that you are not already fully trained up in every way or that you are capable of making a mistake) reduces some of that natural male obnoxiousness and allows men to work together with less distraction.
In many societies, men hunting together, and bonding, in groups may well be entirely for one purpose: Obtaining meat. This is true among certain groups of northern Minnesotans as well as among the Efe Pygmy foragers of the Ituri Forest, Zaire. This is not to say that these folks (all men among the Efe, mostly men and some women among the Minnesotans) do not do other things together, it’s just that the act of hunting may be the only regularly engaged high intensity and training-demanding activity that happens to bring a particular group together to do more than sit around the fire eating brats or antelope stew. More to the point: For some groups, hunting is not training for something else, but rather, the point (and of course hunting would then be training for more hunting). Years ago, a student of mine, Sarah, studied a group of Minnesota hunters, and I’ve studied the Efe hunters, which is why those two examples come to mind (well, that and it is currently deer hunting season in Minnesota), but really, groups like this are myriad.
In other settings, the most critical activity in which men engage in may not be hunting, and the hunting may be the training for it, with the added benefit that you get meat sometimes. The best example of this could actually be found in an unlikely place: among our sister species, common chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). It has been propose by Richard Wrangham that chimps engage in cooperative hunting as a means of bonding in preparation for the systematic and regular hunting down and killing of individual chimps from adjoining communities. This killing is something male chimps seem to engage in on a regular basis as a means of maintaining their numerical superiority (or parity) or potentially gaining parity with neighboring groups with whom they compete for resources that now and then (every several years?) become severely limiting. Cooperative hunting among male chimps involves running down a monkey (I use the word “running” metaphorically … much of this happens up in trees) and killing it. The monkey is hard to catch and a bit dangerous to kill (sharp teeth and all). Lone chimps from neighboring communities are probably easier than monkeys to catch (the chimps are all assumed to be equivalent in locomotory abilities and speed, while the monkeys can leap off the ends of branches too small for the chimps to climb, thus escaping to neighboring trees) but more dangerous to kill (because of their size).
Wrangham tried to determine and document the nutritional or foraging value of hunting by male chimps at Kibale in Uganda and found something surprising at the time. I remember running into Wrangham between field seasons and he was very excited to talk about something remarkable he had just witnessed. I don’t remember the numbers, but some X number of male chimps had, in a matter of minutes, literally harvested Y number (like a dozen?) of monkeys, and all the chimps in the community were busy chowing down on this massive amount of meat. More exciting than that observation of carnage and cuisine among the apes was this: The hunt had occurred during a peak in plant food availability. Wrangham and his team had taken to following not just chimps but also trees. They were getting better data on both fruit production by key trees that served as resources for local frugivores (chimps included) but also on what animals came to the trees to feed. This extra information gave them confirmation of the following: Kibale chimps hunt when abundance of fruit is high and competition for fruit is low.
They don’t hunt for food. They’re busy bonding.
It may be difficult to find similar examples in humans today. In fact, I would argue that at some point in human prehistory weapons were developed that made the kind of “homicide” we see among chimps different … not impossible, just different. This difference in technology also made hunting of a wider diversity of animals possible. This would have changed the calculus relating hunting as bonding in preparation for killing your neighbor vs hunting for food. It may have opened up the possibility that in some habitats some groups of hominids would have benefited from foregoing the murder of your neighbor part, shifting to hunting alone, as a means of obtaining meat (which may or may not have been for purely nutritional purposes, probably not). This certainly seems to be the case with modern human foragers living in the tropics.
Also, humans may have shifted their homicidal strategies towards sexual competition and away from foraging competition. Increased ability to obtain resources (through technology) would have had two effects: 1) Increase demand for child care thus co-opting males into that role more often than previously, if only for providing nutritionally critical meat for growing brains; and 2) lowered demand for risky behaviors (homicide is risky) to preserve large foraging territories. The first factor would have made male paternity more important. Modern chimp males address sexual competition with promiscuity and male philopatry (“Junior” may not be your offspring, but at least it’s your brother’s offspring), modern human males with monogamy enforced with a certain degree of fierceness. Day to day, homicide in humans has shifted from something you do to your nameless faceless neighbor to something you do to males you know but are not that closely related to and that live in your community. Under these conditions, hunting could still play the role of male bonding and training because homicide is still a valid (yet icky) strategy. (And, I suppose, the occasional hunting accident could be … convenient …)
Since it is hunting season in Minnesota, let’s talk about this and other effects hunting may have.
The aforementioned Minnesota hunters are typical of many, but not most hunters in this state. They are farmers who work the land, grow the crops, and cut from the woodlot throughout the year as the wild deer mate, calve, and the fawns eventually transform into DRE’s (deer ready to eat). When hunting season arrives, they do everything they can to maximize the number of legal deer they can take. Multiple families ascend on one farmstead. Every member of the extended family old enough to use a weapon gets a license. Guns are systematically maintained and adjusted for accuracy (“sighing in”). Trailers used the rest of the year to cart around crops and manure and such are loaded with bales of hay which will later be sold or used for livestock feed. These will form mobile hunting blinds.
The hunters gather at the farm, some residents, some neighbors, some from father away, but all relatives (both consanguinal and affinal). The jobs of making the coffee, preparing the meals, working with the firearms and blinds, carting around the deer, butchering and processing the meat, etc. can all be done by any member of the group (as is typical for hunters) but are normally divided up with a modest degree of specialty by individuals who tend to do the same things every year. The deer have been doing whatever they do under the watchful eyes of landowners. No one is sure how many deer there are and one can never be sure where they will show up, but given a number of hunters, a number of blinds, a number of weapons, and the current weather conditions (including that affecting ground cover and wind) it is a fairly easy matter … if you know what you are doing … to develop a strategy of ambush hunting from carefully located blinds followed by flushing the now wary deer from the woods. The whole thing is done over the first weekend of deer hunting season. It is rare for the group to not meet the quota, and in case you were wondering, care is taken to make sure that every deer is legally taken. The permit process allows for plenty and there is no sense in getting caught poaching. (I do not vouch for Minnesotans or farmers in general … I have no idea how much poaching happens here, there are indications there is some, but not among the families Sarah studied.)
The meat is all processed and divided up. This is the source of a large percentage of the meat meals for the next several months for these families. Bonding has happened. And usually without anything going wrong, especially among these experienced hunters.
But guns are dangerous. During the last few weeks in Minnesota, since hunting season started, there have been a dozen or so notable accidents. I strongly suspect most of the accidents are by inexperienced hunters and especially hunters from urban areas and not these experienced farm based families.
During the first weekend of this year’s rifle hunt, a 24 year old was shot by hunters from another party who were trying to hit a passing deer. Luckily the first shot of three fired in rapid succession was a ricochet and knocked him to the ground, or the two subsequent shots would have likely done him in. No deer were harmed during the shooting of this hunter. Most of the other accidents involved firearms discharging unexpectedly, apparently in most cases because the safety was not engaged. In at least two cases a dad shot his son. In one such instance, the weapon discharged while being handled behind the pickup truck and the bullet penetrated the wall of the box and the back of the cab, slowing down enough to not do serious harm to Junior who was sitting in the passenger seat. A bit later in the season a young boy was shot by his father after having been sent into the brush to flush out deer, which he did.
We don’t know exactly which day or hour over last weekend Corey Meyer stumbled while climbing through dense bush, with his safety apparently off, discharging the gun into his head (the body was found earlier this week). He had just shot his deer, who was found, also shot to death, nearby.
Every year a handful of innocent bystanders are done in or seriously wounded somewhere in the US. No one was killed around here this year, but Heather Peterson of Montgomery, Minnesota, a new mom at home, was shot in the shoulder, in her own kitchen while caring for her children. It seems likely that the shot came from a hunter across the road more interested in getting his deer than not shooting into people’s houses. She was knocked to the floor and her shoulder dislocated from the force of the bullet, he was issued a citation.
All these accidents would have been avoided had hunters routinely followed standard procedure. Standard procedure is best implemented with lots of training. And bonding. It would be interesting to know (rather than just guess) of the experience level of the various individuals involved.
In the meantime, during weekend opener, Minnesota hunters shot and killed 85,163 deer (it is expected that by the end of the hunt about 200,000 deer will be taken). One must assume that several more shots were fired than deer killed, and in some (perhaps many) cases hunters were out in the woods with their firearms and never got a shot at all. One might well conclude that hunting is safer than one might expect given that only six accidents occurred that weekend.
I hasten to add that for every incident we know about because it involved someone actually being shot there is a much larger number of incidents in which there was a close call (or the bullet graze was simply not reported). I’ve never hunted in North America with firearms (though I’ve been along on hunts) but even working as an archaeologist during hunting season I’ve had projectiles whiz uncomfortably close by on many occasions. I would guess that for every known case of an accidental contact between bullet and human during hunting season there are tens, possibly scores, of close calls.
During the last couple of weeks some other things happened in Minnesota that may or may not have been linked to hunting. Well, some cases were surely linked, other may have just been people wandering around in the woods during hunting season, which is not recommended. Two or three bodies were found, one for certain by hunters. A dead cougar was found. A trapper found a wolf in a coyote trap, way outside of wolf range. The fact that during this time a combine ran over a black bear may not seem related to hunting but it likely is. When the humans show up and kill a couple hundred thousand large mammals, critters do things … like run away from their home ranges.
And, of course, when the deer are running for their lives you are more likely to run into them with your car. I find this interesting: The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has just come out with a recommendation that if you are going to hit a deer, don’t try to veer around it. People tend to run off the road or into other cars and get killed or seriously wounded, but if you hit the brakes, then the deer, you may damage your car but your car is designed to keep you alive (restraints, airbags, etc.).
But one has to wonder what was going through the mind of 52 year old Joel Erickson from Oak Grove Minnesota who, about eight miles north of were I sit now, came upon a deer while driving down the road. Erickson didn’t veer, like the DNR said. The deer seems to have passed entirely though the windshield, striking Erickson at high speed. The deer then exited through the rear window of the pickup. The truck then drove off the road and hit a utility pole, then a fence, and then a tree. The deer, now on the road, was hit by a second vehicle. Erickson was dead on the scene, the occupants of the second vehicle were uninjured.
The deer did not survive.
All of the news items referred to above are to be found here.
Sarah’s thesis is on file with the University of Minnesota department of anthropology.
Wrangham’s research on humans, chimps, and homicide is best accessed here: Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence