Monday, November 24, 2014

The Archeology of Hunting


Humans have spent most of their time on earth hunting, and it is not entirely surprising that there is at least some archaeological evidence of the activity.

In North American before Columbus, there were no metal tools or horses. Hunting was done entirely on foot, and hides and meat were hauled off by humans and dogs pulling travois skids.

In some rare locations a very efficient form of hunting was accomplished by running bison herds off of cliffs or "Buffalo Jumps" -- a fact we know today only because of the enormous piles of bison bones at the base of these cliffs, and the related stone tools and campfires.

Archaeologists have discovered that drive lines were made to direct herds of bison to the jumps. The drive lines consisted of rows of rock piles known as "dead men," arranged like a wide funnel that started up to 8 miles away from the jump site. The funnel gradually narrowed toward the jump end. Hunters hiding behind the "dead men" rock piles would spring out and wave robes and shout in order to frighten the animals and keep them inside the funnel and headed in a stampede towards the jump where they would tumble down, breaking legs and necks as they fell.

In Europe, large Deer Parks were created during the Middle Ages as a way of setting off land for aristocratic hunters and managing sustainable game populations for food. The edges of these parks were often edged by massive earthwork moats and mounds which, in turn, were topped by wooden fences. The moats were on the inside and prevented the deer from getting a foothold or a run-up to the top of the mound which was constructed from the earth taken from the moat excavation. Many UK locations with "Park" in their name are, in fact, old Deer Parks and with careful observation in some locations, you can see parts of remnant ditches and mounds.

As with the ancient Buffalo Jumps, hunting in deer parks was accomplished by driving game through funnel fences to archers who were positioned on the ground or in tree stands.

In the 14th Century there were over 3,000 deer parks in England occupying around 650,000 acres of land (over 1,000 squre miles). These deer parks were managed for wild game and for wood. In the larger deer parks streams were dammed to make small lakes and ponds for fishing and ice making.

Most of the large deer parks fell into disrepair in late Medieval times as the feudal system collapsed under the weight of the Plague, and a new form of hunting -- coursing with horses and dogs -- was imported from France.

Another archaeological remnant of hunting to be found in Europe are rabbit warrens. The rabbit is not naive to the UK -- it was introduced (probably from Spain) by the Romans shortly after the First Century AD. Across the UK ancient artificial warrens can be found to this day. These warrens are called "pillow mounds" or buries and are flat topped, 10 to 20 metres long, 5 to 10 metres wide, and up to a metre high, sometimes surrounded by a shallow ditch. About 2,000 of these ancient buries survive in England, and in some of them artificial runs are covered with stone slabs. Some of the very largest artificial warrens had professional staff (a warrener) and buildings.


Duck and Fish Ponds provide additional archaeological evidence of hunting and angling across the globe. Many of these ponds have artificial islands on them created as spots where ducks and geese can breed free of predators. While the waters of these ponds were stocked with fish, the ponds were often designed with "dog-leg" lagoons, or a narrows on one end, where ducks and geese could be driven and easily netted.

The United States is a very young nation, and much of the Western U.S. was nearly devoid of people only 150 years ago. That said, Americans are industrious and the construction of small ponds and large lakes for water storage and ice-making naturally led to increased still-water angling and duck hunting.

In short order, some people began construction of dams specifically to increase angling and hunting opportunities. One such dam was constructed on the South Fork River near Johnstown, Pennsylvania. The dam itself was a massive earthen affair constructed by the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club which counted among its 66 wealthy Pittsburgh residents Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, Andrew W. Mellon, and Philander Knox.

At the time of its construction, the South Fork Dam was one of the largest in the world, but it was not well constructed. A flawed design was made worse when the Fishing and Hunting Club put screens across the safety spillway to prevent fish from washing over the dam during heavy rains. The spillway screens were constantly clogged with debris, but despite many warnings about the safety of the dam, the rich aristocrats who owned the hunting club continued on, business as usual.

On May 31, 1889, after a period of heavy rain, the dam finally gave way sending a 45-foot-tall wall of muddy water racing down the Conemaugh Valley. More than 2,209 lives were lost and 27,000 people were made homeless -- one of the greatest single losses of human life in the history of the United States.

Civilian Conservation Corps Tree Planters, 1939

The most notable period of U.S. construction for wildlife benefits began with the advent of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1936. The CCC was created as a Depression-era jobs program which eventually put millions of young men to work on reforestation, soil erosion, flood prevention, and trail construction projects across the United States..

The Corps was badly needed -- America had ruined scores of millions of acres of once-forested lands during the rip-rape-and-ruin robber baron era that lasted from 1850-1900.

Massive tracts of forest in our eastern mountains had been swept clean of trees, and streams were choked with silt. Wildlife had been shot out to the point that deer were nearly extinct, all beaver were gone, and ducks and geese were a rarity in areas where they had once been in dense numbers.

The Lacey act of 1907 and the Weeks Act of 1911 were important for protecting wildlife and conserving land, but wild America had been so severely hammered by unrestrained greed that it was to clear that it would take millions of hours of human labor and a lot of time to begin to set things right.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt started the ball rolling in 1934 with the appointment of Committee on Wild-Life Restoration whose mandate was to prepare a plan to restore America's dwindling wildlife populations. Among its members were the great wildlife manager Aldo Leopold, and cartoonist Ding Darling.

The Wild-Life Committee recommended far-reaching changes to improve habitat for waterfowl, upland game, mammals, and song birds, including the acquisition of millions of acres of additional sub-marginal lands for habitat improvement, and appropriations of $50 million to restore these lands to some semblance of their natural self.

It did not take a genius to see that the Wildlife Restoration Plan and the Civilian Conservation Corps were ideal partners, and under the tutelage of Darling -- a man who later went on to create the Federal Duck Stamp Program and found the National Wildlife Federation -- significant gains were made in record time.

By the end of 1942, national wildlife refuges, national forests, and other public lands across the U.S. had been improved by CCC workers who constructed dams, dikes and fish hatcheries, planted millions of trees to stabilize stream banks and cover over ruined land, and erected numerous buildings, fire towers, telephone lines and support facilities for camping grounds, and improved backcountry-access for hunters and hikers.

Civilian Conservation Corps construction projects remain a significant addition to our National Parks, National Forests and Wildlife Refuge System to this day, and are too-little heralded part of our American wildlife heritage.


Dan said...

With regards to duck decoys, the history is actually much more interesting; a specific and now extinct breed of dog being involved.

All of this activity took place before the invention of firearms good enough to take ducks on the wing, so back then if you fancied duck for dinner, your only option was to net them. Netting ducks, however, isn't easy to do once and ducks are actually quite good learners, unlike pheasants. With ducks, you have to be clever.

A duck decoy pond consists of a big pond with a long, thin arm coming off it, which gradually narrows. Along the side of this arm would be set wickerwork hurdles, angled such that the ducks coming into the inlet couldn't see what was on the other side, but set at an angle so that it wasn't a continuous fence.

To lure ducks in, the decoy master would go to the pond in the company of a small, brown, foxy-looking dog that was traditionally called "Piper", for obvious reasons. The dog was trained so that on command it would trot out from behind the hurdle, turn away from the ducks and run out of sight, leaping over a small jump as it did so (to make it more visible, presumably).

What the ducks see is a known predator, a fox, running away from them. This is strange behaviour and ducks are curious animals.

After a few times round one hurdle, the pantomime moves down a hurdle, and so on. The ducks thus get lured ever further down the long, narrow inlet of water and fail to notice that overhead after a certain point the inlet is covered by netting; further in is just a tunnel of netting culminating in a small netted enclosure. Usually the inlet is tree-lined except for the far end, which looks open and relatively unobstructed and an easy flight-path away, if you're a duck.

When the ducks are well down the funnel, the decoy master nips back a few yards and comes out from behind the hurdles, shouting and waving his coat to panic the ducks. Seeing this, the ducks simply take off and head for the light at the end of the tunnel, which turns out to be a net bag.

As you might imagine, things do not end well for the ducks at this point.

The advent of the percussion cap as a means of firing a gun spelled the end for the duck decoy pond and for all the dogs called Piper. Suddenly hunting ducks was much easier to do (flintlocks have a very long lock time, hence are very difficult to use to hit a moving target even with a big charge of shot).

When flighting ducks became possible, almost nobody used decoy ponds any more. The last few operating in Britain are used only for ringing birds for research (although I'd wager the operator does have the old wild duck for dinner now and again).

PBurns said...

The role of dogs in medieval duck netting is consistently overstated for its novelty and, I would suggest, in order to sell dogs and books.

Ducks are greedy eaters and will readily flock to even stranger birds.

Both facts are are still used today when duck hunting.

Corn fields near ponds are often not cut over for that reason (or are cut and left), while live and artificial decoys (wood or plastic) are used to get ducks and geese to light on ponds and lakes all over the world.

In the Middle Ages and up into the early 20th Century Century, tame live ducks were acclimated to follow floating food. Floating food was dependent on wind direction, which was why duck decoy ponds had so many "legs" despite their considerable digging and netting cost.

After live trained "resident ducks" were let out onto ponds to attract passing wild flocks, these trained "Judas birds" were then lured up the netted ditches towards more food, and their wild brethren would follow on.

So how were dogs used? For the most part, dogs worked with men to drive ducks up the pipes. A dog swimming in slow pursuit is a very reliable pusher of duck and geese, especially when the birds are already in a netted pipe and the way forward looks clear and other ducks who seem to know the way are headed there.

Does that mean that a duck will not follow a small dog? No, but that's not the thing you counted on day-to-day in order to net 1,000 ducks a sitting. If ducks chased dogs so reliably, we would be using dogs today to lure ducks to the gun, and the old Medieval duck netting ponds would not have been situated to wind and trained ducks would not have been needed at all. It's telling that the "Toller" dogs used today are actually used as retrieving spaniels, and when the experts say tell the story of how the dog came to pass, everyone in Maryland laughs. >>

For graphics of the duck ponds, descriptions of the drives, see >>

jeffrey thurston said...

I read the article at and it does sound like there were little dogs who messed with the birds so they'd follow... "A fox-coloured dog, with a good brush, is always a successful Decoy dog, if he otherwise does his work well. [Payne-Gallwey is amused to describe (p. 49) a Pug successfully decoying.] Ducks therefore follow dogs and foxes from curiosity, from hatred, as well as from braggadocio, and also because when he retires from them they imagine that for once in a way they are driving off a cruel oppressor--a natural enemy. They flatter themselves that their bold looks and assembled numbers bring about this satisfactory result...." I love this guy's animal behavior analysis...

jeffrey thurston said...

As you point out however- it sounds like any dog- even a pug- could entice the birds as long as they could help in other ways too- the whole idea of a special breed doing this sounds like BS. No breed history here.