How real warriors hunt: Cowardly lion hunters and counting coup
To hunt is human. Hunting made us who we are. Our hunting ancestors separated from the non-hunters over a million years ago, and never looked back. They made tools, made sounds into words, developed strategies to outwit prey, and got a lot smarter along the way. They learned to cooperate to bring down game much larger than themselves and embarked on an evolutionary trajectory that brought us to today.
I have lived among hunter-gatherers. I have traveled in a small band that ate only what could be obtained from the forest. I have heard children wail with hunger when there was no meat. I have seen the pride on the face of a hunter who brings in an animal that will fill everyone’s belly. And I have seen the benefits a good hunter reaps—status, admiration, desire as a mate, respect as a leader.
Yes, we are hunters, going back thousands of generations. We evolved to hunt. We are good at it, and until relatively recently many people relied on hunting for sustenance. Some still do, but the numbers are dwindling. Fewer and fewer need to hunt for meat. It is easier and cheaper to buy it.
But the thrill of the hunt, and the desire for the admiration of others, makes hunting hard to give up. In recent years, killing for the sake of ego has come under fire. Killing an animal for pleasure or for self-aggrandizement, especially as animal numbers and habitats shrink, seems less admirable, and some find it despicable, horrid, and evil.
Well, it is just people being people. Anthropologists and biologists call the practice of doing things to gain the attention and admiration of others “costly signaling,” and it has gone on since the dawn of time. Being a good hunter has long been a way to signal that a person was strong, intelligent, courageous, even generous. But those days are mostly behind us. Hunting is being supplanted economically, and now socially as well. Signaling your prowess by killing animals works only in limited social circumstances. We have substitutes these days. Excel at sports, in art, in science, in business. Be funny, be a leader, be neighborly. Gain status by deeds that are more acceptable in a modern setting.
And what about hunting? There is absolutely nothing wrong with hunting. As long as there are hungry people and appropriate game, there should be hunting. How should we organize hunting in today’s world? Let’s start by feeding the poor. I propose we make hunting licenses available for little or no cost to all who qualify for food stamps and other assistance. We should even provide them with rifles and other gear. Additional licenses should go only to those who need and will use the meat.
Oh, and two additional things. There will be no trophies. The time for that is over. And no hunting for predators. If predators must be reduced, they should be killed by game wardens, not those who want to kill for fun. That is a practice we should probably not reward.
And now for the ultimate thrill. The thrill of besting an animal, of risking your life and living to tell about it. The Crow and other Plains Indian groups figured this out a long time ago. It is one thing to kill an enemy, but for the ultimate triumph, the greatest status-boost imaginable, count coup. Touch your enemy and get away. So, why not count coup on wild animals? Run up to a mighty bull elk and pat it on the back. Get it on film. Kick a bear on the bottom. Kiss a moose. Take a tiger by the tail. Everyone would be in awe. They would admire you and hold you in the highest esteem. And surely that is a lot better than losing your dental practice and going into hiding.
Kevin T. Jones is an archaeologist, writer, and blogger. He lives in Salt Lake City.