The Great and Mighty Eland

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Physical Anthropologist John D. Speth wrote a fantastic book called  The Paleoanthropology and Archaeology of Big-Game Hunting: Protein, Fat, or Politics? It's kind of a crime that it's not more widely available. It sells for $134 on Amazon, which is totally lame. If you are a student though you can probably get it for free. For my institution Springerlink had a free ebook download! I don't have time to do it justice right now, but there is a great chapter I just wanted to mention. It's about the high-fat African game animals, which are disproportionately represented in many sites tied to paleolithic hunting. 

This is an opportune moment to take another brief detour into the realm of archaeology, this time to look at views about the hunting capabilities of hominins who occupied sub-Saharan Africa between about 300,000 years ago and roughly 40,000 years ago, give or take a few millennia. For those not too familiar with
archaeology, in Africa this period of the Paleolithic is known as the Middle Stone Age (MSA). During more or less the same period of time, Europe and western Asia were inhabited by Neanderthals, and in these more northerly latitudes of the Old World the comparable part of the archaeological record is referred to as the Middle Paleolithic (MP). Richard Klein has written extensively about the hunting strategies of MSA peoples, focusing particularly on the faunal record from two well-preserved and widely known cave sites located east of Cape Town along South Africa’s Indian Ocean coast – Klasies River Mouth and Die Kelders.


Klein has argued for many years that MSA hominins lacked not only the technological know-how of the people who followed them during the ensuing Later Stone Age (LSA), but they also lacked the cognitive wherewithal. Interestingly, eland remains in these caves are central to his line of thinking, and hence the reason for this detour. And, as I have been doing throughout the book, I will let Klein speak for himself.

 In contrast to the other ungulates, the eland in MSA sites include a large proportion of primeage adults, and the age profile has a catastrophic shape…. The most likely explanation is that MSA people had learned that, unlike most other large African bovids, eland can be easily driven, without much personal risk. An eland herd caught in the right position could be forced over a cliff or into a trap…. However, MSA people could not have driven eland herds to their death very often or the species would have become extinct, since its reproductive vitality would have been sapped by the continuing loss of a large proportion of the available prime adults. Not only did the eland survive, but there is no evidence that it became less numerous during the long MSA time span… 

Thus, MSA people were probably not very successful at hunting eland, and this makes it especially interesting that eland is the most abundant ungulate in the MSA faunas. The clear implication is that MSA people must have been even less successful at hunting other species that are less common in the sites but were more common in the environment. In short, MSA impact on the large mammal fauna was negligible. By extension, it may be argued that LSA peoples, in whose sites eland and other species are represented more in proportion to their live abundance, probably took a higher proportion of game overall. In short, LSA people were almost certainly more proficient hunters. Klein (1987:36–37)

I think this argument needs to be turned on its head. Judging by the many quotes from historic accounts that I have already presented, all of which extol the virtues of the eland as the “game-of-game” in a land of fat-poor animals, the eland is precisely the animal that one should target if the animal is available and the hunters possess the means. If anything the abundance of prime-adult elands in MSA sites is testimony to just how good, and successful, they were as hunters, not evidence of their impoverished cognitive capacity. It is the LSA hunters that should be the focus of interest here. Why were they (as it would seem) compelled to concentrate more on the far leaner and smaller game, the prey that explorer after explorer considered inferior food, especially when they were short of adequate sources of carbohydrates or alternative means of acquiring fat? It seems far more likely that the hunters of the LSA were under some level of stress, either because they managed to overhunt the elands, or perhaps because environmental changes reduced the numbers of elands. All of this remains speculative, of course, but I think the one conclusion we can safely draw from this is that the presence or absence of eland in archaeological sites tells us nothing about innate cognitive capacities.

Incidentally, the abundance of prime adults, evidence that led Klein to postulate that MSA hunters may have driven groups of eland over cliffs or into traps (the “catastrophic” age profile that Klein refers too – that is, an age structure that resembles what one would observe in a living population) need not imply mass kills. Since the faunal assemblages are aggregates or palimpsests of countless individual hunting episodes, the abundance of adult animals in their prime is what one might expect if hunters often deliberately sought out animals that were at their peak in condition, but also now and then killed whatever eland came within their sights, regardless of age. It would be interesting to know what proportion of the adult eland at Klasies and Die Kelders were males….

Hmm, possible dissertation topic? What's so important about eland? Why would hunters target them?

An 18th century Swedish naturalist quoted in the book gives some clues:

This animal [“Cape-elk” or eland] has a great deal of fat, especially about the heart: from an old male which we gave chase to and shot, we got such a quantity of fine and tender fat, as we could with difficulty get into a box that would hold about ten pounds of butter. As at the commencement of our journey homewards through the desert, the hounds we had with us had unluckily devoured our stock of butter, a farmer, who still accompanied us, showed us how to prepare the fat from about the heart of the elk, and to use it for dressing victuals with and for eating on bread in the same manner as is generally practised with goose-grease and hogs-lard. The taste of it also was very similar to these, and to the full as good; and, indeed, if I may be supposed to have been able to form any judgment of the matter at a time when we were so sharp set, and in absolute want of any thing else of the kind, it was rather better. The breast is likewise extremely fat, and is always looked upon as a great delicacy. The flesh is universally of a finer grain, more juicy and better tasted than that of the hart-beest. Sparrman (1785:207–208)

Speth has great information on early food containers where hunter-gatherers may have stored things like fat or boiled bone grease. Pottery may date back as far as 200,000 years, but it's also possible to store and cook with liquids in skins and other containers that would not be present in the record. He also takes down the common use of the San (bushman) as Paleolithic proxies. 

I'll post more about this book soon. I've been very busy with school, but luckily this is what I study so I have ample fodder for posts now. I feel very bad for people who don't have access to this things.

except, really, I think they are idiots

It's possible they will take old books that are outdated and try to push their own rather narrow conclusions. Altough you don't need to have research journal access to find that Boyd Eaton thinks his own conclusions were wrong (though Konnor is still holding out):

Meanwhile, paleo eating continues to evolve. In 1985, Eaton and Konnor allowed foods like skim milk and whole-wheat bread. Konnor still thinks that was the right call, and believes his original concerns about fat were prudent. “You can’t just go to the supermarket and buy meat loaded with fat and say you’re doing the Paleolithic diet. You’re not.” Animals of 10,000 ago, Konnor says, were less fatty—so we must compensate by eating leaner meats, and less. Eaton has gone the other way. He says he had failed to consider the contribution of non-muscle meat like brain and fat depots, and thus underestimated the amount of fat we need. “It makes me feel stupid!”

In full discloser, I don't think there is enough evidence either way to draw a conclusion about fat in the paleolithic and we are dependent on modern nutritional science to elucidate whether or not fat is healthy (or types of fat). I also am a big fan of the idea that evolution of human being is on-going and didn't freeze in lower-paleolithic Africa. I personally cycle low and high-fat, but do best on high-fat (I lose my period on low-fat, for example).