Slaughter in the American West
Survival by Hunting: Prehistoric Human Predators and Animal
Prey. George C. Frison. xx + 266 pp. University of California
Press, 2004. $34.95.
George Frison is an original of American archaeology, a towering
figure in the field of Plains prehistory. His fascinating and
instructive new book, Survival by Hunting, is part personal
memoir, part overview of Paleoindian adaptations, and part guide to
the hunting of Pleistocene and Holocene mammals on the High Plains
and in the Rocky Mountains.
Child of the Great Depression, rancher, hunter and member of the
U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Frison has, after a long life
full of vicissitudes, become the unquestioned dean of Paleoindian
specialists on the Great Plains. His excavations of the Glenrock,
Casper, Agate Basin, Carter-McGee and Mill Iron sites, and many
others, have usually involved the recovery of the bones of big (or
"mega") game alongside stone projectile points believed to
have been used by hunters who managed to survive in the last Ice Age
environments of North America. These mammals are icons of the
Paleoindian period: woolly mammoths, giant ancestral species of
bison, mountain sheep, pronghorn, elk and deer. They were the prey
and staff of life for pedestrian hunters in the American West,
10,000 years or more before Coronado reintroduced another large
ungulate: the horse, which had become extinct on the Plains at the
end of the Ice Age despite the fact that it was not hunted by Paleoindians.
How did people who were armed only with weapons of stone, antler,
ivory, wood and sinew successfully hunt such beasts as mammoths in
the Clovis phase or bison in the subsequent Folsom and Plano
periods? How did hardscrabble homesteaders hunt some of the same
game, albeit with rifles, in the early 20th century? George Frison
knows—and, as a grand culmination of his productive,
multifaceted life and career, he tells us in this very personal, yet
most didactic volume.
Nicely illustrated with photographs of sites, landscapes, animals
and artifacts, as well as with regional maps and site plans, and
written in an easy-to-read style, Frison's book interweaves his
life's story as a subsistence hunter and archaeologist with
invaluable ethological and biogeographic information, syntheses of
Paleoindian evidence relating to hunting, and lots of down-to-earth
Frison brings his story to life with anecdotes. Some recount
experiments in which he dismembered bison with stone tools, used
atlatls (spear-throwers) to throw darts at various animals, and used
dead and dying African elephants as stand-ins for mammoths in order
to demonstrate that Clovis weapons and tools could have been used to
kill and butcher them. He even describes his personal misery as a
failed hunter returning home empty-handed to face the derision of
his peers and the dismay of his dependents.
So this is not your usual archaeological synthesis. Frison is of the
Plains-Rockies macro-ecotone; his story is part of the longue
durée in this hard but game-rich land. The anchors of
his uniformitarian tale are ethology and topography, both arguably
rather little changed over the past 10,000 years, at least for the
still-extant game species on the one hand and for the physical
features used to their advantage by hunters on the other. The
majority of archaeologists (perhaps Paleoindian specialists less so
than most, however) are city slickers; we have never had to hunt
animals and butcher carcasses to put food on the table. This is a
book for effete archaeologists like me to digest and to internalize
when trying to "read" Ice Age landscapes as they might
have been seen and worked by hunters who are now long gone. Frison
explains in clear, straightforward terms how to drive animals
successfully and how to organize their exploitation in specific
types of terrain. Species by species, he divulges a hunter's
knowledge and shows how to put this savoir faire to superb
use interpreting Paleoindian kill sites on his homeland Plains and
in his beloved Rockies.
This ethological, ethnohistoric, archaeological and autobiographical
tale jumps around quite a bit, but the complete integration of all
these sources of knowledge is George Frison's life story. And the
fact that he leads us back and forth between present and past,
between animals and hunters, between experimental archaeology,
hunting stories and prehistoric finds, shows us just how inseparable
all these things are in his personal interpretive framework. The
present truly serves to help us understand the past.
Of course Frison is not so naive as to think that modern hunting is
strictly equivalent to the hunting of Clovis or Folsom people at the
end of the Pleistocene. But he makes a strong case for using what we
know about modern animal behavior, seasonal conditions and physical
characteristics, as well as the ways in which the terrain can be put
to the best advantage by humans in trying to slaughter those
animals. Common sense, informed by real experience, can allow us to
put forth reasonable hypotheses concerning prehistoric hunting
activities—and these theories can often be tested through
archaeology, as Frison and his many students and colleagues have
been doing for decades in their superb excavations and analyses of
faunal remains and artifacts in Wyoming and across the West.
Naturally, geomorphological processes—and massive human
interventions such as overgrazing and plowing—have altered
local land surfaces, but it is not hard to accept Frison's view that
fundamentals have not changed that much in the environments of the
Plains and the Rockies. Even when some of the main game animals are
strictly extinct (mammoths, Bison antiquus), the
understanding of modern analogues provides eminently reasonable
evidence with which to at least propose plausible explanations of
the archaeological record of Paleoindian hunting and carcass processing.
We are privileged to receive this wisdom from such an engaging,
experienced and unorthodox source as this
hunter-professor-archaeologist. Anyone interested in trying to
penetrate the world of Stone Age hunters—not just
Paleoindians—should read this book. It is a gift from a
master. They just don't make 'em like George Frison anymore!
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