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Slaughter in the American West

Lawrence Straus

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 common sense.

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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