As we passed through south-eastern France, we began to leave the coastal plains and swamps of the Camargue on the Mediterranean behind. The hazy blue mountains of the Pyrenees began to rise up before us in the distance. We were headed toward the Sierra de Atapuerca in Spain to catch up with my family for my sister’s 60th birthday. I couldn’t help thinking how different the country, landscape, vegetation, people and culture was to where I live in Oz.
I currently live and work in the Top End of the Northern Territory. Through living, working and hunting in remote areas of the Top End I have been lucky to have a little bit of exposure to the indigenous culture up here. Hunting is an integral part of that culture.
I find it interesting that there is a general acceptance of hunting as a part of the ‘continuous culture’ up here for indigenous people that is not only widely accepted here but down south by academics and the general public, including that portion which is opposed to what is obviously thought of as ‘non-cultural’ hunting by ‘non-indigenous Australians’ (of which I am obviously one).
Some of the oldest rock art in the caves of Spain is very simple. Carbon dating indicates it was possibly created by some of the hominid forms (i.e. Neanderthals) that inhabited the caves prior to the arrival of modern humans (Homo sapiens, our species).
Recently I have been doing a bit of thinking about what ‘culture’ is, and does it vary due to your DNA? Webster’s dictionary defines ‘culture’ as: the beliefs, customs, ways of life, ways of thinking, arts, etc., of a particular society, group, place, or time.
I grew up in New Zealand where hunting was a big part of our family makeup or culture. My father and all of my uncles were mad-keen duck hunters as well as being partial to the odd feed of hare and rabbit shot from the back of my various uncles’ utes on farms in the Southland plains. A few of my cousins also hunted deer. So, the participation in hunting, and the eating of game at family meals, was a big part of my family ‘culture’ as I grew up.
In the context of this, I had been really looking forward to spending a couple of weeks in Spain in late 2019 and learning about the country, its background and its wildlife.
Most of my ancestry is Irish with a wee bit of Maori thrown in. But a recent DNA test for our family revealed there was also some Spanish or Iberian DNA in there as well. A bit of historical family-tree-type research had revealed that the Spanish ancestry possibly came from a Spanish sailor who was part of an armada a few centuries back. Apparently in 1588 the Spanish felt they’d had enough of the English shenanigans in the Spanish-held areas of the Netherlands and the Americas. They had decided to give the Poms a bit of a lesson through a good old-fashioned navy whip-arse and sent an armada to teach Queen Elizabeth I and the Poms a thing or two.
With an antler span of 3.5metre and standing 3+metres at the shoulder Megalocerus was one helluva deer and would have been quite a challenge with a spear or bow for our predecessors. Why it doesn’t appear to be a major target for stone-age hunters is unknown. Maybe it wasn’t that common, it may have been difficult or dangerous to hunt, or maybe it simply didn’t taste as good as the other animals that roamed the tundra at the time. Although it looks like a giant fallow deer or possibly a moose, DNA indicates it is from the Red deer family.
Unfortunately for the Spanish, the English out-thought them with a night fire-ship attack while the Spanish Armada was moored off Calais, France. The Spanish Armada was scattered, with ships washing up on the shores of Great Britain from Scotland around to Ireland.
Now, the English overlords weren’t necessarily treating the native Irish all that well at the time. So to the Irish an enemy’s enemy wasn’t necessarily their enemy. Obviously, a few of the local Irish ladies, including one of my ancestors, must have thought the Spanish boys were a bit of alright and the rest is DNA and family history.
Anyway, back to last year. Before heading to Spain, I had done a bit of background reading on Spain, and its pre-history really intrigued me. I like this sort of stuff; I did a couple of units at uni in anthropology and cultural anthropology 35 years ago and this aspect of history and pre-history still interests me today, especially in relation to hunting around the world.
Something that it surprised me to learn was that Spain has some of the oldest human and hominid/pre-modern human (that is, pre-Homo sapiens — ‘us’) remains and artefacts on the planet. Some of the caves there have remains that go back to the very beginnings of human and pre-human/hominid history. On top of this, this is a country that loves hunting and eating meat! So, I had planned to visit some of the archaeological sites and museums to have a bit of a look at human history and pre-history hunting artefacts (who knows, some of them may have been handled by one of my ancestors).
But what I didn’t know as I was headed towards it, was that the Sierra de Atapuerca has a cave with human and pre-human/hominid occupation going back nearly a million years! As we pulled into the town there were signs and statues about the pre-history on the main street of this quaint little country town.
It was going to be great to catch up with my fam-bam, but with this history/pre-history bonus thrown in, I thought to myself this was going to be bloody epic!
Next day, while walking down some lovely little country lanes and roads near Atapuerca taking in the countryside, looking for wildlife and clearing the head from the fine Spanish bierra and red wine from the night before (it not only tastes good, it is damn cheap, a dangerous combination if you are partying), I contemplated what this area had seen over the past million years or so. It had seen the first hominids
(pre-human Australopithecus) and humans arrive from Africa and settle and live in the area. It had seen continuous occupation right through until today including periods — centuries — of rule by the Romans and the Moors. The whole timescale of it all blew me away.
The Sierra de Atapuerca and the people in it have also seen ice ages come and go, warm inter-glacial periods and ice ages come back again … and go again. All without social media and the mainstream leftist media hysteria of ‘climate change’ — how did they do it? The pit at the Atapuerca cave site has seen human activity and occupation right from the earliest Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age through to the modern era up until 1850. Now that’s continuous occupation and culture!
Some of the cave art incorporates natural features to enhance the shape of the animal, or look like the animal is standing on a rock. This shows forethought and an appreciation for aesthetics – all the more amazing when you think this would have been done under the weak flickering light of a burning troch or fire brand.
I wandered down to the Cultural Heritage Centre just outside Atapuerca and had a look at the displays and excavation site. Access is limited in the caves in these UNESCO-listed cultural sites, but they recommended that I go into Burgos, where there was a Museum of Human Evolution and also plan on visiting other cave sites where access is allowed. I took their advice and a couple of days later I was in Burgos and visited the museum, which I advise is a ‘must do’ if you are in the area. Not only are there amazing displays of what has been excavated at the Atapuerca site, including an 800 000-year-old axe head they think was used in some type of religious or burial ceremony, there was also a 1.3 million-year-old fallow (Dama) deer-type antler.
I wasn’t allowed to photograph it (dang!), but it was good to look at it and contemplate what it was. As an ancestor of current modern forms of fallow deer, it was a very simple antler — but definitely a fallow-type of deer. Who had hunted it, and how had they hunted it? With a spear by stalking in on it, or have it driven past them?
Later in the trip I saw school kids at a cultural centre in the Pyrenees trying their hands with a spear thrower very similar to what Australian indigenous people still use today in the Top End; the only difference I could see was the European spears have fletching on them.
Looking at the antler, I thought, ‘how did it end up in the midden in the cave?’ and finally, ‘what did the venison from the animal taste like after cooking it, over or in the fire?’
I bet after a hard day’s hunting in the cold Ice Age grasslands and tundra, it would have been damn good to sit back by a warm fire with your mates, wives and kids and chew on a medium-rare backstrap.
It’s just a damn shame it would be another million years or so before a good cold beer or red wine was invented or brewed for the first time to wash that venison down! Never mind, you can’t have everything; at least the kids wouldn’t be arguing over who wants to play what on the mobile phone or what movie they want to watch on Netflix for another few hundred millennia or so.
A couple of weeks later we were back down in the Pyrenees and booked a tour into another cave site. Numbers are limited, everyone must book and is guided through the cave. It is an IUCN site, and to preserve it the amount of time in the cave is strictly limited so there is not a build-up of carbon dioxide that may negatively affect the rock art. You are also instructed not to touch the walls of the cave and possibly contaminate it. After going nearly a kilometre underground we were shown some very simple arrow-shaped and matrix dot paintings/rock art. It is possible these were painted by hominids that inhabited the area before modern humans (that is, Homo sapiens, ‘us’) arrived.
Another 200 m further, the cave system branched. The left branch ran down into a cavern that has a sand beach — almost a dune — in it. On the dune, clear as day, are three sets of smallish human footprints that three kids left there … 16 000 years ago! Mind-boggling stuff. I thought to myself, I bet their parents would have been really bloody annoyed to know the little buggers had gone off exploring (probably on a ‘go on, I dare ya’ — kids are kids after all) in a cave that was also used by giant cave bears and giant panthers which came to the salt licks in there. Their scratch marks are still in the walls of the cave today and they really are bloke-sized claw marks at that.
Some rock art obviously depicts animals with spears in them. Due to the distance underground at some sites and lack of habitation, fires, middens etc in the vicinity of the paintings/art, it is considered the drawings were possibly part of ceremonies undertaken. By the number of sites and drawings Bison appeared to be an important prey species food sources for early humans.
Back in the main cave we travelled until we were 1.8 km underground and the cave opened into a bit of an amphitheatre. The guide explained about the various paintings of bison, deer, ibex and wild horse on the wall. Most of the markings involved only one precise brush stroke on each feature of the animal, meaning that the artist probably had practised before coming to this site. Some of the animals had spears in them, obviously depicting hunting scenes.
What was ingenious at this site was that rock features were included into some of the pics. The ibex seemed to be standing on rocks and one picture of a bison doesn’t have a tail, but when you have a flickering light like a burning torch, the shadows make it look like the bison’s tail is moving or flicking — bloody genius stuff, and this was up to 60 000 years ago.
I was struck by the simplistic beauty of the drawings and the fact that they are pretty accurate depictions of the animals illustrated. These guys really were skilled artists.
The guide turned out all the lights and it was pitch back and deadly silent. I couldn’t help thinking ‘Man, those first guys who came in here must have had big kahunas!’ They went in knowing they could possibly come across a big grumpy bear or giant panther and all they were armed with was a spear or club to deal with the animal at very close range; that’s ballsy stuff right there.
I’m back in the NT now and when I look at the photos and think about what I experienced on this trip I wonder about the disconnect that is being foisted on us by organisations and sections of the community who do not understand, or oppose ‘recreational’ hunting by non-indigenous Australians. They either have no idea or consciously disregard hunting as being part of our culture.
For most of us, it is part of our customs, ways of life, ways of thinking, that have been passed down through the generations to those of us that hunt and it is a component of our wider Australian culture today.
In a society that celebrates diversity, acknowledges minority groups and multi-culturalism, it is time that this important component of Australian culture is recognised and given the respect that other parts of culture in this country are given.
Contributed by Brian Boyle.