Monday, December 9, 2013

Mak on the Hunt: excerpt from Chapter Six, Great Bear Mountain by Sid Tafler

Mak awoke in the breaking day to the scent of the fire from above. As he opened his eyes, he thought of Calana, laying in the skin hut just a short stroll away. When would he see her again? Then a deep uneasiness pierced his chest—perhaps she was mated to one of the men at the rock shelter. Was it the strongly built man with brown hair or another man away on the hunt?
Kol was gone, searching in the forested fringe below for wood. Mak emerged from the lean-to and began the hike to the valley to check his traps. The rabbits near the river had avoided his root-fibre snares, but they would fall prey to his deadfall traps. He passed Kol on the way, carrying a load of dry branches. He would rekindle the fire to cook the rabbits Mak caught under the rocks.
As he climbed down the slope, Mak brushed away the thought of Calana taken by another man and fixed his mind on winning her for his mate. He tried to imagine where he would meet her again, how they would speak. Other young men were told by their fathers how to court a woman, when to approach the headman for approval.
He remembered his mother telling him that a man and woman would mate if they were meant to be together; their children were waiting to be born in the spirit world. The Lions needed strong children to survive, many were weak or sickly and died in their first years. The clan had persisted since the time of origin, the spirits of people who produced offspring returning again in the bodies of newborn infants.
He tried to will it, Calana at his side as they filed between the rows at their mating ritual, the murmurs of approval from the Lions and the new people gathered at the hearth.
Mak found his traps where he left them at the edge of the hazel thicket. One was tripped but empty, the rock flat against the ground. The other two were still standing upright. The rabbits were wiley in this new land.
There were hazelnuts scattered on the ground, not a meal on their own, but part of one. Hunger pangs gnawed at his belly, even more intense at the thought of Kol back at the camp craving food as well. He gathered a few of the nuts and put them in his pouch. There would be more prey farther down the mountain in the deeper woods. He would not return to the camp without meat.

The rising sun dappled the ground under him as he moved silently, listening for irregular sounds between the notes of the early chorus of birdsong. The land dropped and rose and Mak hiked through open ground and then under tree cover again.
At the top of another slope, he reached the edge of the larger hazel grove. He stopped to listen, as still as a tree trunk: there was a ruffling in the forest below. He crouched low to the ground and carefully made his way down the flank above the grove. He heard the sound of legs against brush as he padded silently between the thin birch and pine. Peeking over a bluff, he saw them, a family of boar, heads down on the forest floor. There were at least ten animals—large adults, smaller juveniles—but there could be more, trailing into the underbrush. Mak turned in a circular pattern to get closer, downwind from the herd. He reached a small ledge the height of two men and crept on his belly in the leaves and rock. At the edge of the bluff he looked down. The boar had stiff dark hair, large angular heads and long snouts, rooting in the undergrowth. A litter of sucklings were trailing a large black sow. He could hear the animals snuffling and chewing, he could smell their pungent odor. They were feeding on the hazelnuts lying on the ground. These nuts grew in great abundance and attracted animals that were also good to eat. The meat of boar that thrived on hazelnuts would be especially sweet tasting.
He must act swiftly, like his father would, rather than trying to get closer and risk losing the prey. He knew the herd would scatter deep into the woods as soon as they sensed him. There would only be one chance, a carefully aimed spear hurled at a smaller animal. A bigger boar would be heavy for one man to carry and the meat would be tougher.
He saw a young animal foraging at the edge of the herd, now moving in place directly below him. He had a clear sight, but first he had to stand and raise his spear. He pulled himself up on his haunches, as silent as the air, then slowly unfolded his body and rose among the trees, his fingers wrapped around the shaft, never losing sight of the animal below. As he reached his full height, the boar raised its snout to sample the wind, then turned its head to the side. Mak cocked his elbow, touched his ivory ear charm with his thumb for a straight aim, and flung his spear at the animal’s neck.
The boar lurched on its feet and squealed in panic. Mak jumped down the embankment and the rest of the herd flushed into the woods in a flurry of snorts and scrabbling hooves. The young boar was stuck in the thicket, wriggling frantically, the spear point embedded in its neck, the shaft lodged among the hazel branches. Mak pulled a rock knife from his pouch as the boar struggled, twisting its head to dislodge the tormenter at its neck. He grabbed an ear and dug the blade into the animal’s throat, slashing it open. The boar kicked and squirmed and Mak looked in its eye as it quivered and the life-blood flowed from its body.

He withdrew the spear and dragged the boar by its legs to a clearing. He cut through the skin at the belly with his knife, then opened the body cavity and gutted it and lifted the carcass over his shoulders. Below the water gathering spot, he lowered the boar onto the beach gravel by the stream. He cleaned out the remaining entrails and tissues and washed his spear point and his hands and arms. He watched the blood flow away, then he bent to drink deeply from the stream.

Monday, March 5, 2012


What is it about Neanderthal, or as I like to call him, Uncle Neander?

   Supposedly he’s been rehabilitated. He was once known as a knuckle-dragger, a thick-browed ape-man who literally hit on his girlfriend by knocking her out with a club.
   Recently, scientists have shown Neanderthal was a more sophisticated, adaptive and compassionate hominid than we previously believed. Neanderthal families cared for the sick, buried the dead, crafted houses of mammoth bones, maybe even built boats to colonize distant islands. Apparently they made glue out of birch bark, a process so difficult scientists have had trouble replicating it in the lab.
   And hey, they may even be related to us through inter-marriage or inter-clubbing, it seems we have some of Neanderthal DNA in our genes.
  So why does Neanderthal still get razzed by Homo sapienites? If you check out the latest news items about Uncle N, amid the latest findings in the lab or the field, you’ll find comments like the article in the British Daily Mail about “heavyweight Neanderthals,” disgraceful boxers who treat the sport with callous, cynical, self-serving disregard.
  Sure, nobody likes disgraceful boxers. But why tar Neanderthal with the brush of callous cynicism?
   In the old days, people would toss off derogatory remarks about minority groups or gay people. They can’t get away with that any more. But writers who don’t know any better still regularly defame my Uncle Neander.
   Maybe it’s because (they believe) he’s not around any more to defend himself. But lots of his relatives are. And we think people who use the ancient N-word without thinking may be guilty of callous cynicism themselves.

Saturday, February 25, 2012


Here's an example of what prehistory can teach us:
There are about 500 known cave art sites in Europe, dating from 30,000+ to 10,000 years ago. The total number of illustrations in these sites runs into the many thousands.
Of all these illustrations, none depict war or battle scenes.
So does that mean that contrary to widely held belief, war is not a natural, inevitable element of human nature?

Now, historically, when people fight wars, especially if they win, they memorialize them, with statues, plaques and paintings.
So if wars were fought in the Paleolithic era, it's likely they would have been memorialized in cave art.

Also, there are cave illustrations of spears, spear points, speared animals, even, in rare cases, a speared person. There are no illustrations of shields.
In cultures where spears are used as weapons of war, invariably, shields are devised to defend against spear attack.
So the lack of shields in cave art is another indication that war was unknown in Paleolithic culture. *

Let's remember, these were small populations, running in the thousands, rather than the 100s of millions we find in Europe and Asia today.
People in Paleolithic times were not organized in societies or states, with defined borders, large accumulations of resources to be coveted and raided by a neighboring group.
No doubt there was murder in Paleolithic times, likely cannibalism as well.
But perhaps no war, no organized, sustained attack of one group against another, perhaps no genocide, no destruction of another people, settlement, culture. Perhaps.
If so, since the people of those times are thought to be the same species as us, then war is not an essential human trait, now, any more than it was then.
So let’s point this out to the generals and political leaders next time they suggest we solve an international crisis through war.
Because if wars of the 21st century reach their obvious conclusion, the survivors may end up back in Paleolithic times, but without the clean, abundant environment of the Stone Age.

* I learned about the absence of war scenes and shields in Ice Age art from an excellent book called The Nature of Paleolithic Art, by R. Dale Guthrie.