The Royal Hunt in Eurasian History (Encounters with Asia)

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The royal hunt in Eurasian history

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Need help? How do I find a book? Can I borrow this item? Almost all peoples have explanations, usually articulated in mythology, for the creation of the world, of life and human culture. In these first grand narratives, beginnings or new departures in the cultural sphere are typically attributed to the intervention of the gods or to the inventions of cultural heros. As wisdom inherited from founders, these narratives, rarely challenged from within, commonly retained their relevancy and currency for long periods of time. There were, however, "evolutionary" alternatives to these mythologies of bestowal, particularly in the Western intellectual tradition, which has produced a long series of theories that divide human historical development into three successive stages.

The most familiar of these, and the first to be based on systematic examination of physical remains, is the "three-age system," which posited sequential stone, bronze, and iron ages. This model, first outlined by Scandinavian naturalists in the late eighteenth century, gave rise to a new kind of grand narrative, one that linked cultural evolution to the human ability to manipulate inanimate materials.

But this was not the only three-age system then circulating in Europe; another, far older notion going back at least to Varro in the first century B. These stages, what we would now term subsistence systems, were held to be universal and sequential. Long assumed to be self-evident, this theory survived until the end of the nineteenth century, when the German geographer Eduard Hahn convincingly demonstrated that animals were first domesticated by settled farmers, so that the "herding stage," that is, pastoralism in its varied forms, arose from and followed agriculture.

What is striking about this particular conceptualization of cultural development, whatever its chronological failings, is that in an earlier agrarian age history was seen to turn on the relationship of humans to other animate objects; this, of course, in sharp contrast to the three-age system of the early industrial era, which, true to its own terms of reference, tied historical change to inanimate objects, tools and materials. While this oldest of the three-age systems has lost its standing as a viable narrative of culture history, it is nonetheless true that the relationship between humans and animals, so integral to this theory, retains its importance even though the development of this relationship through time cannot be accommodated by simplistic unilineal evolutionary formulas.

For our specific purposes, that of writing a hunting history, one helpful way of conceptualizing this intricate web of human-animal interaction is through David Harris's perceptive typology of animal exploitation. In this schema there are three categories of human-animal ecological relationship: predation, protection, and domestication. Predation, obviously, involves scavenging, fishing, and hunting. Protection entails manipulation of the environment to attract or benefit favored prey, or free-range "herding" of wild species, and limited taming of individual young animals as pets or helpmates.

Domestication, on the other hand, involves the creation of breeding populations that are maintained over long periods in genetic isolation from their wild progenitors.

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What is key here is that as human communities move from predation to protection to domestication, there is a decreasing dependence on wild animals for protein and products, and an increasing dependence on domesticated species. To Harris's admirable exposition of these transitions, I would only add the following as a corollary: with successful domestication of plants and animals, the economic importance of hunting steadily decreases while its political significance steadily increases.

And it is the politics of the hunt that forms one of the central themes of this work. But to properly develop this theme, I must first situate this study in the broader context of the various possible types of hunting histories, some of which have been realized and some of which have not. Because the hunting-gathering method of resource extraction prevailed throughout most of the history of our species, it has been intensely studied by archeologists and ethnographers in a quest to understand the long-term biological and cultural evolution of hominids.

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Hunting-gathering societies have also been at the center of many prolonged debates in the social sciences concerning the ecological bases of culture and behavior and the methodological controversies over the use of analogy in historical reconstructions. And most recently, hunter-gatherers have been invoked in weighty theoretical disputes over group versus individual selection. Indeed, much of the extended history of hunter-gatherers has been hotly contested. This is well exemplified in the changing image of such societies over the past one hundred years.

From primitive savages, at the mercy of cruel nature, they were recast as the original "affluent society," enjoying a surprising amount of leisure time as well as a good diet, good health, and a large measure of social equality. Much of this, so the argument runs, was lost with the rise of civilization. In such a perspective agriculture is no longer viewed as progress, an improvement in the human condition. Interpretations of this earliest stage of our hunting history are so varied because the evidence is scarce and difficult to read. Even such a basic question as the relative role and weight of meat and vegetal matter in the diet of early hominids remains a point of dispute.

This is so because the acquisition of meat, whatever its nutritional importance, is a complicated question since this source of energy might be "captured" by active hunting or opportunistic scavenging, or by some combination of the two. While more complex societies tend to view scavenging meat from recent kills as inappropriate, this was hardly the case in foraging societies.

Indeed, some specialists now argue that population growth in the Later Paleolithic should be associated with "dietary breadth.

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Although disagreement abounds, there is a strong consensus on at least one crucial point: all agree that there were great variations in the hunting-gathering mode. For some societies predation may be generalized, particularly in temperate climes where gathering is important, or highly specialized, particularly in northern latitudes where people live off species such as reindeer or sea mammals. In the view of many scholars it is the extreme plasticity of this method of resource extraction that explains why humans have been able to occupy and successfully exploit a great variety of ecosystems from the high arctic to tropical rain forests.

But hunting was plastic in yet another important way. The advent of domesticated plants and animals, the so-called Neolithic revolution, did not replace or even displace hunting, as is sometimes implied or imagined by evolutionary models in which new modes of production triumph over and destroy the old.

In many places hunting as an economic activity "runs parallel" for millennia with new methods of resource extraction, thus greatly complicating hunting, herding, and agricultural histories.


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This adaptability is reflected in the striking variations in the hunt found among peoples of very similar ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Among the Tungusic speakers of eastern Siberia and northern Manchuria, for example, some groups followed and hunted wild reindeer as their primary occupation, some combined true pastoral nomadism and hunting, some agriculture and hunting, while still others fished in the summer and trapped fur-bearing animals in the winter; moreover, some Tungus hunted only from horseback and some only on foot. Such variation, fashioned by environmental conditions, historical contingency, and cultural choice, demonstrates the great flexibility built into human hunting: it mutates, combines comfortably with other means of subsistence, and becomes an auxiliary occupation, supplementing the "new" economy in important ways.

The latter adaptation is particularly evident among the pastoral nomads of the Eurasian steppe who seem to have developed a special "herder-hunter mode of production. The importance of game in their diet is widely reported in ancient and medieval literary sources. Moreover, the accumulating archeological evidence points to the same conclusion. For example, during the Khazar era, from the seventh to the tenth century C.

The presence of weapons specialized for the chase further underscores the relevance of the hunt for that economy. In light of these data it would be mistaken to understand the hunt in nomadic societies as simply a means of procuring "survival food" in times of shortage. Game was in fact part of their normal fare and, moreover, part of the haute cuisine regularly served at the courts of nomadic empires.

In the eleventh century, envoys from the Chinese Song dynasty to the Liao , founded by the Qitan, were repeatedly treated to such delicacies as marinated pheasant and choice cuts of musk deer meat. In the era of the Mongolian empire, the thirteenth to the fourteenth century, the same culinary patterns and preferences are noted.

Marco Polo relates the prevalence of game birds in the imperial cuisine, which we know from Chinese sources were procured by special hunting households liehu subordinate to the Bureau of Household Provisions Xuanhui yuan.


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But commoners, too, were dependent on the hunt. Carpini, in Mongolia in the s, was well aware of the dietary importance of the chase, and Rubruck, a decade later, states unequivocally that the Mongols "obtain a large portion of their food by the chase. He reports that "throughout the entire hunting season [of winter] they constantly eat that which they have taken in the chase and so kill fewer sheep. In the Eurasian steppe, herders, for very sound economic reasons, were always skilled and active hunters. It is perhaps more surprising that throughout premodern times sedentary agriculturalists also relied on the hunt to augment their food supply.

Writing in sixth-century northern Europe, Gregory of Tours revealingly remarks that droughts and epidemics not only decimated domestic herds but game animals as well. Such losses are coupled in medieval sources because both categories of animals had economic value to the populace, which ate much game. Thus, land in northern and eastern Europe was routinely evaluated not only in terms of its potential productivity for crops and livestock, but also for its potential harvest of fish and game.

This was the case, George Duby argues, because in many parts of early medieval Europe agricultural production was insufficient to feed the population, and consequently hunting and gathering still held a prominent place in the domestic economy of noble and peasant.

This means, of course, that knowledge of hunting-gathering techniques never died out in these societies, and that while nominally in an "agricultural mode" they continued to draw upon the time-tested practices of a much earlier mode of production for enrichment and, at times, for survival. Since early medieval Europe was, arguably, one of the less developed agricultural societies in Eurasia, this continued commitment to hunting may be ascribed to special circumstances and therefore deemed exceptional.

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What then, of the ancient cradles of agriculture? Had they freed themselves from, progressed beyond, these older methods of resource extraction?

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The answer is no, hunting still had its place in the nutritional life of the early centers of settled life. To begin in the ancient Near East, stag and gazelle were served at the great banquets of the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II r.

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