Hunting is as old as humanity - older, in fact - and as new as the latest high-tech gear they're selling at your local sporting goods store. Fossil evidence indicates that early humans were hunting with spears as long as 16,200 years ago, and scientists estimate that we've been eating meat much longer than that - for nearly two million years, a span of time that long predates the emergence of homo sapiens.
And in that time we haven't merely hunted animals - we've made the experience of hunting part of the myths, rituals and arts of human culture. The cave painters, who are humanity's first known visual artists - and still among its best - seem to have made hunting one of their major themes; there are images tens of thousands of years old that seem to depict animals wounded in a hunt, and some speculate that the reason for the overall predominance of animal imagery in those paintings reflects their origin in some sort of pre-hunt magic - an early instance, if you will, of visualization.
Agriculture, and animal husbandry, reduced the importance of the hunt slightly, but it's remained a part of human life. Its decreased necessity, in farming societies, allowed it to become a social outlet, even a sport, for those who could afford the time - which, for much of European history, was not many people, given the brutal laws that affected laborers' ability to sell their work for a greater-than-subsistence wage. Hunting became a pastime for the idle rich, one that was thought to build character. In the Europe of medieval and later times, hunting grew to be so firmly associated with the upper classes that the rich hunter became a sort of stereotypical figure - one that survives to our own day in the cartoon character Elmer Fudd, that befuddled but well-off would-be wabbit hunter of Looney Tunes fame.
In nineteenth-century America, by contrast, the slaves and poor whites of the South insisted, in practice, on their right to hunt for food (often from sheer necessity). Hunting thus became, for Americans, a more democratic pastime. The Second Amendment, and the resultant tradition of American gun ownership (not to say worship), helped reinforce this idea. So did such iconic American figures as the writer Ernest Hemingway, who returned to the subject in one short story after another, and the president Theodore Roosevelt, whose obsession with "virility" (as he defined it) drove him to a near-worship of sports. So as well did the practical importance of hunting to the settlers of the West and Middle West - who carried on from thousands of years of Native American hunting of the same territory, though generally without the ecological sensitivity and local intelligence of those peoples. (Thus the near-extinction of the Bison.)
These days, hunting faces some controversy, as animal-rights activists call the sport barbaric, and environmentalists worry that its ecological consequences may be dire. Yet conservationism is also woven into the history of American hunting - Roosevelt, that pivotal figure in its history, was also among the first Presidents to enact environmental-protection laws, and his legacy lives on among hunters who support efforts to protect certain wildlife habitats. In any case, hunting remains one of the few activities that allows contemporary urbanized Americans, the vast majority of whom live in cities and towns, to interact with animals and to see forests.
But for this very reason, hunting imposes certain dangers - after all, it asks people who may have little experience of surviving in the woods to do so, perhaps miles from familiar civilization. Here are some tips to keep in mind on your hunting trip:
1) Remember the "rule of three." In general, humans cannot survive three hours in extreme low temperatures; three days without water; or three weeks without food.
2) Always bring a first-aid kit.
3) Make sure someone knows exactly where you plan to hunt, and exactly when to expect you back. If you get trapped in the woods, you want to know there's somebody back home who can alert authorities in the event of your going missing. Hunt in a group, if possible.
4) Observe basic gun safety at all times, no matter how experienced you consider yourself to be. Don't point a gun or bow at anything you aren't sure you want to shoot. Don't rest the muzzle against your foot, keep the safety on and the trigger untouched until the moment you're ready to fire. Unload or unstring your weapon when it's not in use, and keep it safely locked up. Wear hearing and eye protection, leave the beers at home, and in general, always treat your gun or bow as if it were loaded and ready to shoot - always.
5) Don't hunt during periods of low visibility - children have been shot at a range of seventeen yards by hunters who forgot this bit of common-sense advice.
6) Wear bright-orange gear to ensure your own visibility to other hunters. If other hunters in the area seem to behave recklessly - an increasing problem as methamphetamine usage takes more and more of a toll on the same rural areas that provide many with hunting grounds - get out and get home, as fast as you can.
7) Spot-check your gear before you leave, especially if it has been in contact with the ground. Otherwise you may bring home unwanted "guests" in the form of scorpions, snakes, bugs and other undesirables.
8) This is not a complete guide. Your library or local DNR office will have information you need - make sure you avail yourself of all of it.
9) A good hunter is not one who laughs at danger or never feels fear, but the one who takes danger seriously and fears the right things.
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