Environment and History: The Taming of Nature in the USA and South Africa

By William Beinart; Peter Coates | Go to book overview

2

Hunting and animals: from game to wildlife

The hunt was a seminal rite of passage for young Boers at the Cape, Scots-Irish farmboys in Appalachia, San Bushmen and Sioux alike; a ceremony of initiation into the larger community and an instrument of social cohesion for both indigenous peoples and settlers. The significance of hunting as a means of survival in pre-colonial and early colonial societies, hitherto largely underexplored, is becoming recognized by historians. The role of hunting products in the early international market economies has also caught their attention. Material relating to the killing of wild animals is increasingly valued as a lucrative point of entry into environmental history, particularly regarding male relations with nature.

Our major concern in this chapter lies with hunting as an agent of environmental change, in which it is often assigned a critical role. Hunting has been men’s (as distinct from women’s) essential activity for the bulk of human evolution. But to speak of hunting as an undifferentiated enterprise is about as useful analytically as a blunt spear. We need to distinguish types of hunter and phases of hunting: pre-colonial and colonial era indigenous hunting; settler hunting for subsistence and trade; hunting as an adjunct to agriculture or a subsidy for other frontier enterprises; and élite hunting for the thrill of the chase, commonly called sport in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the aftermath of the predatory nineteenth century, when the killing reached its zenith, a reaction of sorts began to set in as some of the human raptors changed their spots. We conclude by attempting to explain this hesitant transition as expressed by tighter hunting controls, early game reserves and wildlife refuges.


PRE-COLONIAL HUNTING

The first American hunting frontier probably opened as soon as Asians trekked over, probably in pursuit of migratory herds, and swept down

-17-

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