The ancient hunt in which the tracker’s skill united reason and imagination

“The San people of the Kalahari desert are the last tribe on Earth to use what some believe to be the most ancient hunting technique of all: the persistence hunt; they run down their prey,” says David Attenborough:

 

“The hunter pays tribute to his quarry’s courage and strength. With ceremonial gestures that ensure that its spirit returns to the desert sands from which it came. While it was alive, he lived and breathed with it and felt its every movement in his own body, and at the moment of its death, he shared its pain. He rubs its saliva into his own legs to relieve the agony of his own burning muscles, and he gives thanks for the life he has taken so that he may sustain the lives of his family waiting for him back in their settlement.”

Louis Liebenberg, author of The Art of Tracking: The Origin of Science, argues that the rational skills required by the ancient tracker provided the basis of scientific reasoning.

The first creative science, practiced by possibly some of the earliest members of Homo sapiens who had modern brains and intellects, may have been the tracking of game animals…

In easy tracking terrain, trackers may follow a trail simply by looking for one sign after the other, but in difficult terrain this can become so time-consuming that they may never catch up with their quarry. Instead of looking for one sign at a time, the trackers place themselves in the position of their quarry in order to anticipate the route it may have taken. They then decide in advance where they can expect to find signs, instead of wasting time looking for them. To reconstruct an animal’s activities, specific actions and movements must be seen in the context of the animal’s whole environment at specific times and places…

Since tracks may be partly obliterated or difficult to see, they may only exhibit partial evidence, so the reconstruction of these animals’ activities must be based on creative hypotheses. To interpret the footprints, trackers must use their imagination to visualize what the animal was doing to create such markings. Such a reconstruction will contain more information than is evident from the tracks, and will therefore be partly factual and partly hypothetical. As new factual information is gathered in the process of tracking, hypotheses may have to be revised or substituted by better ones. A hypothetical reconstruction of the animal’s behaviors may enable trackers to anticipate and predict the animal’s movements. These predictions provide ongoing testing of the hypotheses.

Perhaps the most significant feature of creative science is that a hypothesis may enable the scientist to predict novel facts that would not otherwise have been known.

Implicit in this interpretation of tracking there is also a view of science broader than its conventional placement within the sphere of human rationality. From this perspective, reason and imagination work hand in hand.

Thus, when the hunter hypothesizes about the movements of his quarry, he is also engaging in a wild leap of imagination: he becomes the quarry by entering its mind and seeing the world through its eyes.

From this vantage point, there is no conquest or victory in the hunt. Hunter and hunted are one, inseparable in life and death.

This way of knowing non-human life, through a creative identification in which animal “spirits” are experienced, seems to be universal among indigenous peoples, strongly suggesting it is something we have lost rather than advanced above. In a most fundamental way, it signals the degree to which collectively our observational and empathic skills have withered as we withdrew from the natural world.

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