Thursday, March 30, 2023
March 30, 2023

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Are we genetically hardwired to hunt?

The Columbian

You are hardwired to hunt.

Hidden in your unconscious mind and evident in your physical build, you were made to stalk game animals and kill them for the meat they provide to nourish your brain.

Or, maybe not.

“It’s hard to say that we’re hardwired to hunt,” said Mike Neeley, a Montana State University anthropology professor who has specifically studied hunter-gatherer adaptations. “Certainly meat has been an important part of our diet … linked to the expansion of our brains” which require lots of calories to operate.

Millions of American sportsmen each autumn exercise their large brains — some more than others — to try to kill an elk or deer to help feed their family and friends.

Ask any of these men, women and youngsters who are participating in the annual seasons why they hunt and you’ll get a variety of answers — everything from the basic desire to procure a healthy source of red meat to the more esoteric of a need to be in the woods completely focused on a modernized yet ancient skill that engages all of the human senses.

Historically speaking

There’s archaeological evidence that early humans — as far back as 2.5 million years ago — may have been butchering meat with tools made by shaping and sharpening stones.

These early humans ate whatever they could find: nuts, fruits, plants and the occasional meal of meat scavenged from kills by other predators.

At some point, these ancestors decided that instead of scavenging other animals’ kills, they could successfully bring down game on their own, despite lacking the great speed, strength, claws or huge canine teeth that rival animal predators possessed.

To be successful, these people made use of their big brains, which on their own don’t seem near as threatening as large claws and sharp teeth.

Archaeologists point to three wooden spears found in Germany — dating back about 400,000 years — as some of the earliest evidence of humans using tools to assist in hunts.

“There’s a lot of discussion about when we became really efficient hunters,” Neeley said.

So for at least 400,000 years, and maybe much longer, humans actively hunted animals as a source of protein high in calories and easily digested. About 200,000 years ago in Africa our ancestors — Homo sapiens — strolled onto the scene and continued the traditions of their ancestors by hunting large animals.

Other evidence

Neeley said scientists have speculated that the skeletons of some Neanderthals — humans that lived about 40,000 to 200,000 years ago — have bone fractures comparable to modern-day rodeo cowboys who have been stomped by angry bulls or horses.

The thinking is that the Neanderthals were injured after striking large animals with spears, which are only usable at the fairly close ranges that would put the hunters in danger of being attacked by the animal.

It wasn’t until about 40,000 years ago that humans developed the atlatl, a dart-throwing lever that increased a hunter’s range out to about 20 or 30 yards. Because of the way they have to be thrown standing up, even an atlatl would have made it difficult to sneak up on animals.

It wasn’t until about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago in Europe that the first bows and arrows were developed — tools that allowed the hunter to remain more concealed while shooting, in addition to increasing the range at which a hunter could shoot.

So for maybe 500,000 years, some humans have been active hunters, and nature undoubtedly selected for a good hunter’s genes to be passed on — hardwiring such abilities into genes to ensure our species’ survival.

Long thigh bones

Other facts that argue for humans being hardwired to hunt include the way we are physically built.

Humans are the only mammals to always walk upright, their bodies beginning to evolve physically to the task about 6 million years ago. Scientists theorize this evolution would have helped our ancestors survive in many different ways.

To walk on two legs, humans slowly evolved longer thigh bones and stronger knees that helped them stroll across long distances on uneven terrain. These humans could even run, if necessary, to chase down animals like gazelles — which can run fast but not very far.

In fact, some scientists point to the so-called “runner’s high” as the means by which the body encouraged our ancestors to pursue game — a hormonal reward.

Neeley said that being upright also would have helped early humans to hunt during the heat of the day when other dangerous predators were dozing in the shade of the African savannahs.

Like other predators, our eyes are also on the front of our big-brained heads, instead of on the side of our skulls like many prey species — deer and elk included.

Farming genes

Farming didn’t make the historical scene until about 12,000 years ago in the Middle East, so it’s a fairly new means of procuring a stable source of food.

So if you look at history from that perspective, we humans have been hunting a lot longer than we’ve been farming.


One study even claims to have shown that modern humans, like their ancient ancestors, “are still experts at spotting predators and prey” when compared to inanimate objects. This ability has been handed down through natural selection, the study argues.

This fall, some are hunting for meat, others are out simply to enjoy time with friends or family. No matter the reason, hopefully they will take a moment to enjoy the beauty of the sun rising or setting and reflect on an ancient human tradition in which they are participating.