FRAGMENTS OF THE HUNT : Persistence Hunting, Tracking and Prehistoric Art

by Mikko Rakushin Ijäs, Ph.D

About two million years ago, our ancestors were running down antelope on the African savanna. Instead of relying on complex weaponry, they relied on endurance and persistence and they chased their prey until it collapsed and was safe to dispatch. 

This persistence hunting hypothesis suggested by David Carrier (1984), Dennis Bramble and Daniel E. Lieberman (2004) is widely accepted as a plausible explanation of how we became hunters, evolved a bigger brain, and adopted more complex and modern behavior. The possible psychological connections between the birth of symbolic culture and the persistence hunting hypothesis has never been properly studied prior to this thesis.

The most profound prevailing explanation for the enigma of prehistoric art was offered by South African archaeologist David Lewis-Williams, who proposed a shamanic approach, based on  ethnographic studies of Southern African hunter-gatherers. Lewis-Williams suggested that Southern African rock art depicted trance hallucinations experienced by the hunter-gatherer shamans. Lewis-Williams also expanded this theory to include Upper Paleolithic cave art from Western Europe.

Mikko Ijäs, Ph.D was an Associate researcher of the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University (Cambridge, USA) between 2017 and 2019. Currently he continues his work at the Department of Geosciences and Geography at University of Helsinki. In his doctoral thesis Dr Mikko Ijäs offers a new naturalistic explanation of prehistoric imagery based on the daily survival struggles of the prehistoric hunter-gatherers.

South African anthropologist Louis Liebenberg was the first Western scholar to actually witness a persistence hunt. The practice was still used by the more recent Kalahari San. Liebenberg’s accounts on persistence hunts include a description how the hunters experienced transforming into the hunted animal. The hunter must endure tremendous physical stress, but also keep his senses alert. This process occasionally produces hallucinations, due to exhaustion and constant concentration on tracking. The hallucinations lead the hunter to believe that he has transformed into the hunted animal.

Ijäs has also studied the last Ju/’hoan (San/Bushman) hunters in the Nyae Nyae Conservancy in Namibia. He was able to establish a connection between the transformation hallucinations and their trance ceremonies. Ijäs claims that some rock paintings and engravings could be explained through the experiences of the persistence hunters. Ijäs has titled the visible evidence the ’fragments of the hunt’. These fragments are not just obvious depictions of hunting, but more subtle allegories, such as adoration of the animal’s grace, transformation imagery, depictions of tracks, and images of running people.

The advantage of Ijäs’s hypothesis is that human ancestors ran down animals for about two million years. They could have experienced similar alterations of their consciousness during this substantial period of time. The transformative hallucinations experienced while running could have later resulted a tradition of ceremonies including purposefully sought-after hallucinations. 

Ijäs covers several fields of scientific inquiry in his multidisciplinary thesis including cognitive psychology, archaeology, art history, ethnography and paleoanthropology. He also describes running traditions of the Native Americans and Buddhist monks and presents further evidence from the skiing elk-hunters of the Northern China. Ijäs has also immersed himself in the international ultrarunning community and describes the hallucinatory experiences of his ultrarunning friends. 

Keywords: archaeology, art history, rock art, ethnography, anthropology, endurance running, paleoanthropology, cognitive sciences.  Author: Mikko Rakushin Ijäs Doctoral dissertation: Fragments of the Hunt: Persistence Hunting, Tracking and Prehistoric Art Publisher: Aalto University Defence date: June 1. 2017

Please read Fragments of the Hunt on Apple Books

Mikko Ijäs also involved in: Harvard study on indigenous running in Mexico!

Read the Tarahumara study on Current Anthropology

Mikko Ijäksen haastattelu Helsingin Sanomissa:

Mikko puhuu väitöksestään radion KulttuuriCocktail-ohjelmassa

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