What do spears, arrows, AK-47’s, and the Second Amendment have in common? Maybe, more than you think.
Until about 1,500 years ago, the deadliest weapon in the region was a spear-throwing device called an atlatl. It was powerful, but clumsy and difficult to master. Getting a shot off required standing up, winding up, and making the throw. If the target dodged or fled, success was unlikely. So, those ancient people devised other methods to satisfy their hunger for red meat.
The most effective was the game drive, a strategy of herding animals into a place where they could be contained, captured, and killed. No one was allowed to disturb the animals before the drive. This way, the prey became complacent while humans prepared the trap, making them easier to gather and herd.
Game drives required many people. Local residents prepared the site, but they needed extra bodies to carry off the plan. The extra people, living in their far-flung home territories during the rest of the year, arrived in early winter. It was a huge annual event that drew the bands together to do the things people always do when they have a festival.
A successful hunt would nearly wipe out a herd, so a drive could only take place at any given site every ten years or so. As a consequence, people travelled to a new place every year, sharing the good times with their distant friends and relatives. During a single lifetime each band hosted the drive only a time or two. The competition to throw the best party must have been intense.
The bow and arrow replaced the atlatl about 1,500 years ago. This had serious effects on the older culture. Using a light, compact bow made individual hunting success more likely than the using a large, cumbersome atlatl. As bows became common, hunters developed strategies that emphasized concealment and surprise, rather than containment and capture.
This increase in, and exploitation of, individual opportunity hurt communal hunting efforts. As animals became used to the strategy of concealment and surprise, they became more wary of humans. Acting on a sense of fear, rather than indifference, they fled as humans approached, making the old strategy of containment and capture almost impossible. Large-scale game drives became a thing of the past.
The loss of the game drive had serious social consequences. Without a compelling reason, groups of people seldom travelled long distances to gather together. The annual meeting of the tribe became a lost tradition and the 5,000 year old culture of regional cooperation came to an end. As the land became populated by strangers, armed with lightweight killing machines, fear and suspicion of the Other increased.
I see similarities between this prehistoric tale and our modern situation. The Second Amendment cites the need for a “well-regulated militia”. This strikes me as analogous to a well-regulated game drive. In both cases we see a communal effort, willingly undertaken by individuals, for the benefit of a larger community. By following certain rules and disciplines, the likelihood of an individual’s personal security and success increased with the enhanced security and success of the entire society.
Two hundred years ago muskets were state-of-the-art weaponry. The introduction of smaller, deadlier weapons, like hand guns and assault rifles, is analogous to the effect of replacing atlatls with the bows and arrows. As some ruthlessly exploit the new, lethal technologies to their own perceived advantage (and it only takes a few bad apples), suspicion and fear among the rest increases and we react accordingly. In other words, our social trust is threatened by the same phenomena that effected the disintegration of communal societies a thousand years ago. The more things change…
Once the old game drive culture broke down, it never came back. The bow and arrow changed everything. Is this our fate too? Are we forever doomed to fear that the next car to come down the street will hold an armed psychopath, heartless criminal, or agent of a government-gone-bad?
Small arms have become more powerful and power is addicting. People seldom give up power or addictions willingly. Guns are here to stay. Can this genie of chaos ever go back in the bottle? Maybe we could organize game drives, finishing them with feasts, festivals, and firearms training. Maybe, before teaching kids how to shoot guns, we could teach them how to throw atlatls.