Fragments of the Hunt : Persistence Hunting, Tracking and Prehistoric Art


How a humanities scholar and artist from Aalto unraveled an ancient mystery about cave paintings in Africa.

To fully appreciate the dissertation work of Aalto doctoral student and artist Mikko Ijäs, we need to go back some two million years and travel to the southernmost parts of Africa. For this is where Ijäs has pieced together fragments of existing theory and physical evidence – as well as conducted his own empirical research – to propose a fresh hypothesis as to what is really being expressed in ancient rock art there that depicts early humans together with savannah animals.

The shamanic approach

The best example of this art lies deep within South Africa’s highest and most extensive mountain range, The Drakensberg, which covers much of Lesotho and stretches east into Kwazulu-Natal. Here, at a place called Game Pass Shelter, a South African archaeologist named David Lewis-Williams studied what he called “The Rosetta Stone of rock art” – so important it is to understanding the people of this time.

Sketched on the flat faces of shallow caves and overhangs, the rock-paintings at Game Pass Shelter depict human and half-human figures in various curious interactions with, and imitations of, animals. One painting shows a man with hooves and horns holding the tail of a dying eland, his legs crossed the same way as those of the animal. Nearby, another person is shown transforming into an antelope, while yet another figure has the head of an animal.

To explain these paintings, Lewis-Williams formulated a hypothesis in the late 1970s knowns as “the shamanic approach to rock art”. He believed that the art was the visual expression of a shamanic experience, possibly drawn to explain the event with the belief that recording it could be vital to the survival of the people creating it. What Lewis-Williams did not do though is try to explain the origins of the shamanic experience itself.

For that we would need to wait for Ijäs’s work almost 50 years later…

Explaining the shamanic event

“I was already drawn to David-Lewis Williams’s shamanic approach to this 40,000-year-old rock art and was going through his material when I made a connection to something even older,” says Ijäs. “Lewis-Williams’s theory almost completely omits the fact that the people who made the rock paintings were all trackers and hunters, and that what is being expressed in the paintings goes back much further into the past than when our ancestors developed the skills to make this kind of rock-art.”

“I agree with Lewis-Williams that the paintings likely express shamanic experiences. But my hypothesis – which I explore in my thesis ‘Fragments of the Hunt’ – focuses on exactly what activity led people to these shamanic events, and proposes that this activity is also what is being represented in the rock paintings.”

“What I believe is that the paintings represent the early experience of hunting,” says Ijäs. “Not just the practical act of hunting, but how for our ancestors the act of hunting used to be a supernatural event in itself…”

From caves to deserts

For this part of Ijäs’s story we need to travel some 1,000km north to the arid flatlands of Namibia and Botswana, to explore the “persistence hunting hypothesis” studied by South African anthropologist Louis Liebenberg in the 1980s and 1990s. Living side-by-side with the San people – the last hunter gatherers of the Kalahari Desert – Liebenberg saw and documented how humans may have hunted animals such as antelope through sheer endurance, by tracking them for long periods of time, even before they had weapons with which to kill them. This process had earlier been called “persistence hunting” by another team of scholars studying third-hand accounts of such events, but Liebenberg was the first anthropologist to actually see and participate in a persistence hunt.

“Liebenberg participated in and recorded a few of the last ever persistence hunts that took place,” says Ijäs. “He saw how a hunter would track an antelope for many hours in the hot sun, driving both himself and the animal to the point of exhaustion. Eventually the animal would simply stop, wait and allow itself to be killed from close proximity with a spear – in what would be almost a ceremonial event.”

“Liebenberg, who became very immersed in the experience, wrote that during the persistence hunt he wasn’t thinking of himself as separate from the animal anymore,” says Ijäs. “He had a very powerful out of body experience where he felt that the hunter and the hunted became one. In a sense, the only way to kill the animal was to become the animal. To assume the responsibility of taking the animal’s being into oneself in order to kill it.”

“There is no clear separation between the ceremony and the hunt for hunter gatherers like the San people of the Kalahari. I believe that this transcendent experience is what is being depicted in the rock art in the Drakensberg and several other places around the world,” concludes Ijäs. “The art shows the deep bond between the hunter and the hunted, the inter-connectedness which the world was viewed, and the profound respect that people had for the taking of life.”

Physical and spiritual

Ijäs believes the main reason the persistence hunting hypothesis has not been adequately explored by archaeologists studying the ancient rock art is because the hypothesis has only been made popular again in academic circles over the past decade or so. Before this, the research community simply latched on to other models of interpretation to cover the many aspects of prehistoric and more recent rock art.

“The psychological and spiritual aspect of hunting and expression through rock paintings simply cannot be ignored,” says Ijäs. “These artists were hunters who tracked their prey and recorded the transcendent, out-of-body sensation they experienced when taking the life of an animal. I firmly believe that this is what is really being expressed in the ancient rock art.”

Ijäs explains this new theory in a dissertation work called “Fragments of the Hunt : Persistence Hunting, Tracking and Prehistoric Art”, which he will defend on June 1st in the U2-auditorium at Otakaari 1 in Aalto’s Otaniemi campus in Espoo.