January 9, 2009

Henry Harpending on how not to hunt a Cape Buffalo

Greg Cochran and Henry Harpending now have a website up for their new book The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution.

They've posted four outtakes from the book that didn't make the final draft for reasons of length. Here's part of a section intended to help readers understand what it must have been like for early humans to hunt big game with just spears:

Probably most of our readers don’t have personal experience with old-fashioned, Pleistocene-style big game hunting. The only place in which it is still possible - not for much longer, at that – is Africa, where the big game had a chance to adapt as mankind gradually became formidable hunters and thus managed to survive until today. Without that experience, it’s hard to realize how remarkable Neanderthals were, how difficult hunting bison and elk with thrusting spears must have been. It’s not easy to appreciate the risks stone-age hunters had to take when they went after mammoths, rhinos, or Cape buffalo: it’s not exactly safe today, even with modern weapons. One of us, however (Henry Harpending) does have that experience, and the following note gives a flavor of what it’s like – particularly when you don’t have the faintest idea what you’re doing.

Encounter with a Buffalo

When I (HCH) was a graduate student in the 1960’s I spent a year and a half in the northern Kalahari desert doing fieldwork with !Kung Bushmen, foragers who lived by foraging wild foodstuffs and hunting game animals. With several other graduate students we had a base camp near the border with Southwest Africa (now Namibia) about 100 miles south of the Caprivi Strip on the northern border of Botswana. The nearest source of supplies was a two-day trip from their camp by four wheel drive truck.

Several weeks after the rainy season ended there were reports in the neighborhood of a cape buffalo that was harassing people and animals. Often older males lose rank and leave herd to wander by themselves, angry and uncomfortable. They are a threat to people and stock, especially horses.

We were out of meat in our camp, and so with the confidence and foolishness of youth we decided to hunt down the buffalo. We had visions of steaks and chops as well as many pounds of dried meat for travel rations and dog food. At that time permits for Buffalo were only a few dollars from the Botswana game department, and we had several. Although there were stories of Buffalo being aggressive and dangerous to hunt, to my eye they were simply large cattle. Bushmen never hunted them with their poison arrow and spear technology, but they too were naïve and had great faith in our high-powered rifle.

One morning we set off to where the animal had last been reported. The party was a colleague, several young Bushman males, and myself. We soon picked up its tracks and for several hours followed its wanderings through the low thorny scrub. To me the tracks looked exactly like those of a cow but the Bushmen never hesitated. When it was apparent at one point that there were no tracks at all in view I asked, and the Bushmen told me that there was no point in following the tracks since they knew exactly where it was going. We often saw this hunting with Bushmen­–they used actual tracks as a guide but knew the habits of animals so well that they often proceeded on their own to pick up actual tracks later on.

This went on for hours until, suddenly, a young man grabbed my shoulder and said “there it is.” I looked long and hard until I saw it, well camouflaged behind several yards of thick brush, sideways, staring hard at us with its bright pig eyes. It was about forty yards away.

As I brought the rifle up I was dismayed to realize that it still had a powerful telescopic sight. I should have removed it and use open iron sights in thick bush but I had forgotten. With the magnification of the scope I saw a black mass surrounded by brush. It took a moment to locate the front legs, then the chest. Oriented, I aimed and fired. “Bang-whump”, the bang from the rifle and the whump as the bullet struck the buffalo. He jerked a little, then simply stood there staring at me. “Bang-whump, bang-whump” as I fired two more rounds.

Now he tossed his head and snorted, then started running toward us. Buffalo charge with their nose high, only lowering their head to use their horns on contact. I fired one more round at the charging animal, head on, simply pointing at him because he was so close, then turned and ran. We discovered later that the bullet had struck his shoulder, ricocheted off his scapula, and exited through the skin on his side. It certainly didn’t slow him down at all: I might as well have been shooting at a railroad locomotive.

There were three of us running away now from the charging animal: my colleague, our camp dog, and myself.

You can find out what happened here.

To see how tough cape buffalo are, at the bottom of their excerpt is a Youtube of the now-famous "Battle at Kruger" video of a baby cape buffalo's encounter with hungry lions and crocodiles.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

Some years back an elephant at a circus in Honolulu killed its trainer and went rampaging through the city streets. It absorbed something like 75 bullets from police pistols before it finally collapsed. Even then it wasn't dead, and had to be finished off with a high-powered rifle.

Imagine going after that with spears?

Anonymous said...

As a old time Scottish safari hunter once said about shooting big game in Africa: "Get as close as you can and then 10 yards closer."

albertosaurus said...

When I was ten I knew that the Cape Buffalo was the deadliest of the African "Big Five" to hunt. I read True magazine. Why didn't Harpending?

It absorbed something like 75 bullets from police pistols before it finally collapsed.

I'm not surprised that that elephant didn't succumb to those 75 pistol shots. Their pacyderm hide is an inch thick. A nine millimeter pistol would barely penetrate. Elephants require elephant guns - big powerful solids that break bones.

What kind of rifle was Harpending carrying? If it ricocheted off the buffalo's scapula it was too light a weapon. He's lucky to have lived through it.

Actually the Bushmen kill Giraffe without guns. They poke them with a poisoned spear and follow them for days as they slowly die. This too sounds pretty dangerous.

I think the most dangerous prey would have been the short faced bear.

Black Sea said...

Quite reminiscent of Hemingway. Did Harpending's wife shoot him in the end?

Vernunft said...

Pistol rounds have something like one-twentieth to one-tenth of the energy a dangerous game rifle round has. Even my .45 is puny compared to a .458 Win Mag; the energy difference is something like 11 to 1, if I recall.

Anonymous said...

Steve those outtakes on the website are material that our editor cut out of the book, not exerpts at all.

Albertosaurus asks "I read True magazine. Why didn't Harpending?"

I had also read True, but at the time I was at Harvard, so of course I knew better! Animals were all really gentle loving creatures deep down. Sure, predators ate prey, but only the sickly and old who really wanted to be eaten anyway. And so on.

Anonymous said...

"Even my .45 is puny compared to a .458 Win Mag; the energy difference is something like 11 to 1, if I recall."

Feast your eyes upon this, the .600Overkill


John Seiler said...

What a great story. But they should make the type easier to read. The blue background doesn't work.

AmericanGoy said...

One of my favorite books, 'Immediate Action', has a tongue in cheek passage about how the world's best trained, aggressive, fingers on the trigger soldiers were reduced to quivering bodies swimming madly for their lives when a hippo attacked and sunk their Zodiac boat.

Hippos are scary.

And 'Immediate Action' is a great book, the career of the SAS man who later became famous in the 'Bravo Two Zero' episode in Desert Storm.

Anonymous said...

It looks like they had ordinary rifles on that elephant (though they don't show the whole process)


Anonymous said...

Henry: What's with the RickRoll in the agriculture section? That's sooo 2008.

Anonymous said...

Can you guys please make sure that this gets on Amazon Kindle?

Anonymous said...

Loved the story. I notice no mention of calibers. I was just reading a bit some time back on Wikipedia about the development of firearms. The stuff about the transition to smokeless powder, and the colonial African hunt for big game rounds and weapons, would've done Harpending a lot of good before going to Africa.

A while before that I read a report by an FBI guy about how gun-stupid Hollywood makes us (that wasn't the author's intent, but it was hard not to notice this fact). The take-home point was that in a gunfight, especially with pistols, one's chance of instantly dropping an opponent are quite low. If you don't destroy your target's central nervous system function (brain or spinal cord), expect return fire. Most fatal wounds leave an eternity (in gunfight time) for response, the time it takes to bleed out basically.

Anonymous said...

Back in the late '50s/early '60s,
Arthur Jones (inventor of Nautilus
equipment) filmed a guy I worked for in those days (Bo Miller) killing a bull African elephant in the wild with a single shot from a .44 Magnum pistol (it was for a TV series, "Bold Journey."

m said...

That elephant rampage was crazy!! Didn't anyone have a mouse to subdue it?

Anonymous said...

In response to several comments, the rifle was a 375 H&H as I recall but I am not sure.

Anonymous said...

How often I heard this type of story in South Africa! The worst seem to be Rhinos.