Hunting has been many things to us over the millennia: means of subsistence, defense of oneself and one’s livestock, training for war, social occasion, macho display, environmental control, personal hobby, unnecessary cruelty.
Let’s start with that “means of subsistence” thing. Although we talk about a type of society we call hunter-gatherers, anthropologists have long noted that would be more apt (albeit wordier) to call them hunter-gatherer-scavenger-collectors — and of those four, hunting is not generally the most important. It gets a lot of attention because spear-points and arrowheads survive well in the archaeological record, and because early archaeologists were men who assumed that of course 1) hunting was a masculine activity and 2) masculine activities were the important ones, but the evidence from modern hunter-gatherers suggests that in most cases, the majority of calories would have come from plant foods. For animal protein, they might collect things like eggs and shellfish, and then there’s snares and the like for small game; only a small percentage is obtained by classic image of creeping through the forest with a bow and arrow in hand. Hunting, especially before firearms, is simply too much of a gamble to be a reliable and sufficient source of food.
And it’s a dangerous gamble. Especially if you’re hunting with a spear — powerful bows being a thing that took millennia to develop, and for some big game they still wouldn’t suffice — then you’re very much putting your own safety on the line every time you go out. Even if you don’t get gored to death by the boar you’re trying to kill, you know what else is out there in the forest or the grass? Other predators. Plant gatherers can travel in groups and make noise, deterring some dangers, but a hunter creeping stealthily along might find out too late that he, too, is prey.
But oddly, that danger is part of why hunting can persist as an activity even when it’s not required for survival. Does a king need to go shoot a deer or spear a boar himself? No . . . but he may need to prove that he’s a strong, skilled man who can do such things. In a society where the king’s personal might at arms matters, it’s a way to demonstrate his strength when there’s no war on, and then the notion of hunting as “the sport of kings” (a phrase originally used for war) persists even once sovereignty is based on other factors.
Hunting declines significantly with the rise of agriculture. Not only are you kept significantly busy with work on the farm, but you’re no longer able to follow game as it migrates or shift to an area with better seasonal resources. Plus, game itself gets harder to find, pushed back by the alteration of the landscape to suit crops instead of wild ecologies. One of the difficulties we have in knowing what prehistoric hunter-gatherer life was like is the change in our environment: the hunter-gatherers that still exist today are generally living on extremely marginal land, and even in wild areas, populations of prey species may have dropped significantly from what they used to be.
Of course, it does depend in part on what you’re designating as prey. A medieval farmer might have plenty of problems with rabbits and birds, and then use snares and peasant weapons like slings to limit their depredations. Do the carcasses wind up in the cookpot? It depends on the society, but yes, quite possibly. One advantage of small game is that children who are of limited use at heavy farm tasks can be sent to check snares or take potshots at squirrels while running other errands, adding a bit of protein to the pot when the adults are busy bringing in the grain.
Be careful with those snares, though. In Europe, as the wilderness got pushed back, areas of “forest” (originally just meaning wild areas designated for hunting, not necessarily covered in trees) came under the control of landholding elites. Taking game in a royal or aristocratic forest without permission was poaching, which might even rise to the level of a hanging offense. Mostly we hear about this in the context of shooting deer — let’s be honest; mostly we hear about this in the context of Robin Hood — but even taking rabbits from someone else’s land could get you into trouble. Can you prove the bunny in your dinner bowl is one you found in your own vegetable garden, not taken illegally from the king’s forest? Though if you’re starving, it might be worth the risk . . .
These days, of course, poaching generally refers to a different type of illegal killing, i.e. that of protected animal species. (Also the taking of protected plant species, and even the damage inflicted on soil and water sources by livestock grazed there illegally; sometimes I learn new things while writing these essays!) The underlying logic is actually similar: you can’t shoot deer in the king’s forest not only because they’re his property and not yours, but because we can’t have him going for a nice afternoon hunt and finding there are no deer for him to shoot. The population is being protected for different reasons, but the goal is still the same.
Sometimes, though, you need to do the opposite of protection. When a species is invasive, hunting can be a necessary measure to reduce or exterminate it locally, in order to defend the rest of the ecosystem. Similar logic has been applied to non-invasive species like wolves, protecting livestock by killing predators — though in the long run, this has led to the collapse of those predator populations, which sometimes means a destructive boom in their prey species, which can wind up devastating the plant ecology, and so the dominoes go. Much of human history is the process of us going “oops, we didn’t realize what that would do” and then scrambling to fix our mistakes.
Hunting is still around today, of course. When properly (and successfully) regulated, it doesn’t have to wreck the environmental balance, and many people still enjoy the test of skill involved in bringing down birds or deer. Even in an industrialized society, some of them might depend on that as a food source: my uncle’s family used to spend all winter eating the venison he brought home.
But other forms of hunting are much harder to defend. When it’s done purely to prove how virile the hunter is — even though he chased down his prey in a jeep and shot it with a high-powered rifle — or to collect a trophy or marketable bit and leave the rest to rot, then all practical justification is stripped away, and what’s left is merely the wanton destruction of life. Hunting itself is not wrong, but some of the reasons for it can be.