Historic hunters roamed 10,000 years ago

By Dr. Terry L. Jones
Journal Correspondent

Louisianians have been hunting ever since the first humans wandered into this area more than 10,000 years ago. The Earth was locked in the Ice Age at that time, and Sportsman’s Paradise looked much different from today. Large rivers like the Mississippi and Red did not exist yet and vast expanses of grassland covered the state. Huge megafauna such as mastodons, horses, camels, saber-tooth tigers, and big-horned bison roamed the land.

Louisiana’s original inhabitants are known as Paleo Indians and they hunted these strange beasts, although we know little about their hunting techniques. Most likely, they ambushed the megafauna from close range, and repeatedly stuck them with spears tipped with stone points.

Clovis Points are the diagnostic point for the Paleo period. These thin spear points are shaped like willow leafs and appear to have been designed for stabbing, withdrawing, and stabbing again.

Evidence of these hunts are sometimes found. When construction workers uncovered a mastodon skeleton in Lafayette a number of years ago, archaeologists found two beautifully made Paleo spear points lying nearby. Farther north, an acquaintance of mine found a deeply buried Clovis point in Winn Parish lying near an Ice Age horse tooth.

When climate change ended the Ice Age approximately 6,000 B.C., the megafauna died out and the myriad animals we see today replaced them. Forced to change, as well, the Paleo Indians evolved into what are known as the Archaic Indians. A hunter/gathering strategy worked better in the new world, and the Indians survived by hunting and fishing, and gathering nuts, shellfish, and berries.

The atlatl was the Archaic Indians preferred weapon. About eighteen inches in length, it has a grip on one end and a bone or antler hook on the other. The back of a dart, which looks like an oversized arrow, is inserted into the hook, and the dart and atlatl are held together in the hunter’s hand. The hunter extends his arm far behind his head (like a pitcher winding up for a throw) and swings the atlatl overhead, releasing the dart. An atlatl dart travels much farther and faster than a thrown spear. (To see an atlatl in action go to https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/yukon-atlatl-ice-patches-1.4809947

Atlatl darts were made differently from Paleo spear points. Instead of being streamlined for stabbing, they tend to have barbs and shoulders on them. These were probably added to make the point stay in the animal and bleed them out as they ran. The vast majority of what are generically called “arrowheads” are actually atlatl points.

Around 2,000 B.C., Louisiana Indians entered the Neo cultural phase, and slowly began developing permanent villages and agriculture. Out of this culture evolved the Caddo, Choctaw, N atchez, Chitimacha, Houma, and other historic Indian tribes who largely replaced the atlatl with the bow and arrow.

While we may never know the exact hunting techniques used by the Paleo and Archaic Indians, we know a lot about the historic Indians because French and Spanish explorers encountered them and recorded what they saw. No doubt, these Indians were using many of their ancestors’ hunting tactics.

All historic Indians had great respect for nature. They believed man was a part of the natural environment, just like the animals he hunted, and revered them for helping to sustain life.
Many Indians said a prayer over their felled prey to thank it for its sacrifice and to ask for forgiveness. The Choctaw even had chiefs who governed deer hunting.

Indians tribes also revered animals for religious reasons. As a result, some avoided certain species that they considered sacred. The Houma, for example, did not eat crawfish because it was their tribal totem, and the Koasati (Coushatta) did not eat deer or turkey.

One activity that surprised the explorers was how Indians purposefully manipulated the environment with fire, much like today’s controlled burns in the piney-woods and marsh country. Annual burnings cleared the underbrush, killed ticks and other vermin, and created browse for deer.

Everywhere they went, the explorers marveled at how much of Louisiana resembled an open European park.

Similar to modern hunters using food plots to supplement the animals’ nutrition, Indians also planted the seeds of plants that deer and other wildlife liked to eat.

The Indians were also protective of their hunting grounds just like modern-day hunting club members. At modern-day Baton Rouge, the Houma and Bayougoula erected a red pole (“baton rouge” in French) to separate their respective hunting lands. A Frenchman noted, “These two nations were so jealous of the hunting in their territories that they would shoot at any of their neighbors whom they caught hunting beyond the limits marked by the red post.”