I should pause for a moment to dispel a few myths. In my leisure time up here on my mountain I read a great deal about what modern men have to say about the past, and there is a popular image that stone-age peoples were a primitive lot. Too many of you picture us dressed in furs, a club over one shoulder, saying, “Ooga Booga” to one another, and dragging our women about by their hair. I would remind you that those are your own ancestors that you belittle. If they were not well adapted to surviving the Ice Age, you would not be here.
Let me ask you, were the native Americans a primitive people? Were the Inuit? They were stone-age people within recorded history, and they were well adapted to living in the natural world. So were we! When we prepared for our mammoth hunt, we kitted ourselves out in the very best that our times could muster.
We did not go around naked, or in ill-fitting furs. Imagine what it is like to live within a few hundred miles of a world of perpetual ice? It doesn’t take people long to figure out sleeves and mittens in a climate like that. We wore full buckskin clothing with fur parkas over that in the coldest weather, and they were beautifully decorated with quills and feathers, even sea shells from the distant coast. Everything was used to its best advantage. Even our hoods were trimmed with wolverine fur, for of all the furs available to us, the mist of our breath would never freeze on wolverine fur.
There is also a popular image of us stampeding mammoths off cliffs, or attacking them as they waded through swamps. Mammoths were much too smart for that. They could see the cliffs and the swamps better than we could from their great height. No, hunting a mammoth was to us like going to war was for later generations: It was an art, and a science, and a great campaign requiring luck and skill, careful planning and more than a little courage.
There was only one reliable way to hunt mammoths, and it began with finding a valley between two high ridges. For all their thick hair, mammoths preferred to stay out of the wind, so they sought the shelter terrain offered them. Also, the grasses and sedges of the ancient steppes of Europe died at the tops of the hills first, so the best grazing by late autumn was always found on valley floors.
An additional consideration was that you could only hunt successfully in a given valley once in several generations. Mammoths somehow remembered where one of their own had died, and they would avoid the same place at the same time of year for longer than a man might live. It was this reluctance on their part –this long memory that is still marveled at in today’s elephants– that led the people who came to call themselves the Jazuz to move to where we lived upon my birth: Wherever they were before, my grandparents and great-grandparents had exhausted the valleys in their area. Killing a mammoth before winter was too great an opportunity to lose permanently, and so my clan moved to the winter cave of my youth when Drew and Natt were babies.
Once we had chosen our hunting valley –-with Jazi’s advice as translated by my father– Natt set us to digging a series of slit trenches in the hard ground with picks made of reindeer antler. This was to be my first mammoth hunt, and I swung my pick with great enthusiasm, tasting the rich meat in my mouth with every stroke into the near-frozen ground. It was back-breaking work, but of vital importance. Our lives depended on these holes, and so we dug them narrow and deep. We took the earth away on skin tarpaulins and dumped them into a stream: The mammoths must see no sign of our excavations for they were wise enough to sense the danger.
When we had dug our holes deep enough to completely conceal ourselves, we crouched and lay at their bottoms, and then we waited. We waited like men hundreds of generations later waited to go over the top and rush machine guns across a barren No Man’s Land. We clutched our spears to our chests, each of us trying to hide both our fear and our boredom from our fellows.
It was typical that we might lie in wait there for a day or two, living off smoked and salted meat from summer hunts of lesser animals until a herd of mammoths moved through the valley that was to be the death of one of them. Those lost days were the cost of securing more than enough meat to see us eat well throughout the winter, and Natt had agreed to commit those days at the clan council.
But the mammoth did not come.
The trenches were within shouting distance of one another, and so as the days went on a debate sprang up. “Where are the mammoths? How much longer must we wait?”
Drew would always say, “Jazi promises they are close!” Mornings went into afternoons, then into evenings. Every time we could see a Jazi eagle overhead through the narrow window of the sky available to us from the bottom of our trenches, my father would repeat, “Not long now! Jazi can see them!”
After five days our supply of food had run out. Thick layers of hoar frost coated us each morning. It was unbearably uncomfortable, crouched in a freezing hold, starving. Natt finally gave up the illusion of his patience. “There are important things to do back at the winter cave, Drew!”
“Not much longer!”
“You’ve been saying that since we got down into these holes!”
“Would you defy Jazi?”
“Jazi can see mammoths, but I can’t.”
“They will come!”
They went on like that for much longer than I will relate to you, their voices growing this and raspy as the yelled back and forth to each other, partly because of the distance, but mostly from anger.
And then I felt it. Where the soft parts of my body were pressed against the cold hard earth, there was a soundless thump, a pulse of pressure as the earth shuddered. Somewhere not far away, a great weight was pressing itself into the ground.
“Silence!” Drew hissed. There could be no more talking: Our prey must not know we were there until it was too late.
The silent thumping grew stronger, and I held my breath for long stretches for fear the steam would rise up from our hole and alert the great beasts. Finally, a shadow was thrown into the top of our trench as something impossibly large blocked the sunlight above us.
I looked into the eyes of my kinsmen, waited for the signal. When? When? How much longer must we wait? The mammoths were here! Why were we waiting? My knuckles ached from clutching the shaft of my long spear; its heavy flint point trembled and jerked through the air above me as my hands shook.
“Now!” Natt bellowed at last.
As one, my clansmen and I burst into motion, rushing as quickly as our stiff muscles would allow. We had to scamper out of our holes as fast as humanly possible. I slipped and skittered my way out of the hole, tossing my spear up out of the trench to use both mittened hands to claw at the earth that had been my unwelcome home for these many days.
It all seemed to happen so fast: I was no sooner above ground then I heard another roaring command, “This one!” Natt had selected the mammoth that was standing between our trenches, and he pointed at it with his spear, waving his hunters forward with the other, urging on more speed, more speed! We must all act as one now, rushing this lone giant before the rest of the herd could recognize the danger we posed and organize the terrifying defense of tusks and trunks and feet that all hunters knew and feared.
Two brave men were tasked with cutting the hamstrings of the hairy elephant with flint axes while the rest of us drove our long spears into that trumpeting fury’s belly. It roared and bellowed and trumpeted and screamed at us, but there was nothing it could do. We were too many and too quick. I thrust my long lance deep into its side until I felt the hot spray of blood on my wrists, then I let go of my weapon, turned around, and ran back to my trench, my arms pumping up and down to give me as much speed as possible. I dove head-first into the trench, and three other men dove in on top of me.
Now the trenches were the key to our survival, for mammoths knew no fear of men, and they could chase down a hunter in a matter of moments to gore us or trample us or toss us high into the air. Out in the open, only surprise had kept us safe. Now the herd was out for our blood as surely as I was soaked to the elbows in the sticky mess of one of their own. Only in the deep trench were our hunters safe, and we cowered there, just out of reach of the mammoth’s grasping trunks, until long after the sun had set.
The sounds in the bottom of that trench were like something out of a nightmare. The valley above us echoed with the anguish of our mortally wounded mammoth, and the squeals of impotent rage and grief of its fellows. Our prey could not move with its hamstrings cut, and so it squatted there between our trenches, moaning and wailing in pain as the spears in its belly slowly weakened and killed it.
The rest of the herd charged up and down, loomed over our trenches, rushed to succor their fallen friend. We all waited for what seemed like an eternity for the drama above us to run its course. We knew that mammoths in their grief could do strange things, and sometimes even after their fallen comrade had finally gone quiet and still, the herd might keep a vigil for several days, hoping against hope that their lost one would rise again.
I lay there with several of my clansmen for three days and nights, starving, waiting, praying, until finally all above us was quiet and still. Only then, only slowly, could we crawl out of our trenches, weak with hunger, to butcher our hard-won kill.
This, too, was a long process. First you had to cut the hide off with a flint knife, doing your very best with trembling hands to get as much of it as possible in one large piece. Then we dug down between the ribs and extracted a heart as big as my torso: This we ate raw, for we needed strength for the difficult tasks still to come.
Some of the hunters went down to a nearby stream and cut down long, straight saplings to make A-frames. We stretched our mammoth hide from this and past kills upon the frame, and then loaded the tarpaulins with meat. Meat! Glorious, wonderful, red meat, that coated us in gore as we worked. There were mountains of it, so that the A-frames each bore more weight than half a dozen men together. That would be the first load, and three quarters of us took it in turns to haul the A-frames up and out of the valley and across the steppes to the winter cave where the Jazuz women had dug a pit into the permafrost to receive it.
Then we returned to the kill, bodies aching, and did it again. And again. Some of us, the lucky ones, traded out with those we had left behind to protect the dead mammoth from scavengers and butcher it further. I was young, so I was not lucky. I made nine trips, pulling my A-frame up and out of the valley, dragging it all the way home and back. Nothing was wasted. We took the long bones to make broth out of the marrow. We took the shoulder blades to make into platters and musical instruments. We took the long tusks to make into ornaments. We took its molars to make into toys. We took the long lines of its intestines to make sausages. We took its eyes to make magic. We took its feet to make into hampers and baskets. We took its sinews to make into cords and bindings. And above all, we took the meat. Every bit of it, for it had been earned at the risk of our lives and so was just as precious to us. We scrapped every morsel of flesh off the bones and loaded them onto our A-frames. When we were done, there was nothing but trampled grass, blackened with old blood, for the jackals to lick clean after our departure.
Update: Part Two is now up, so check it out!