I-CaveMan: After Party-Part 2
If you missed Part 1 here it is.
The show covered the bulk of the dramas and challenges we faced but one piece that was important did get edited out. When we faced our water shortage, production suggested that we use a skin, get rocks hot and boil the creek water. I argued LOUDLY against this. We had to hump water from the creek to the camp, gather firewood, and then go through the process of actually boiling the water. When you are in a situation like this every action needs a cost benefit analysis and this was (by my calculations) lunacy. While the rest of the group was boiling water, I dug a seep well. To do this you get near a body of water, move to a point say 40 feet (or more) away from the water, but that is a few feet higher than the water. You then dig a well down to the water table where you find cool, filtered, limitless water that is free of pathogens like giardia. It required a massive amount of work to process the one batch of water via the hot-stone method: It consumed a WHOLE DAYS worth of firewood (keep in mind, as we use firewood, we need to move further and further from camp on subsequent trips), it was also highly questionable in my mind whether that boiled water was actually safe. We were at 8,500 feet elevation which would bring the boiling point of water down a good 10 degrees. 200* water is hot, but it would be hard as hell to maintain a rolling boil with the technology we had. In the cost benefit analysis it did not make a bit of sense to boil our water. Most of the camp agreed and ended up drinking out of the sep well (Manu eventually made a pretty nifty filter that made the water go from a bit cloudy to crystal clear) but a few folks would not do it and opted instead for hiking over a mile round-trip to collect snow!! Snow that could still be contaminated by animal droppings and which represented a shocking energy cost in procurement. Now, the points that I think are interesting here are the following:
1-When I made a stink about this waste of energy it was pointed out to me by my (now) dear friend Lora that “everyone’s opinion has equal merit. Lora became as close to me as a sister by the end of the show, but I teased her incessantly that she was the “defender of the little people.” Cultural relativism can really bite you in the ass if you are not careful. All opinions, ideas and belief systems are NOT equal.
2-One of the most vocal reasons given by the main person who would not drink water from the seep-well (opting instead for a mile long hike to collect snow) was that I could not 100% guarantee that the seep well was clean. This was a recurring theme, folks balking at making reasonable decisions because there was not a “100%” guarantee. I’m not sure if my view of things is an outgrowth of being a scientist, pragmatist or part time Zen student, but I see the world as an ebb and flow of probabilities and cost-benefit analysis, with boobs & fannies rounding out the fun stuff. Some other folks seem to operate with a notion of certitudes that (in my world view anyway) do not fucking exist.
I think this is why politicians just lie to their constituents because even if you give people good information, they just make a bad decision anyway! I was not going to lie about the “100% certainty” of the well being clean, but it looks like I should have. The snow collector was one of the folks who left the show early due to exhaustion and fatigue.
Winding down and the final hunt
Day 6-We moved camp and Amy left. Day 7-We had an unsuccessful hunt and Robert left. I installed about 5 traps that day and was so tired every damn step was a terrible struggle. Sleep was pretty bad for everyone. The shelters were cold and cramped, tending the fire was nerve wracking (you’d fall asleep, wake up cold about 45 min later when the fire had died down…you’d scramble to get it going again then drift off for another 45 min repeating the whole process) and we were all REALLY hungry. I really wanted to quit on day 7 but I knew I was up on the hunting rotation for the morning of day 8 and I’d resigned myself to the notion that if we did not find anything I was going to curl up under my firs, gather firewood and not do a damn thing beyond that.
Day 8-We got up about 3:30 am and made our way to the area we’d seen the Elk on previous days. The temperature was about 34*F with a nice brisk wind blowing. We set up an ambush position in an area the elk used to migrate from the low valley region to higher foraging on the mountain. When we first hunkered in we knew that the wind was not blowing in our favor, but we spent about an hour there. I focused on keeping my throwing hand warm and pliable but the cold flat sucked. We finally gave up on the ambush idea and made our way up-hill using the sage and other low bushes as cover. I will say this: moccasins and leather clothes are pretty damn quite to move in. The wind direction held and what had been our nemesis now became our ally as we saw the elk herd up the mountain and the wind was blowing over them, towards us. We snuck up as close as we could, got into positions and let a few darts fly. I went high with my first dart, as did Billy. I had one more dart, sighted in on a big elk and tried to throw as hard, but smoothly as I could. Part of what the atlatl does is store energy in the dart via the spine, which is released upon launch. If you remember Lamar’s throw from Revenge of the Nerds, this is what it looks like. At release I could see the dart flexing up and down, then in flight the turkey feathers acted as rifling which caused the whole dart to rotate in flight. The elk I was aiming for was flank to me, beginning to turn away…I was sighting in on the shoulder, hoping to just get enough of a wound that we could persistence hunt and one of the other folks could get in some good shots. The dart actually impacted in the neck of the elk with enough impact to whip it’s head around. This whole process was about 2-3 seconds max, I was about 35-40 yards away…and time slowed down so much I felt like I could have thrown the dart, had a cup of coffee and answered emails, still being in time to witness the impact (or miss). I did not have a bit of adrenaline going into the whole thing which is surprising to me. I’m not one of the “cool under pressure” folks that I tend to admire. I’m always nervous before public speaking, usually need to void everything south of my clavicles in athletic events. I’m not sure if it was the fatigue or the knowledge that we HAD to be successful on this hunt…but everything clicked.
This is a picture of the dart-head which the tip broke off in the ventral vertebral column.
When the dart hit the elk I was not sure as to the severity of the injury but I was quietly elated…we might just eat that day and avoid 2 more days of starving. We started following the elk from a distance and after about 25-30 min it collapsed, apparently from blood loss. Manu and Billy finished the elk, which I think was shown pretty clearly in the show.
Killing that beautiful animal was really, really heavy. As I said in the beginning, I’ve hunted in the past, I have experience with this stuff, but it is always hard. I do NOT see humans as having an ordained “dominion” over the other critters on this planet. In my head we operate more as equals and that means I take my actions and how they impact the world around me pretty seriously. I’ll probably regret writing that but it’s how I view the world, so I’ll take my licks as they come. Manu is half Maori and very…spiritual. She said a prayer over the elk and we just took the enormity of the whole situation in. Then, Billy reminded us that we needed to dress out the Elk. Despite the low temperatures, if we did not get going we’d end up ruining the meat from the enormous amount of heat contained in it’s body. Billy had fashioned a stone tool butchering kit that was incredibly effective. We took out the internal organs, quartered the animal and left the rest for production and the ranch to process (everyone was eating elk for a long time).
Some folks had questions about the Elk herd that I should address. This was a private ranch, over 16,000 acres. The herd is fed some grain in the winter but is otherwise left to forage and run free. The elk are not tame and tend to startle and flee pretty easily as was evidenced by the previous 7 days of failed hunting. Dr Kurt Harris was kind enough to do a write-up on the show and he received a few questions/comments to the effect that the Elk might have been tranquilized! Ah…the fucking internet and never-ending-arm-chair experts. For you folks, here is the real story: The show never happened, it was all CGI…just think about it like CaveMan Avatar, k?
We each hefted a quarter (Morgan and I with a fore-leg (I’m guessing about 70-80lbs), Billy took a hind-quarter which was easily 130-150 lbs, while Manu took the heart, liver and a few other choice cuts we took off the elk. The whole butchering process took about an hour, with everyone of us sounding like we were running uphill…it was really hard work. The stone tools started off very sharp but were pretty dull near the end, we just made do as best we could. When we got back to camp production wanted us to start making jerky out of all the meat. I told them to go pound sand. We had several snow-fed creeks within 200 yards of the camp in which we cached the meat. Left in this state, barely above freezing in oxygen poor water the meat could last for weeks or months. This monkey was through dancing, I was ready to eat and relax, not make jerky for 12 hours.
Afterthoughts on the experiment
There are a few things I want to comment on that will address some questions and comments that folks made regarding the show. The first is that this should NOT have been this hard. Even with our relatively poor skill-sets relative to legitimate hunter-gatherers, if we had been at a lower altitude the problems of forage and cold would have been effectively removed. One of the scientists associated with the show made the point that natives in that area would have been camped perhaps 5,000 feet lower at that time of year so they could take advantage of berries, spawning fish and a larger amount of game. Production picked a beautiful location that was effectively a desert. I knew this going in but accepted it as the inherent limitations of the experiment, but it painted the foraging life-way more harshly than is accurate. The idea of the experiment was to see if modern humans, given a modicum of training, could survive with stone-age tools. I think we proved that we can. Now imagine if we had skills that were given to us from an unbroken line of experts extending back to antiquity. What if we knew where to be at a given time of year, outstanding stalking and hunting skills…and everyone collected their fair share of fire wood! There were a couple of folks that I’d see doing crunches and push-ups when I rolled back into camp from laying traps, or collecting fire wood. I kind of lost it on these occasions and would start yelling “firewood: Better than crunches!!” I was not a complete dick about this but it was damn frustrating, and I suspect you’d NOT see that type of behavior last too long in an HG group.
Related to the hunting/skill-sets/foraging I’m pretty stoked that this experiment pretty clearly illustrates the idea of “optimum foraging strategy.” In this scenario you must be keenly aware of how much energy you expend relative to what you bring in. The clear winner, at least in this peri-glacial/alpine environment was hunting. The uninitiated tend to parrot something to the effect “hunting is hard, our ancestors just collected plants…they are easy to find…” Uh, yea…you will also starve simply collecting those easily had plants!! Stable isotope studies show early H. Sapiens to be nearly as carnivorous as obligate carnivores. Obviously this varies based on location, latitude and season, but not only was it clear that we COULD hunt big game effectively, but that in many situations this would be the ONLY way to make a go of a given area.
Back to the Elk: For folks familiar with hunting there are various standards such as the Boone & Crocket criteria for judging big game. The anthropologists are still researching this topic, but it appears the elk I (we) killed is the largest land animal taken with an atlatl in between 15,000-40,000 years. This is because bow and arrow technology replaced the atlatl immediately upon exposure to new populations. At present there is no official standards for the atlatl like those that exist for rifle and bow hunting, but when those are formalized it looks like we may be at the top of the list.
If you recall (if you still care at this point…how the hell did this get so long) I recommended that production track some biomarkers and see how they changed pre-post experiment. I’m not sure if they already had this idea or acted on my recommendation, but they did track some blood work. I lost 16lbs over the course of the experiment (the initial 8 days actually) but did not see a remarkable shift in my blood work. Several of my cast mates saw shocking decreases in triglycerides and blood sugar, with an increase in HDL and decrease in LDL. Everyone lost weight on the show, whether they hunted, gathered or opted for crunches & pushups! I actually went into the experiment in ketosis, anticipating the starvations conditions we’d face. I never had foggy-headedness typical of a transition from carbs to ketosis, just the lassitude that accompanies starvation. On an interesting note all of my cast mates suffered extremely chapped lips…like hideously so. I never had this problem. Not sure if it was my sun exposure, antioxidant rich food intake or I got lucky, but some of folks were in absolute agony from their chapped lips.
Something I found interesting was that the fitness demands of hunting and gathering was much more “low gear” oriented than some kind of CrossFit, glycolytic melt-down. I had to go REALLY hard at a task perhaps two times in 10 days, the rest of the time was constant slogging up and down hills, and you carry shit EVERYWHERE. I did NOT see a need for remarkable athleticism. We did not parkour our way through the trees and in fact, one minor injury I had made it clear that too much bravado in the ancestral environment would likely get you dead rather quickly. I had a piece of flint get stuck in my right index finger perhaps 2 weeks before the experiment started. By day 5 of the experiment it was infected and about 2x normal size. The doctor on the show actually put me on antibiotics as I was beginning to develop infiltration into the connective tissue and things could go bad quickly. This is case in point for the low average lifespan for HG’s. Left alone, this could have turned into a debilitating, possibly fatal situation without antibiotics. Aptitude making weapons, shelter, tracking and hunting were mega important. Reasonable general fitness was important. A solid ability to asses risk/reward scenarios was perhaps as important as the skill sets…maybe inseparable from them.
I’ve only had one person attack me about the show and the killing of the elk. Donna Barstow (a cartoonist) somehow came across the comments about the elk hunt and posted the snippet below to twitter, using Red-Neck the way someone might wield a racial slur. I asked Donna if she had actually SEEN the show. She had not, and somehow took my comments on twitter to be a bunch of chest-beating bravado! The internet is full of angry, petty, ill-informed people. I think I’d have a large glass of hemlock-extract before having dinner with this woman.
Would I do it again?
Yes…but with a caveat. I’ve been approached to do 2 other shows and one longer movie type piece since this experiment and I ended up taking a pass on them all. The reason for this is that although I think Discovery did a great job on this show, I’m not going to work on anything that I’m not involved on the production side. This is the reason I went with Victory Belt when publishing my book (they gave me full control of the finished product). I want a project to be good or bad based on my efforts and I think there is a lot more story to tell here, so If I do something it will be in a production role.
Now, this may sound todo loco but I MISS living that experience every single day. My cast mates became the closest thing to family that I’ve experienced since childhood. One minute I’d want to wring someone’s neck, the next moment I was on the ground laughing. I also loved the simplicity of the existence. No email, no social networking, no god-damned multi-tasking (I fracking HATE multi-tasking). I’d work on making darts from willow branches and if it took 6 hrs to do a project, you just sat down and did it. No interruptions. I slept outside on the ground, got to see the stars. Aside from hunger and missing my wife it was awesome. I value experiences and being around people I love, this show brought all that into sharp focus. We have a brief time on this planet, live it the way you want to, with the people you care about.