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The history of hunting

Hunting first appeared three million years ago and has remained with us ever since, alongside other food-producing activities such as farming livestock. In the Middle Ages, hunting was the privilege of the nobility, linked with the right to land ownership. After the French Revolution, it was democratised extensively, which lead to considerable damage to the forest ecosystem. It has since become mainly a leisure activity and is now governed by strict laws to protect wildlife and its environment.
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© akg-images - Hunting deer, 15th century

From necessity to a leisure activity: a brief history of hunting

The first human beings lived a nomadic lifestyle and introduced meat to their diet about 3 million years ago. They first ate recently deceased animals and the larvae and insects found on carrion. Later, as they began to look for prey, they devised hunting techniques using rudimentary weapons and stratagems.

Agriculture emerged in the Neolithic era and livestock farming relegated hunting to a secondary role. It became part of a defensive practice aimed at protecting farmers’ crops from animals that would destroy them. However, hunting out of necessity still exists nowadays among some tribes in, for example, Southern Africa, Thailand or Indonesia. In these areas it compensates for food shortages when farming conditions are difficult.

Hunting as a privilege first appeared in Antiquity. While crops and livestock farming covered people’s basic dietary needs, hunting offered a wider choice of meat to the privileged classes. It also had a dual symbolic and social significance: The elites in charge of the armies could demonstrate and prove their abilities as warriors through hunting.

The practice of hunting became codified during the Middle Ages. Being invited to hunt with the King was one of the court’s great honours. In Europe, laws were devised to regulate hunting on royal territory. During that period, forest planning and the privileges granted for their use brought about a proliferation of animals which were harmful to the peasants’ crops. Hunting therefore aimed at eliminating such animals in order to protect the plantations. From the 13th century onwards, theoretical works about wild animals, prey typology and hunting techniques abounded, as did recipes for royal banquets.

Under the reign of Francis I during the Renaissance in France, hunting with hounds became a lifestyle choice. Post-hunt banquets were an opportunity to demonstrate social relationships in court. An example of this was the saving of choice pieces for the guests of honour, thus highlighting the prowess of hunter and cook alike. During this period, hunting became a privilege of nobility, and the right to practise it was directly linked to the right to land ownership. Poaching, which had been relatively well tolerated until then, was now severely punished and non-noble people were formally prohibited from hunting. According to the royal ordinance that came into force in March 1515, hunting was actually seen as a waste of time that should be spent on working the land.

The Revolution abolished this aristocratic privilege and the democratisation of the practice led to a wave of widespread hunting which damaged the forest ecosystem and caused some species to become extinct in certain areas. To preserve wildlife, permits were introduced under Napoleon I, placing limits on when and where hunting could take place. However, in the 19th century, this permit cost a farm labourer the equivalent of one month’s wages, hence hunting became once more the privilege of the well-off classes. This situation encouraged poaching, either for food or to sell commodities derived from animals, such as fur.

Nowadays, hunting is strictly regulated. To obtain a permit, the applicant must sit an exam, and follow other laws such as those governing fire arms. Hunting has mainly become a leisure activity designed to regulate populations of game. In Switzerland for example, it is connected with the autumnal culinary tradition of ‘the hunt’ - although the meat also comes from livestock farming.