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Ancient Falconry  

A new theory pushes the origins of falconry deep into prehistory, perhaps to the end of the last Ice Age around 12,000-10,000 years ago. It may even have been one of the first steps for humans on the road to agriculture.

by Keith Dobney

Falconry has long been regarded as a noble sport, and it has a very ancient pedigree. According to traditional views, people first began to use tame birds of prey for hunting game in central Asia during the first or second millennium BC. Through trade and other contacts, the practice then extended westwards into the Middle East, and eventually to Europe.

But that theory raises a major puzzle. The first artistic views of falconry come not from the Far East, but from Turkey. Several carvings from around 1500 BC show a large bird on the fist of a human figure. Grasped in the same fist is the figure of a hare (presumably the quarry) held by the back legs.

Another, somewhat later, example has been found in northern Iraq. Dated to the period of King Sargon II (722-705 BC), this bas-relief depicts a small bird of prey on the wrist of a man. Significantly, this carving seems to show ‘jesses’ (leather thongs used to secure the bird to the human fist), tied to the bird’s feet and passing between the thumb and forefinger of the falconer. If so, it may indicate that falconry (and its paraphernalia) was well developed by the eighth century BC in the Middle East.

In both cases, some researchers have interpreted these carvings as purely religious or symbolic scenes. But if these examples do indeed depict hawking, then the sport is at least 3,500 years old in Western Eurasia.

New meat on old bones

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Excavation at Quermez Dere in Northern Iraq

Photo - Keith Dobney

Archaeological excavations are now throwing an exciting new light on the origin of falconry in the Middle East, along with new clues to the reasons why – and when – it began. The name of the game is zooarchaeology - the study of the bones of fossil mammals and birds.

In recent years, archaeologists have excavated many early human settlements in Israel, Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Iran which date back to 8000-10,000 BC. Among the remains, they have consistently uncovered the bones of birds of prey. Most researchers interpret these bones as remnants of food left by the humans living at those sites, or as elements of religious activities.

But could there be an alternative explanation? For example, these fragile remains might represent the earliest management and training of living birds of prey - and the possible first faltering steps towards falconry. (The term ‘falconry,’ incidentally, is used to cover all trained birds of prey, not just the birds known as falcons.)

In order to explore this idea further, we need to put these finds into perspective. That means:

  • understanding the significance of other animal bones from these early sites
  • exploring the historical records of falconry, and the current practices of peoples who still hunt with birds of prey
  • placing these data within the environmental and cultural context of the world as it was ten millennia ago.

Late Stone Age diet

Remains from these early sites have surprised archaeologists by revealing the inhabitants exploited a broad and diverse range of mammals and birds. It marks a major shift in human diet. Earlier in the Stone Age, people tended to hunt mainly the larger mammals. But during the short period of human history from 12,000 to 10,000 years ago, the economic focus of hunting in the Middle East appears to shift from large mammal species towards a broader range of food – most importantly, a greater reliance on smaller animals.

The range of mammals and birds remains at all these sites is very similar. They include gazelle, fox and hare, as well as game birds such as partridges, francolins and sandgrouse. Hunters must have been both skilled and versatile in order to catch enough of these small species to feed their settlement. They certainly used a variety of techniques to capture their prey, including trapping, netting, digging and perhaps even poisoning.

Perhaps the birds of prey found at these sites were also part of the repertoire of hunting techniques - an additional means of catching smaller prey species. In other words, was falconry first developed and employed as one of the hunting strategies in the Middle East as early as the late Stone Age?

Which birds were used?

Although we find bones of predator birds and prey species in the same deposits, this doesn’t prove that these birds were used to hunt the prey. As mentioned above, many archaeologists think that the birds of prey were brought into the settlements for religious reasons, independently of the carcasses of other species which were part of the food supply.

But we can gain extra clues from an examination of the different kinds of birds of prey found among the remains. A first analysis seems to indicate a serious flaw in the hypothesis that birds of prey were used for hunting: the majority of the bones belong to the larger birds of prey, such as eagles, buzzards, vultures and eagle owl, while falcons are much less common.

The problem is that most of the larger birds of prey are unsuitable for hunting – at least, according to purists in the world of falconry. The smaller eagles and some buzzards are mainly scavengers and carrion feeders, and will only occasionally hunt live prey. Other large species, like the vulture, can easily be trained to fly to the hand but apparently cannot be made to kill anything. Falconers today generally use a relatively select range of species, all at the smaller end of the size range. These include the larger bird-killing falcons (such as the peregrine, the lanner, the saker and sometimes the gyrfalcon) and the majority of goshawks and sparrow-hawks – precisely the kinds of bird that are rare in the Middle Eastern archaeological sites.

But can we be sure that ancient falconers followed the same practice? All birds of prey can be easily tamed and trained, and present-day falconers in Central Asia, India, and even Europe have trained a whole host of larger birds of prey to fly and hunt, some more successfully than others.

Kirghiz Falconer
Kirghiz falconer with a Golden Eagle

Photo - Keith Dobney

Golden eagles, for example, can be trained to catch something as large and formidable as a wolf. In Uzbekistan, and Khazakstan today, some skilled hunters still depend upon golden eagles to catch hares, foxes and wolves for their skins, which are then sold.Various travellers in Central Asia have described the use of eagles for hunting large quarry. In the thirteenth century, Marco Polo participated in a hunt using eagles with the great Kublai Khan and commented: "He has also a great multitude of eagles which are very well trained to hunt; for they take wolves and foxes and buck and roe deer, hares and other small animals."

In 1559, the European traveller A. Jenkinson reported seeing Tartars using "Haukes" (probably golden eagles) to hunt wild horses and states that "they are used to bewilder the hunted animal." Lieutenant D. Carruthers in 1949 described natives of Tarim using eagles to bring wild pig to bay, so the hunters can close in and club the victim to death. In these cases the eagle has little more than nuisance value, but it's sufficient to confuse the quarry in order to bring it to bay and bag.

Of particular significance are the comments of Aelian (circa. AD 220), supposedly quoting ‘Ctesias the Cnydian.’ Ctesias was court doctor to the Persian King Artexeises II (Mnemnon) in the early fifth century BC. His early treatise on falconry describes the country and customs of the ‘pygmies’, a mysterious people inhabiting some part of Central Asia. He states that "they hunt hares and foxes with crows, yellow-breasted marten cats and with cornices and eagles." (Other translations suggest crows, kites, rooks and eagles were used).

Ctesias also provides details of how these unlikely species were trained to catch hares and foxes. "They catch young eagles and also the young of ravens and vultures, bring them up and train them for hunting. The procedure is as follows. They hang meat on a tame hare or a tamed fox and let it run; then they send the birds after them and permit them to take hold of the meat. The birds try this with all their might, and when they have caught up with the one or the other, they may take the meat as a prize and this for them is a great lure. When they have been brought to precision in this type of hunting, the Indians let them loose on mountain hares and wild foxes. In hope of the usual meal, they chase after the prey which appears, and catch it very quickly."

This description helps to solve another problem for the falconry hypothesis – the presence of vulture remains at these early sites. By their very nature, vultures in the wild are carrion feeders and do not hunt and kill live prey. However, if the remarkable evidence from Ctesias can be believed, vultures appear to have been trained to catch hares and foxes in the fifth century BC.

Vultures can certainly be easily tamed and trained to fly to hand, particularly the Egyptian vulture, which is flown today at several bird of prey centres around Britain. Even if the vultures at these sites weren’t actually used for hunting, falconers may have used them to train smaller birds of prey to hunt the larger ones, a common practice described in the historic literature.

Eagle-owl bones at many of the Stone Age sites add another interesting dimension to the falconry hypothesis. This extremely powerful bird of prey can also be trained to hunt a range of prey, and eagle owls are particularly effective at dusk or even at night. A small group of falconers today use the eagle owl in this way. A Persian treatise on falconry (the Baznama-Yi Nasiri, translated by Lt Col. E. S. Harcourt and Lt Col. D. C. Phillott in 1868) states that "what the golden eagle is to the day, the eagle owl is to the night. Hares and foxes fall an easy prey to it."

Others have described how hunters can use eagle owls - along with other owl species - to lure other large birds of prey to the ground, where they can be captured or killed. This method works very well, particularly if the owl is left disabled or tethered on the ground, where it is invariably attacked and mobbed by other birds of prey.

Falconry and religion

Native American
Native American in Headdress with a Hawk

Photo - PhotosToGo©1999

Several researchers have offered a religious or symbolic explanation for the presence of the numerous bird-of-prey remains at the later prehistoric sites of the Near and Middle East. The idea is supported by the ritualistic importance attached by many cultures in historical times to birds of prey - perhaps the most famous being the Plains Indians of North America, with their large eagle-feather head-dresses. In the vast majority of cases, they practise cultural or religious rituals where wild birds of prey are captured and killed.

Recent evidence from the Kirghiz of Central Asia shows that falconry has played a major role in their religious beliefs. The Kirghiz believed the eagle to be the ancestor of the shaman - the priest who used magic to heal the sick and control the future. Because shamans were believed to be the first hunters, all hunters were also considered to be saints. When a pregnant woman experienced difficulty in childbirth, shamans thought an evil spirit caused her suffering. A strong brave berkhut (tame golden eagle) was brought to her bedside, since the evil spirits were thought to be afraid of its eyes. The killing of a fox by the berkhut was also perceived to be a symbol of fertility.

The hunt itself was also subject to set rituals: "the night before the hunt, the berkutcheu [eagle falconer] washes himself, abstains from any sexual involvement or alcohol and the berkhut is fed only white meat washed to rid it of blood".

So it is quite possible that falconry (the management and training of live birds of prey) may have served a dual spiritual and utilitarian role at these early sites.

Falconry, foraging and farming

Gathering cereals
A woman gathering cereals in Southern Iraq

Photo - Keith Dobney

How can a study of the antiquity of falconry possibly contribute to our understanding of human society and culture in the late Stone Age, as the last Ice Age drew to a close?

This was the period when human groups in the Near and Middle East underwent a radical change in their economic and social life. Archaeological remains testify to one of the most significant events in human history - the shift from a nomadic life of hunting and gathering wild resources to a settled one of farming with the first domestication of crops and livestock. This momentous event led inextricably to a rapid rise in human population, the subsequent emergence of the first major civilisations and a radical re-shaping of the world as we know it.

The sites we’ve been discussing in the Near and Middle East provide significant insights into this transition. The remains contain such a wide range of species that it seems the inhabitants were facing a rapid decline in their food resources - perhaps because they were over-exploiting a hunting territory that was forever diminishing. This is certainly a plausible explanation for these hunters apparently shifting towards smaller, less rewarding, species. It was perhaps the driving force that funnelled many of these groups down the road towards agriculture as their only alternative survival strategy.

Eating smaller species must have meant changes in the way that people hunted them down – and using birds of prey might have been one solution. What’s most intriguing is that this period coincides with the appearance of the domestic dog. Descended from tamed wolves, the dog may have served as a hunting aid and companion. Thus the origins of falconry, developed as an additional hunting strategy (with possible spiritual or religious dimensions), may be linked with the domestication of the dog.

If the bird-of-prey remains at these sites do indeed represent evidence of experimentation with their taming and management, then birds of prey may take their place (along with the dog) as the earliest domestic animals. More important, both must have been extremely influential in setting the scene for the subsequent domestication of the later economically important species - sheep, goat, cattle and pigs.

On the basis of all the available evidence, the significance of bird-of-prey bones recovered from these early sites remains very much open to debate. Whether they simply represent domestic food refuse, symbolic artefacts or the remains of tamed and managed birds, is still far from clear. The idea that birds of prey were domesticated before the advent of agriculture, and may have even contributed to its beginnings, may still be a theory – worthy of further, more critical consideration – but it potentially offers crucial insights into our origins.

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First Science 2014