Subsistence Hunting — When Life Was Hard (Part 2)

Pennsylvania wildlife artist Jack Paluh specializes in Native American art. Here he depicts a subsistence hunt were eastern American Indians ambush whitetail deer. Contributed by Jack Paluh

Contributing Writer
Steve Sorensen

Long ago (but not so far away) subsistence hunting was the only kind of hunting, and it made the difference between life and death. People needed to eat, so they hunted. Killing an animal was not a wished-for outcome, it was an immediate necessity. Success meant a family, or a tribe, would survive for another day, another month, another winter.

Subsistence hunting was practiced by the indigenous people in North America prior to the arrival of Europeans. It was also practiced by settlers in the “new world.” On this vast continent humans were few in number, and the impact of their unregulated hunting was slight.

In various geographies and climates across the continent, methods varied because habitat and wildlife varied. Plains Indians rode horses into a herd of bison, shooting them with stone-tipped arrows. Woodland Indians of the east drove deer to fellow tribesmen waiting in ambush. Sometimes they used fire to drive the animals.

Their effect on wildlife was negligible. The natives of the land took only what they needed, but it is part of the mythology of primitive societies that nothing was wasted. Their technology was deadly, but inefficient, and their methods sometimes meant they killed more than they could use. Wooden arrows were heavy and slow, and bows were weak compared to today’s archery equipment. A stone-tipped arrow couldn’t penetrate very far through the thick hide of a 3,000 pound bison, so the more arrows they put into the animal the more likely they would recover it. Some animals wandered off, died, and could not be claimed.

Life was hard in these societies. Failure was not an option. Survival was a full-time occupation and people subsisted on what they could kill, or gather, or grow.

By contrast, most wildlife is managed at the state level today, but many state regulations still permit subsistence hunting by descendants of those hardy and resourceful Native Americans, which honors tribal and cultural heritage.

Subsistence hunting is the earliest form of hunting and almost no one objects to it because it’s inseparable from a lifestyle, and was necessary for the survival of people living in pre-industrialized societies. The effect of these few people on the wildlife they depended on was minimal, with little impact on animal populations.

Today, few argue to end subsistence hunting because doing so would force these people to violate something they view as sacred, and would drive others to extinction in third-world cultures because they lack the tools and the technology to grow and preserve massive amounts of food. Their lives are simple, and in terms of diet might they be better off than many people in advanced societies.

Historically, subsistence hunting had no bag limits and no seasonal regulations. Whatever regulations it had were built-in. A full stomach is a satisfied stomach. A winter’s supply of meat — dried, salted, or however it could be preserved — was the limit. Taking more than one could use was not a matter of ethics. It was simply counterproductive, because taking excess would tax the resources needed for shelter, or gardening, or gathering. Here in modern times, subsistence hunting is more regulated because it must exist alongside modern wildlife management.

So, most people accept subsistence hunting. We romanticize it, and we laud those who practice it as uncorrupted by industrial society. We even suggest they are somehow purer than their modern counterparts, despite the fact that we’re all part of the same flawed human race.

So my guess is that you are not against the type of hunting we know as subsistence hunting. In fact, you probably count yourself in favor, even strongly in favor. We see a positive value in subsistence hunting, and it lets us appreciate that hunting is history.

When “The Everyday Hunter” isn’t hunting, he’s thinking about hunting, talking about hunting, dreaming about hunting, writing about hunting, or wishing he were hunting. If you want to tell Steve exactly where your favorite hunting spot is, contact him through his website, He is a field contributor to Deer and Deer Hunting magazine, and won the 2015 and 2018 national “Pinnacle Award” for outdoor writing.