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Our hunting journey through the ages takes us to the Middle East, where rivers flowing through vast deserts created fertile valleys where the earliest civilisations began: Sumer, Mesopotamia, Assyria, Akkad and Babylonia. Here too, are the earliest traces of farming and the domestication of animals.

Hunting flourished alongside farming – for sport and subsistence. On the lands kept fertile by the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, wild animals lived in forests roamed in the more sparsely vegetated further away. They included lions, leopards, wild cattle, boar, deer, onager, gazelle, ostrich, vultures and eagles. It was the duty of rulers to protect their people from them and the lion hunt, in particular, became a royal sport.

Commoners were allowed to hunt small game, wild fowl and fish, but the larger beasts were the preserve of the nobility. Their hunting companions were the long, lithe ancestors of the Saluki dogs, whose images adorn pottery found in Susa and dated to over 6000 years ago. They hunt by sight, running down their prey to fell it.

Texts describe major hunting expeditions where kings and courtiers travelled long distances and returned with hundreds of beasts and birds that they enjoyed in great feasts. However, they also brought back live animals to populate royal parks and hunting reserves nearer home. Noble women often joined the expeditions but hunting was really the preserve of men. Little boys would be given small slingshots, spears and bows and arrows just like their fathers’ larger and more sophisticated versions.

During the reign of King Sargon I, about 2350 B.C., the people of Mesopotamia began using the composite bow constructed by gluing together layers of wood from different trees with different elasticity and strength properties. The glues were made from animal bone and sinew. The bow design was so effective that it lasted for centuries. Arrow- and spearheads were attached to the shaft with rope made of animal sinew or plant filaments. In time stone tips were replaced by bronze or iron.

Hunting legends that originated in Mesopotamia have echoes in western culture. A Hungarian legend, for instance, claims that their archery skills were given to them by their ancestors Hunor and Magyar, the sons of the Mesopotamian hero, or deity, Nimrod. Nimrod is mentioned in the Bible as ‘a mighty hunter’ and the architect of the Tower of Babel.

Feasts, too, feature in ancient texts. French Assyriologist, Jean Bottero, discovered the world’s first recipes in Mesopotamian cuisine: spicy meat stews, flavorful duck and vegetable stews, braised turnips, and baked pigeon pies, along with fish, dairy, vegetables and fruits, grains and legumes, washed down with beer, strong wine or water.

By Celine Castelino

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