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Ancient Man feasted on megafauna. From mammoths to every variety of deer and flightless bird humans have made the most of large wildlife, to the point of tragic excess. So what happens when the animal provides no good meat, no fine furs, and is unsuited for domestication?

How would pre-industrial humans exploit a large population of megafauna that they are simply unable to consume?

Preconditions:

  • These animals are toxic for human consumption due to bioaccumulation.
  • They are the dominant herbivores and are found in abundance.

So why would people want to hunt animals that they can’t use for food, and don’t have pretty furs or ivory?

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    $\begingroup$ What happened to the wolves and bears of western Europe? What happenned to the cave lions? To the cave bears? What is happenning to lions and tigers? Where are the Tasmanian tigers? A large animal which "provides no good meat, no fine furs, and is unsuited for domestication" is a competitor and will be extirpated. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jan 22 at 12:41
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    $\begingroup$ Rhino... horn... medicine? it's just sad. $\endgroup$ – user6760 Jan 22 at 13:20
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    $\begingroup$ Can it be trained? Not even necessarily highly trained, just trained up to "when we untie you, run in a predictable direction". Because if so, somebody will try to use them to kill other people. $\endgroup$ – user3482749 Jan 23 at 0:33
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    $\begingroup$ if they have crops they will kill anything that tries to eat said crops. $\endgroup$ – John Jan 23 at 1:10
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    $\begingroup$ "don’t have pretty furs" People didn't give a shit about the prettyness of fur until pretty late. Fur keeps warm, no matter how ugly. And if the hair on the skin aren't suitable for dress, then you remove them and work the skin into useable leather $\endgroup$ – Hobbamok Jan 23 at 10:07

17 Answers 17

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Bones, Sinews, leather and Glue.

No matter what the creature, if it's large, you can make use of it.

Megafauna means big. There is a lot of material there, even if you aren't gonna eat it.

So the bones. Long bones will provide a building material of various uses, be it a tent support, a handle for a club or axe, or you could use the ribs to make armor. A large animal is going to have plenty of useful bones.

Sinews. A big animal is going to have long sinews that will be useful for creating good, heavy duty cordage. It could also be used for bowstrings. Anything that requires cordage that doesn't stretch much.

Leather. Even if the pelt is not pretty, it is probably fairly tough. Leather was used for practical stuff long before it was a fashion accessory. Since this is Megafauna, a good skin could be used for a tent. The fewer seams in a tent, the better it can retain heat, so a very large skin is great. In addition, Boiled Leather makes a very good armor. Lets not forget about using the skin for boats.

Glue. Animal glues have been in use for thousands of years. Extended boiling of connective tissues renders it down into something strong, light, and even waterproof.

Others have talked about territory, competition for resources, and so on. The usefulness of the carcass, even without the meat, gives plenty of reasons to Hunt the beastie down.

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    $\begingroup$ Great answer. And the meat isn’t useless. Something eats these critters. The meat can be used as bait. That other thing may be edible. $\endgroup$ – SRM Jan 22 at 18:48
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    $\begingroup$ If you don't want to kill the animals, dung is also a potential material. If it is dry enough it can be used for fuel, and big animals mean big dung deposits. $\endgroup$ – D.Spetz Jan 22 at 21:15
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    $\begingroup$ you can add rendered fat for fuel and lubrication, everything from early steam engines to wagon axles were greased with pig fat. tallow candles have been around for forever. $\endgroup$ – John Jan 23 at 1:08
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    $\begingroup$ Prettiness is in the eye of beholder. Crocodile hide is awfully ugly, still found its fashion use. $\endgroup$ – alamar Jan 23 at 11:57
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    $\begingroup$ @SRM And even if the meat is 100% toxic to all life forms, that doesn't make it useless. On the contrary, they would be a source of poison that could be used as a weapon to take down other potentially edible beasts. (Just throw out the tainted bits around the wound, and the rest is good eatin'.) Or it could be used to defend against predators or hostile neighboring tribes. $\endgroup$ – Darrel Hoffman Jan 23 at 14:55
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So why would people want to hunt animals that they can’t use for food, and don’t have pretty furs or ivory?

As long as an animal is seen as a menace, it will be hunted down. And, well, all animals defend their territory if needed. You don't eat a bear, but if you wander around its cubs be sure it will pat you in the face hard with his cute "little" paws.

And that pat is a menace for us, so us humans will hunt down bears. That holds for any large animal.

And lacking the menace there is always the mindless fun. I have seen hunters shooting down harmless bats just for the sake of testing the freshly cleaned rifle.

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  • $\begingroup$ There’s definitely a point to be had in sport. I wasn’t sure if perhaps they could use it to make leather on a large scale or maybe as fertilizer or bait $\endgroup$ – NixonCranium Jan 22 at 12:47
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    $\begingroup$ As supporting evidence: There is currently a $1000 bounty on grey wolves in Idaho because the wolves are killing elk in designated "elk recovery areas". $\endgroup$ – Luke Jan 22 at 17:34
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    $\begingroup$ Just FYI, you can absolutely eat bear meat. $\endgroup$ – Avi Cherry Jan 22 at 20:53
  • $\begingroup$ @AviCherry - just don't eat their livers: "Other compounds that are not normally considered toxic can be accumulated to toxic levels in organisms. The classic example is of vitamin A, which becomes concentrated in carnivore livers of e.g. polar bears" $\endgroup$ – Mazura Jan 23 at 2:46
  • $\begingroup$ Bioaccumulation : "One example is the tobacco hornworm, which concentrates nicotine to a toxic level in its body as it consumes tobacco plants" - that's absolutely unacceptable. These things have got to go, +1. $\endgroup$ – Mazura Jan 23 at 2:46
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With any animal, there's more than just meat and furs, here is a list of uses of general animals

  1. Food
  2. Clothing
  3. Work/Transport
  4. Science
  5. Medicine
  6. Hunting
  7. Pets
  8. Sport
  9. Art

Many of these are removed by your conditions, Furs can still be used even if they do not look very nice

Medicine - Not 100% sure how this applies, guess it depends on the type of animal. Even if they are toxic that might still have a use in waging war

Science - They could be studied in many applications

Sport - Hunting for sport pretty self explanatory

Art - Bones can be used as quills? the blood can sort of be used to dye clothing

In addition to those you stated that they are in abundance. Due to this they may want to hunt them just to lower their population to make space for farms or other town expansions

see source for more

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  • $\begingroup$ Good point on hides still being useful even if unaesthetic $\endgroup$ – NixonCranium Jan 22 at 12:48
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    $\begingroup$ At last someone mentioned using bone. Given your megafauna "ivory" tusks and suddenly they're killed for the construction of luxury goods... piano keys, chess pieces, billiard balls, handles (door, weapon)... lots of stuff. $\endgroup$ – Mark Storer Jan 22 at 13:22
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    $\begingroup$ Please add religion to your list. Worshiping as totems is pretty common. $\endgroup$ – SRM Jan 22 at 18:36
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Reputation. If the creature is dangerous, killing it might accomplish something valuable to an individual in the community, for example marking the moment a child becomes an adult, or to be considered a fully fledged hunter.

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  • $\begingroup$ This was a common thing for megafauna throughout the globe (e.g., some groups in Africa still do this with lions) and it still didn't save them from getting persecuted to near-extinction. It's what wiped out the Atlas bear and lions in most of Europe, among other things. Indeed, one (debated) hypothesis as to why megafaunal predators died out is that humans might have targeted them for prestige in addition to general competition. $\endgroup$ – user2352714 Jan 22 at 18:36
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Ecological succession.

The Herd rules this world. Where the herd has passed, nothing remains. Thorns and toxins which dissuade lesser herbivores are eaten with disregard. Trees are uprooted and bark stripped. Roots are pulled from the ground. The earth is torn and trampled. The Herd is like a fire, travelling a destructive and voracious circuit around this planet that takes a decade to complete.

But the Herd is not a fire. Much of the biomass that was in a place remains in the place - passed in dung and urine, or in the carcasses of Herd members when old or sick ones die. In the wake of the Herd, the churned earth springs to new life.

Humans follow in the wake of The Herd. The brambles and shady woods that lie before the Herd are of little use to humans but after the earth has been plowed and fertilized, seeds spring to life and tender shoots and greens grow. Lesser herbivores follow the Herd as well to take advantage of the surge of growth, and these animals make good prey for the humans.

The ecosystem of this world is governed by the Herd, which turns over the old and makes way for the new. In this role, the Herd is vital to humans and everything else.

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Anthropologically speaking, when humans have come across an animal that had no useful purpose to us, and that was a threat to us in some way, directly or indirectly, we have hunted that animal to extinction if at all possible. It's what we do.

One has only to look at the British Isles for proof of that; bears, wolves and large cats were all extinct on the islands as of the 16th Century, with bears being one of the top priorities of medieval Celts. Bears are only barely trainable if you raise them from cubs, you definitely wouldn't call them domesticated in that state any more than you'd say the same for a cougar or tiger in a zoo, and the meat of most predators went out of fashion as a foodstuff in Western culture centuries ago (though it remains a delicacy among native American nations and in East Asia). And the Eurasian brown bear, close cousin to American subspecies like the Grizzly and Kodiak, is more than a match for even the strongest humans in close combat.

So, the Celtic Britons made it a point to kill every one they found, which resulted in the Eurasian brown bear's extinction throughout the British Isles by the 10th Century. Wolves and lynx were lower priorities, more a threat to cattle and sheep than humans themselves, but that threat was still sufficient to cause those species' extermination on the Isles by the Tudor dynasty. The Brits and Irish had subsequently made good headway on the next lower tier of predators, the fox, badger and wildcat, before conservation mentalities gained steam in the late 1800s.

Exterminating similar species on the European mainland and in North America was a much bigger ask, and quite thankfully, we didn't manage it entirely before the concept of environmental conservation and the continued dependence of man on the wild food web became mainstream about the turn of the 20th Century with the development of groups like the SPCA and Sierra Club. The UN CITES treaty and member nations' implementations of it such as the US Endangered Species Act have stemmed the tide on systematic hunting, but there's still more of it than we want there to be, and prior to these efforts we made quite a go of it.


So, back in your world, a large herbivore that is poisonous to eat by a mechanism not destroyed by cooking (at least not without destroying the meat itself), that is not domesticable in any meaningful way as a working or fur-bearing animal, and that is in any way threatening to humans even on an "I'm standing my ground to protect my family group" basis, is going to find itself on a shortlist for extermination in any time period prior to about the early 20th Century of the real world. Anything that can tolerate these herbivores' toxin and so preys on them for food is probably a threat to us and our domestic livestock as well, so depriving them of a primary food source and putting pressure on the predators' numbers is just another benefit to having the toxic herbivores gone. Even in more enlightened times, anyone saying the toxin could be the cure for cancer is likely to be shouted down; if the species is preserved at all it would be purely for the sake of conserving a diversity of wildlife.

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Competition

If the megafauna eats plants that (much more tasty) domesticated herbivores eat, then it's a safe bet that the megafauna will be either driven off the land or killed.

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TL;DR: The materials in their bodies are great for uses other than consumption.

Here are their uses:

  1. Furniture. Due to their size, they will by necessity have large bones. The size of the bones would make them useful for making furniture.

  2. Weaponry. The abundance of useful bones will also make it really easy to make bone clubs and hammers. These will probably be abandoned once your culture reaches gets firearms, but they will be very useful early on.

  3. Leather. Here's a useful Fact of Life: The bigger your creature, the more tough its hide has to be. As a result, even if leather made from the pelt isn't pretty, it will still be incredibly useful for things like tents and armor.

  4. Glue. Depending on the physiology of your hypothetical megafauna, its tendons could be useful for making glue. As a result, you're human society would not need to send horses to the glue factory. This would jibe well with animal lovers.

  5. Bug repellent. Chances are, if your creature is poisonous to humans, it will also be poisonous to other things. As a result, I would not be surprised if your hypothetical society uses your megafauna's blood instead of DEET. Of course, this would be really messy, but there have been some pretty nasty bug repellents over the years.

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Competition

The animals tend to eat whatever humans are growing in their fields. It's not fun to lose the year's harvest and have your family starve because of some quadrupede bugger, so you off them on sight.

Fences would normally do to keep animals away from the crops, but this is megafauna we're talking about. So hunting is the next most viable option.

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Food for a domesticated species which assists humanity with hunting. Dogs can safely eat food which would kill humans. They can also be used as hunting aids. We don't want the dogs to eat the good animals, and the herbivores in question are too large for dogs to kill, so humans kill your megafauna to provide sustenance to their hunting companions.

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Somebody sed using the fat as fuel; don't forget whales - fat used for lamps, and it used to be a component in WD-40.

There's one more: If I park a bear in my front yard, I expect the number of robberies to markedly plummet. Foo you say, but Guard dogs...

Drug sniffing dogs.

Hunting should include hawking; not really mega? I don't know if any hawkers have ever tried to train a condor... it would make an awesome plot element in a fantasy novel anyway

OH, and in the Island of the Blue Dolphins the girl used whale ribs as a fence.

And in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, they got inside the carcass of a big animal to keep from freezing to death

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    $\begingroup$ I was going to comment on Whales here, They're megafauna that's unsuited to domestication, generally not considered good eating (you can eat it, but it's not particularly good) and a lot of effort to hunt. There are so many other uses for them that they're still hunted today. $\endgroup$ – Ruadhan Jan 23 at 9:02
  • $\begingroup$ @Ruadhan, I thought of whales as well! Baleen and whale oil had enormous industrial importance in the US and Europe (and perhaps beyond) in the 18th and 19th centuries, if I understand right. I'm not sure about the claim that whales are "generally not considered good eating," though. I have the impression that whale meat, whale oil, and blubber are staple foods in many places, and that food has been a primary product of whaling throughout most of history (with the 18th and 19th centuries as notable exceptions). $\endgroup$ – Vectornaut Jan 23 at 17:24
  • $\begingroup$ Industrialized whaling was all about the oil, but subsistence hunters needed the meat. $\endgroup$ – arp Jan 24 at 9:56
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I like the other answers.

Buffalo were shot by the thousands from trains that were just passing through, just to see if you could bring down a buffalo in one shot. Many buffalo hunters only took the tongues. The herds went from millions to thousands in just a few years.

So why do it: fun, sport, excitement, practice with a gun, etc.

The majority of large predators were killed in Utah as it was rapidly settled and the predators were a threat to people's herds. Brigham Young sent Porter Rockwell and a large group of hunters out to get rid of the pests. The populations of cougars, bears, wolves, etc. were seriously depleted within half a year. -Porter Rockwell, a biography

So, why do it: to protect your flocks and way of life.

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    $\begingroup$ This isn't really an answer. $\endgroup$ – SE is too politically correct Jan 22 at 23:27
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    $\begingroup$ Since the question was, "So why would people want to hunt animals that they can’t use for food, and don’t have pretty furs or ivory?" It gives two examples of why people have done it in the past. What part of the question is not answered? $\endgroup$ – R Hansen Jan 23 at 22:42
  • $\begingroup$ This does not explain why your intrepid hunters do it, you're just saying that they do. Please explain why they would do something like this. I am not saying that it is bad-quality, and it definitely relates to the question, its just that I don't think it answers the question. $\endgroup$ – SE is too politically correct Jan 23 at 23:47
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Secondary Products

Agriculture took a quantum leap when adult humans adapted to be lactose-tolerant. Analogously, the secondary products of megafauna--those that can be sustainably harvested--could prove to be more valuable than meat or motive power. Megafauna may be sheared for natural fibers, or milked, bled, sweated, devenomed, or sampled for valuable genes, enzymes, hormones, etc.

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Transportation and Construction

A rule of thumb is humans mostly domesticate animals to do things we can't. Horses run much faster than we can. Cows turn grass into edible food (either as milk or meat). Dogs can smell and hear things we can't. Cats catch small rodents. The tricky thing about megafauna is it's difficult to domesticate them because they need so much food. It's honestly a miracle that aurochsen were even domesticated because of their size they are hard to contain, eat a lot, and very aggressive. Supposedly the early European domestic cow population just barely avoided dying out due to inbreeding because of how hard it was to keep aurochsen (I have no idea if the same happened in India with the zebu).

The big advantage that domesticates megafauna would bring is as living heavy machinery. Transporting heavy loads, helping to construct things, living war machines. A lot like what elephants did throughout history. Humans woule have loved to domesticate elephants but they couldn't since elephants breed slowly, don't reproduce well in captivity, mature slowly, and the males have a tendency to flip out and attack people around them during mating season. But the only real deal breakers there are "hard to breed in captivity" and "aren't reliably non-aggressive". So they could only tame them sporadically. Indeed having domesticated megafauna around might cause a civilization to advance in unexpected ways because they are no longer dependent on human labor, teams of horses, or the post-industrial inventions of backhoes and cranes to perform large engineering projects.

There actually are cases of humans making use of an otherwise toxic organism. Tomatoes and potatoes are delicious but every other part of them is toxic due to them being close relatives of nightshade.

Edit:Didn't see the "can't be domesticated part". If that's the case they might just die. It's true they might be useful as building materials, but humans have had a tendency to overexploit wild species used for building materials (i.e., bison, beaver hats) simply because of the tragedy of the commons. If you have a post-industrial society they might be allowed to survive for conservation purposes, or because they are a keystone species whose actions (opening up forests, fertilizing the land with their poop) benefit other species that humans use directly, and so it benefits humans to keep them around.

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Why not use it as weapon? They may not be domesticated but they sure can be herded (using fire/spears/words that hurt their feelings) towards your enemies. And then set them into stampede mode. For instance, set a few on fire and force them to run towards the other side's lines/towns.

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Rare medicinal/therapeutic compounds, real or imagined, are good excuses to hunt any animal with abandon. The white rhinos in Africa just went extinct because their horn is believed to contain a strong aphrodisiac.

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Circuses, rodeos, zoos, conservation tourism. A remarkable creature that seems to serve no other purpose can be used as an attraction. People love to question what they don't understand.

Or for science--limitless possibilities there.

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