by Tony Nester, Survival Instructor
(This article originally appeared in the Bulletin of Primitive Technology)
The ability to procure food in a demanding landscape like the desert was possible for those who know where and how to look and have a wealth of hunting and trapping skills. I believe trapping played a significant role in the menu of hunter-gatherers in the desert though archeological site reports tend to focus on larger fauna and hunting implements like the atlatl and bow.
Despite ranking low in the overall archeological interpretation of the Southwest, deadfalls and snares have been found in quantity at Basketmaker sites in Arizona and Utah and were used (and still are in some regions) at places like Hopi and Supai into the historic era.
As experienced primitive trappers know who are reading this, the use of deadfalls and snares is a very calorie-efficient method for obtaining wild game from the landscape. This is not to say it was the end-all answer to procuring meat but its importance is not reflected in most archeological site reports of the Southwest.
This article will focus on bird snares and deadfalls in northern Arizona with some reference to southern Utah. During the past nine years, I have made friendships at Hopi and continue to gather information regarding wild game procurement as well as utilize these on extended desert survival courses that I teach.
The Hisatsinom or ancestors of the Hopi (the PC term being “Ancestral Puebloans” according to the National Park Service) did not have the geographic boundaries of state lines. Other methods such as rabbit nets, scissor snares, and simple snares were utilized throughout the region and will be covered in a later article.
“We little boys made snares of horse-hair to catch birds. I learned to catch bluebirds with a hair from a horse’s tail set as a snare on the upper stem of a sunflower stalk, with a worm for bait.” (Hopi elder Don C. Talayesva in his biography Sun Chief).
I had the good fortune of examining a prehistoric bird snare (Hopi call them, “Wivosi”) at the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff. It is a delicate setup made of an 18″ long stick that is approximately ½” in diameter and has 8 single-strands of (human?) hair made into snares. These are secured on the main stick with cordage at 4″ intervals. Wivosi were used into the historic period as well as having been excavated from Basketmaker sites in the Southwest. There is also a fine photographic example of a Basketmaker bird snare of the above type in the book Material Culture of the Hopi.
Upon initial testing of this bird snare, I set the trap down in the evening and secured it with a line of yucca attached to a grapefruit-sized rock to prevent any airborne theft of the trap by a particularly pugnacious dove. At sunrise, my dogs informed me (and my sleepy-eyed kids) that there was a visitor in the trap. A groggy stumble outside revealed a large pigeon with one foot in the snare and the other foot attempting a wave to his freedom-loving pals above. The trap had worked and the pigeon (not a fan of the meat I must say) was released unharmed by snipping the cordage near his foot.
Given it’s low-tech nature and ease of construction, setting a few of these in heavily-trafficked areas that birds frequent would provide a hunter with an easy meal with a minimum of energy expenditure. If one doesn’t have access to birdseed (wild or otherwise) for bait, then placing the snares alongside waterholes, where bird tracks have been found, would be the next best setup.
Talking with friends at Hopi, it was mentioned how these snares were used to catch not only birds for meat but for obtaining bird feathers for ceremonies in recent times.
Another invention that doesn’t show up in the ethnographic literature on the Hopi very often is an upright bird-snare perched on a sunflower stalk. The setup is a miniature version of an Ojibwa bird-snare from Canada and is used mainly for catching small birds such as bluebirds and sparrows, again for their feathers not meat. During his ethnographic work in the 1930s, anthropologist Clyde Kluckholn mentions that the Navajos used a similar setup for birds based atop a sunflower stalk (see drawing).
In DuPont Cave in Utah there was a cache of 137 bird snares found and 55 bird-snares in a cave in Adugegi Canyon in Arizona, both of which are Basketmaker sites. These caves and numerous others in the Southwest, where such snares have been excavated, would suggest that birds may have held greater significance in the diet of prehistoric hunters.
From archeologist Joel Janetski’s examination of the bird snares from DuPont Cave, it was found that “snares consist of a stick measuring 50 to 60 cm. long by 0.5 to 0.75 cm. in diameter to which lengths of human hair or vegetable cordage have been secured At the distal end of each length of cordage is a small slip noose. Variation is restricted to the number of cords (from 1 to 6) attached to the snare sticks.” In my own fieldwork, bird snares that I have had success with each had 5-8 cords attached.
I also tracked down an example of a Dinka bird-snare at the Pitts Museum, the University of Oxford’s Museum of Anthropology. The specimen was collected in southern Sudan in the 1930s. It is remarkably similar in size and shape to the Hopi style but has the addition of (unfired) clay-pellets attached to the midsection of the snares. The pellets are almond-sized and would seem to be in place to prevent the wind from tangling the snares when left on the ground and/or to prevent the captured bird from going airborne with the trap. The description indicates the snares are made of horsehair but the Dinka-English dictionary states that the name for snare is “Wiel” which denotes a fiber made from giraffe-tail or elephant hair.
My own bird snare could have benefited from the addition of such clay pellets as a windy day (when isn’t it windy in northern Arizona!) makes my snare lines look like a tangled fishnet.
In the western Grand Canyon on Hualapai tribal land, there was an even simpler design in which “wild pigeons were caught in a snare, onu’k. This was a running noose of yucca twine. It was tied to a bush and would tighten up on the bird’s leg” (From Walapai Ethnography by A.L. Kroeber).
“The Walapai have a deadfall trap, kweo’ne, in which they catch rabbits, rats, mice, and even snakes and lizards” (Kroeber).
Kroeber is referring to the ubiquitous Paiute deadfall used throughout the Great Basin and Colorado Plateau. The Paiute deadfall was used by the Supai in the Grand Canyon and was described by Spier in his work, Havasupai Ethnography.
As Spier noted, “Traps are placed on the rodent trails in the fields and near storehouses to catch the squirrels and rats which root up the corn, tear their way into storehouses, etc. Snakes and birds are sometimes found in these devices, but no attempt is made to trap or snare large game.” Later he states, “It is baited with dried peaches or mescal pulp tied firmly to the trigger.”
I first learned to make and use the Paiute deadfall from fellow survival instructor Scott Kuipers on a 21-day trek that we were leading in Idaho back in 1988. Prior to this I had used the Figure-four deadfall for years but found the action of the Paiute much faster. On the Idaho trips, we would set a minimum of four deadfalls each night which were aimed at small critters like packrats and mice. I’ve used this trap as my primary deadfall since then for small game along with the promontory peg deadfall (see next section) in recent years.
On a sidenote, I’ve found a variation of the Paiute deadfall used in Zimbabwe. From a teaching perspective, this variation lends itself to a greater success rate for students learning to set deadfalls for the first time. This particular trap is also outlined in one of my You Tube videos.
At Hopi, depending on which village you visit, some people recounted no memory of using Paiute deadfalls in recent times while others I spoke with used deadfalls in their corn fields during this past season and employ them in one of their ceremonies.
“The old people showed us how to make deadfalls to catch kangaroo rats, prairie dogs, porcupines, badgers, chipmunks, squirrels, and turtledoves. The men used heavy rock deadfalls for trapping coyotes, foxes, wildcats, and other large animals.” (Hopi elder Don C. Talayesva in his biography Sun Chief).
Promontory Peg Deadfall
In Danger Cave, located two miles east of Wendover, Utah, archeologists uncovered over 60 Promontory Peg components made from willow, milkwort, rabbitbrush, and other materials. One specimen even had a slice of prickly pear still impaled on the bait stick!
As far as a field-expedient trap, it’s hard to beat the two-stick Promontory Peg. None of my Hopi friends recalled this trap being used.
The Danger Cave specimens exhibited signs of spiral cuts on the platforms which might, as one researcher noted, have been to increase surface friction or create “threads” to allow for a better union between the two pieces. I had a hard time setting up a Promontory Peg deadfall with a smooth surface (the result of a Mora knife!) and only had success when switching to stone-tools (proper replication). I recall this was also found with George Michaud’s recreation of the Promontory Peg deadfall. Stone tools work best.
On a 12-day desert survival course I taught for the military, students made two Paiutes and two Promontory Peg deadfalls each. These were baited and placed among the rocky ledges in a canyon not far from our camp. The trap design that was initially successful and scored packrats, was the Promontory Peg. After refinement (and time on field application) during the following week, students experienced a more balanced success rate between the two trap systems largely due, I believe, to continual practice with the delicate Paiute trigger system and field experience with reading animal signs which ensured better trap placement.
The Great Packrat Roundup
Every Fall, during our annual 5-week program in traditional skills, we spend a great deal of time on the area of food procurement, particularly teaching a variety of primitive traps. This season, we had the opportunity to test out a large scale primitive trapline (in this case aimed at rodents) on private property. The region consists of 40 acres of high-desert, pinon-juniper at an elevation of 6000 feet.
Three hogans and numerous wickiups on site had been infested with packrats and we decided to have students set individual traps consisting of 2 Paiutes and 2 Promontory Peg deadfalls per person. Traps were baited with local flora such as currants, prickly-pear fruit, and wild sunflowers. All traps were fenced in with twigs of juniper, save a small entrance. We agreed that, assuming the animals caught were healthy, we would utilize the meat in our stews and jerk any surplus. An adult packrat doesn’t weigh a lot so not exactly enough for a juicy rat-burger.
There were 6 participants (myself included) and we spread our traps over an area of approximately 20 acres, focusing our efforts inside the unoccupied hogans and on the immediate area surrounding the outside of the structures along with wickiups from former students. Care was made not to disturb any nests or droppings and everyone got a lecture on the dangers of zoonotic diseases such as Hanta virus from deer mice droppings and Bubonic plague from flea bites.
Based on prior observation of the area while teaching courses there over the past six years and consulting local wildlife biologist Chuck LaRue, we determined that there were roughly 6 packrats per acre, so approximately 120 rats over 20 acres. Plus it had been a very wet spring and the packrat population was burgeoning in these parts.
One study in western Nevada found that there were 4600 rodents in one square kilometer of desert! Add in other small critters like rock squirrels, prairie dogs, cottontails, and jackrabbits, and a prehistoric trapper would be able to fill his stewpot using traps. Yet interpretive displays at places like Mesa Verde and Canyon de Chelly would lead one to believe that the atlatl and bow were the sole source for obtaining wild game from the desert landscape.
Traps were set in the afternoon and checked once before everyone went to sleep and upon rising in the morning. Each student had been practicing their trap skills for the past week since the program began and were already familiar with how to fine-tune their deadfall triggers. It should be noted that Paiute traps were carved from dry willow with a Mora knife and Promontory peg deadfalls were carved with quartzite and obsidian tools.
Here are the results based on 24 deadfalls (2 of each type) set out during a 12 hour period (overnight):
Traps Set – 24
Traps Sprung (but without game) – 7
Traps Sprung (w/game) – 4
Traps Unsprung – 13
Of the traps that were unsprung, some had bait that was missing while others were untouched. The traps that were sprung but without game (no kill), had the bait missing along with several baitsticks completely missing from the scene (and now a permanent part of some packrat’s midden!). The traps that were sprung with game all had flattened rats. Two of the latter traps were set inside the hogans that had the most rodent traffic. The remaining two traps that had game were set outside: one near the entrance of a large hogan and the other adjacent to a rockpile near an old wickiup. Regarding which traps were more successful in this very brief experiment, the Paiute deadfall accounted for 3 rats and the Promontory Peg accounted for 1 rat. The bait that was favored was fresh prickly-pear fruit which had been gathered previously from outside the area.
After students collected rats from their traps, they immediately tossed each rat on the coals of the fire to burn off the fleas. We then divided up the rats and had one of these skinned and boiled up in a stew pot while the other two were tossed back on the coals to bake the meat in its skin, Hopi-style. After removing the latter group of rats, the crunchy, blackened carcass was gutted to remove the innards and the meat consumed by picking past the skin. One rat was dried, skeleton and all, to show how to make jerky from small critters (photo 4).
For a highly entertaining account of how the Zuni prepared a packrat brine, read Cushing’s classic book, Zuni: Selected Writings of Frank Hamilton Cushing.
Again, be warned that packrats and other rodents carry fleas and should be treated by immediately singing off the hair in the fire or by immersing the carcass underwater in a stream for thirty minutes. A few years ago in Arizona, a cougar biologist died of bubonic plague received from a fleabite shortly after radio-collaring a cougar so take precautions when skinning and cleaning animals of any kind!
A Modern Hunter-Gatherer’s Outdoor Calendar From Northern Arizona
In Arizona where I live, we are fortunate to have many life zones and a range of environments from low desert at 1200 feet to alpine at 10,000 feet. It’s been said that you can literally transition from Mexico to Canada by driving 2 hours north from Phoenix to the pine-covered mountains of Flagstaff. With such a range of elevations and life zones, we have unique opportunities to forage and hunt.
Each region of the country presents its own challenges and optimal times for harvesting so you will have to look into what is available where you live and formulate your own calendar. Below is an example of my personal calendar for hunting and foraging in the in northern and central Arizona by season.
- Collect young cattail and bulrush shoots from riverbanks and riparian areas
- Gather young amaranth, dandelion, curly dock and goosefoot leaves for salads
- Collect wild onions before flowering
- Fish for trout and panfish
- Hunt rabbits and raccoons
- Gather currant berries and raspberries
- Collect cattail pollen for making bread
- Harvest purslane for salads
- Collect medicinal plant leaves for drying
- Collect crayfish
- Fish for catfish and panfish
- Hunt rabbits
- Gather puffball mushrooms
- Pick banana yucca fruits
- Gather large quantities of gambel oak acorns and pinon pine nuts
- Bowhunt deer
- Hunt squirrels and rabbits and raccoons
- Collect medicinal plant roots for drying
- Gather mesquite pods for grinding into flour
- Harvest apples from local orchards
- Hunt rabbits
- Bowhunt deer (during late archery season)
- Harvest willow for teaching trap making and fish baskets
- Process dried acorns (from the Fall) into flour
- Refine skills, do research on mammals/trapping/plants, and wait for Spring
As you can see, summer and fall offer a bounty of resources, especially in terms of nuts, acorns, and plant resources compared with winter and spring. I would encourage the reader to formulate their own region-specific calendar.
As your skills progress and you become more proficient at hunting and gathering, you will realize that what seems, at first glance, to be an inhospitable landscape is in reality a generous land that will sustain those who know where and, most importantly, how to look.
About the Author: Tony Nester teaches desert survival courses in Arizona through his company Ancient Pathways and is the author of the book The Modern Hunter-Gatherer.
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Hirst, Stephen. I Am The Grand Canyon: The Story of the Havasupai People. Grand Canyon Association, 2006.
Janetski, Joel C. Implications of Snare Bundles in the Great Basin and Southwest, Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology Vol. I, No, 2, pp, 306-321 (1979).
Jennings, Jesse. Danger Cave, University of Utah Anthropological Papers, No. 27. University of Utah Press, 1957.
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