Vortrag Heidelberg 2017 Flesh, Blood and Bones


Hunting is – and has been- one of the most enduring themes in anthropology. Anthropologists have been especially attracted to hunters‘ animist ontologies which attributes ‚personhood‘ to humans and non-humans alike. What is the world like when you’re killing and eating souls?, as one eskimo hunter has put it to Rasmussen. For more than one hundred years, anthropologists have tried to make sense of hunters‘ worldviews which seem to be so different from our own. But can these worldviews make sense to us? Are they logical? The Danish anthropologist Rane Willerslev suspects that they are rather not. In his eyes, worldviews – as coherent, systematic sets of beliefs – are more often of the anthropologist’s scientific mind than the informants‘ imagination. In his fieldwork with the Yukaghir hunters of Siberia he found that hunters pondered upon no complex ontology but rather engaged in pragmatic ways with spirits that were rarely well known but appeared ‚ready-to-hand‘ when needed.

In a most recent debate in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Willerslev, Vitebsky and Alekseyev criticise Tim Ingold for presenting a ‚picture-perfect model of cosmology‘ based on trust and non-violence and to confuse it with the reality of hunting. The debate centers on the so-called ‚gift of the animal‘ – a claim of hunters in many parts of the world that animals are not simply taken by the hunter but that they present themselves to the hunter as a gift. Willerslev and his colleagues argue that how hunters talk about this gift represents an ideal of a relationship that contradicts the reality of hunting which is full of trickery, manipulation and deceit. In other words, we could say that worldviews do not necessarily correspond with lifeworlds. So what if we – like Michael Jackson proposed years ago – „assign priority to lifeworld (lebenswelt) over worldview (weltanschauung)“?

From a phenomenological standpoint, it would mean to take seriously

„that domain of everyday, immediate social existence and practical activity, with all its habituality, its crises, its vernacular and idiomatic character, its biographical particularities, its decisive events and indecisive strategies, which theoretical knowledge addresses but does not determine, from which conceptual understanding arises but on which it does not primarily depend“ (Michael Jackson, Things As They Are, 1996: 7-8)

Instead of the often semiotic or discursive approaches to the interpretation of worldviews,

„Our aim is to do justice to the lived complexity of experience by avoiding those selective redescriptions, reductions, and generalizations which claim to capture the essence of the lived in underlying rules or overarching schemata yet, in effect, downplay and deaden it“. (Michael Jackson, Things As They Are, 1996:8)

For studies of hunting – such as mine – this is to reconfigure the lifeworld of hunting as the “messy affair” that it is; always problematic, nothing worked out, full of troubling uncertainties, ambivalent, ambiguous,  inconsistent, paradox, contradictory; and ultimately brutal and violent although it has its moments of beauty, passion, sympathy and relationship.

In this lecture I will argue that in order to understand this messy hunting lifeworld we need to describe and untangle the entanglements of the hunting situation in its embodied, sensuous, material and affective strands first before considering ‚context‘. At the heart of this situation we find the carnal: human and animal bodies entangled and transforming in the meshwork of the landscape; bodies alive with feelings and sensations (the Leib), but also wounded, suffering and dead bodies (the Körper).


In Germany today, there are more than 380,000 non-professional/’recreational‘ hunters, killing an average of 4.5 million game animals per year. Who these hunters are exactly is hard to know. All we know is that they come of a diversity of backgrounds and have not that much in common except for hunting. Nevertheless, there seems to be an understanding among hunters whenever they come together – although they have diverse motivations and opinions on hunting and everything that goes with it: how to hunt, when to hunt, what to hunt, with which ammunition, with which gun, etc. In such a situation – when there is no whole hunting-gathering ’society‘ but only a widely distributed ‚community of practice‘, fieldwork has to reflect these conditions.

In my own fieldwork on hunting practices in Germany (which is ongoing since 2014 ) I have followed Freiherr Speck von Sternburg’s recommendation (which is recognizable to most anthropologists) and made it foundational to the methodological considerations of my research. I started out by participating in hunts in my local area around Koblenz, Germany, until I found a mentor (quaintly termed Lehrprinz in German) to take me on in an informal apprenticeship. During the course of one year I learned some of the practical skills involved in hunting (tracking, animal behaviour, butchering) – with the exception of shooting which is legally restricted to examined and licensed hunters. To get past that restriction and therefore to participate more ‚radically‘, I then went to a hunting school to be prepared in a three-week course on the theoretical background knowledge of hunting in Germany (animal behaviour, hunting ‚traditions‘ and techniques, dog handling, legal issues around hunting, nature conservation) plus shooting training (with gun and shotgun). With my exam passed and hence my hunting license in hand, I finally had to acquire a hunting permit in a state forest managed by my mentor (one of the local foresters) and since then I am allowed to fully participate in all hunting practices.

One could say that I have become involved in the community of practice of hunters as a novice hunter who started learning the practices from a peripheral position (with marginal, smaller tasks I was taught) and now has moved on to more central positions (and more profound tasks) through taking on a defined role within the CoP (as a Jungjäger, i.e. a still inexperienced hunter in training for three years until he or she becomes a ‚proper‘ hunter). In anthropological terms, I have employed ‚apprenticeship as method‘ (Downey et al 2014) – a special form of participant observation that involves the fieldworker in a more or less formal learning and teaching setting where he or she is accepted in a learner’s role alongside other novices from that CoP. Apprenticeship research opens up new avenues for fieldworkers to learn cultural knowledge in terms of a practical mastery of skills themselves, and thereby to learn about this type of knowledge and how one learns it (i.e. how knowledge is transmitted) (Downey 2005:53).

It is worth considering that the opportunities for taking up a ‚formal‘ apprenticeship in hunting may be limited or restricted by the fieldworker’s age, sex and gender, race, physical capabilities, role expectations, legal restrictions (hunting involves the use of weapons) or the acceptable risks involved in the activities (see Okely 2012). However, what is indispensable from a phenomenological approach to the study of hunting lifeworlds is that the fieldworker participates in some way in the practice of hunting. Note here that to participate in hunting practices is not limited to killing animals, but  might involve the tracking and pursuing of an animal, its butchering and distribution and many aspects more. Participation defined in this way relates closely to ’standard‘ participant observation that most scholars in the field of the anthropology of hunters and gatherers probably employ anyway. Indeed, one could follow Sarah Pink in considering the ethnographer to be a ’sensory apprentice‘ in general (Pink 2009: 69). After all, fieldwork „is in truth a protracted masterclass in which the novice gradually learns to see things, and to hear and feel them too, in the ways his or her mentors do“ (Ingold 2013:2).

The following ethnographic vignettes are taken from my sensory apprenticeship with these German hunters…


In hunting, the intention to kill is paramount and defining to the practice, although the outcome is far from certain and does not necessarily need to be fulfilled. As Garry Marvin has argued, killing in a hunting situation differs from other cultural (or domestic, as he calls it) practices of killing in that hunters cannot demand or command the death of the animal; hunters have to struggle to kill and do not simply ‚take‘ life; hunters enter the space of animals in order to kill where animals are uncontrolled and resistant to the hunters‘ intention; the killing is thus unpredictable.

For German hunters, the proper (ideal) way of killing (waidgerecht) is a clean and sudden death, ideally through one skilled shot only and therefore without any suffering. Killing in a waidgerecht way the hunters call erlegen (rather than töten/killing) – a term reserved for the proper killing of game and a term which reflects the special relationship that hunters claim to have with this group of animals. The Wild (game) deserves a particular kind of death out of feelings of responsibility that come with the hunters‘ practice of stewardship and care (Hege). All other animals (such as stray dogs or cats) are simply killed (getötet) and do not have the right to a waidgerechter death. Although today, all killing has to adhere to animal protection legislation.

I test my weapon, adjust the optics, put the barrel down on the window frame of the raised hide and look down the barrel onto the meadow in front of me. There’s a salt lick at the far left corner, to the left is the Kirrung, to the right the ground drops towards the site where the wild boar often sleep, there are one, two holes in the undergrowth where their tunnels connect to the meadow. I sit and wait, watching the meadow, especially towards the salt lick, but every now and then also around towards the forest behind my back where I often hear sounds. Time passes, I begin to feel my back aching from the sitting, so I keep adjusting my seat, still waiting. A few gnats are trying to bite me and some wasps are circling the hide, distracting me. But I still watch the meadow and listen into the forest…

After more than an hour, just past 8 o’clock, I’m suddenly aware of some noise at the far end of the meadow, in the tree cover beyond. Is it a game animal? But it is so noisy and careless, perhaps it’s nothing. Yet there is a movement at the far right end of the meadow. Something’s standing there… a roe deer! My routine starts. I grasp for my ear protectors, put them on while I keep watching. It’s getting serious. I’m getting nervous, I’m aware of my tense breathing. I take my rifle and put it silently back on the window frame, watch through the glass. Not a buck.. a doe… a young one perhaps, given that it seems small and moves so carelessly. I switch on the red glowing aim point of the optics and let the red glow follow the doe’s body. It stands facing me and feeds. I’m waiting and my heart races. I can’t do that, I’m thinking, as the red glow still follows shakily the doe’s body. I can’t do that, I’m too weak for something like that. The doe turns her side towards me. Is it standing ‚properly‘ now? As it should? I can’t see it properly and don’t trust my eyes as it has become rather dark already. Yet I’m still following the doe with my racing heart. It is still feeding carelessly and again, turns her profile towards me. The red glow settles quite steadily on the torso now and I move my finger close onto the trigger. I can’t do that. If I only moved my finger slightly, then… or could I? Within a heartbeat, a decision is made, I can only see the red glow on the doe’s shoulder blade, the bright muzzle flash, an all-penetrating sound explosion. I’m startled – whether by the explosion or my decision I do not know at this moment…

How to portray the stream of experience in these moments leading to the kill? It is difficult, given that the use of words – where no words were uttered for hours nor many thoughts been put in language form – can give the impression that I was engaged in an internal dialogue (which I wasn’t). The doubts, the indecisiveness were a struggle of my living body coming to grips with sensations and affects that arose from the encounter with the roe deer. A hunter’s perception is steeped in constant vigilance, always tuned to the environment to sense the presence of an animal while at the same time controlling the presence of one’s own body so it cannot be sensed by the animals. Nowhere is that clearer as in these moments leading to a kill. The animal is close, the hunter could be detected at any time. Unfortunately for the hunter, he or she begins to become nervous, the heart begins to race, breathing becomes tense as the whole body becomes tense from the preparedness to action and the unpredictability of the situation. Yet these tensions and their release after the successful shot make a remarkable and intense experience for hunters, often described as fever, passion or happiness. We should note that this happiness comes not from the killing of an animal, but to have killed it properly, with success, clean and sudden, without much suffering.

But as hunting is problematic, this is not always the case…

Film excerpt Safari 57:17-1:05:15

In this scene, I want to draw your attention to the hunter’s encounter with the wounded – still living but soon to be dead – body of the giraffe. As I pointed out earlier, death is problematic and wounding transforms the living body of the animal into an ambiguous state in-between. For the hunter, a wounded animal should be dead already or soon at least. For the animal, wounds are a resistance to its living body which still clings to life. What to do now? How to know whether it is deadly wounded? The hunter in the film is and cannot be certain and has to deal with the uncertainty. Judging from my experience with similar situations, he seems troubled and will be until the animal is clearly dead. Then you can see the relief in his face…

Hunters know that proper killing is not always possible and thus have a secondary practice called Abfangen among German hunters which is supposed to correct any previous mistakes or mishaps. Yet Abfangen is not less problematic than the first attempt at killing. It should also be executed with skill, the death be clean and sudden, with the least suffering possible. What is different is that at that point the animal is already suffering and that makes the situation not only unsettling to the proper hunter (waidgerechter Jäger). It makes the situation highly problematic.

On a big pressure hunt this January, a female roe deer was first wounded on the foreleg, then shot in the guts. Although she could not walk anymore, she was not dead yet when W. arrived, stabbing her with his Hirschfänger in her chest. I arrived briefly afterwards, just as he withdrew his dagger and cleaned the blood-dripping red blade in the white snow next to the roe deer who was still twitching, the body heaving from her final breaths. But somehow it seemed to take too long for W.’s taste, so he cut her throat as well.

„You’re dead already. Don’t you know that?“ he said softly to the doe, bending her head backwards to open the slashed throat a bit more, then cutting through the spinal cord quickly until she stopped moving and her eyes looked dead. W. cleaned the bloody blade once more and re-sheathed it, all the while shooing the dogs away who wanted to grab and take a bite out of the doe. He then drew the dead body over to the path where we would retrieve it later, leaving a dark red pool of blood and a blood-smeared spoor in the snow. 

This field tale shows hunting as the ‚messy affair‘, as I called it at the beginning of my lecture. Again, you see how resistant to death the living animal’s body is and how a hunter has to struggle to solve the problem; not as a rational problem or riddle to be solved with the powers of the mind but a carnal problem to be solved by bodily-materially engaging with the not-yet-dead body. Piercing it, cutting it, bending it, bleeding it until the hunter’s obligation towards the death of the animal is fulfilled.


Film excerpt The Beauty of Hunting Revisited Part4 (first 3:00)

It’s the beginning of May, 2015, the opening of this year’s hunting season. It’s the third hunt and the first that has been successful for us. My mentor D., an experienced hunter and forester, killed a roe deer buck and he wants to show me how to field dress the animal.

D.lays the buck in a belly-up position and begins cutting the skin from the breast bone right up to the chin to lay open the rib cage and the windpipe. He drives the whole length of the blade into the torso, below the breast bone, and cracks open the rib cage by forcing the knife through the ribs. We hang the body by the sinews of its hind legs onto a hook on the ‚gallow‘ and D. continues his work by cutting free the end of the small intestines. Having removed some pellets of dung from the anus, he makes an incision around the anus until the small intestines move freely inside the pelvis. Then he passes the knife to me: „Your turn.“ I freeze. I was not prepared for this. I thought I would just watch the first time. But I can’t get out of this now and take the knife. He points to the testicles and penis. Although I still don’t feel prepared, though I feel revulsion rumbling in my stomach, I gather myself, focus my attention and overcome my hesitation. I can’t embarrass myself in front of D.! I try to focus on the task at hand and nothing else, grab the soft, furry testicles and cut them off together with the penis. Urgh, what an unpleasant feeling! I cautiously slice open the belly, right down to the open chest cavity, and the intestines and organs pour out, smooth and glistening, over my hands, over my arms, still strangely warm, steam rising out of the carcass into my face, smelling of flesh and blood. Don’t start to think or feel too much! Focus! There is the heart. I hold it in my hand; it is bloody and so warm, so alive somehow. This feels weird. I put it aside, return to the dead body and make a small cut here, a cut there until the whole bag of innards falls down through its own weight, only attached to the carcass now by the windpipe. I grab the pipe with both hands and rip the bag from the flesh and it drops to the ground like a big blob, still steaming. Now I feel the tension that had taken hold of my whole body during the whole time and I breathe in deeply and I see the blood on my hands and the distinctive smell of buck blood seems to envelop me like an atmosphere. I don’t know what to do with my bloodied hands, how to hold them without smearing myself with more blood; I can’t touch anything because this would make it dirty, contaminated…

Before I made my first kill, field dressing was the most disturbing experience of my sensory apprenticeship as a hunter. As an urban-dwelling academic, the comparison between my familiar material world and this new, ‚foreign‘ material world of hunting was striking: a world of materials with hardly any (made) objects: skin, hair, sinews, bones, flesh, blood, dung, urine, digested vegetable matter. My human, living body becomes entangled in the material animal body, touching and feeling materials usually hidden and enclosed in a living body. The German hunters‘ language recognizes this phenomenon when, for example, blood in its ‚proper‘ place, i.e. inside the body (in arteries, veins and flesh), is distinguished from blood outside the body: Blut (inside) becomes Schweiß (outside).

Field dressing thus affords the hunter’s body with a range of materials that are considered ‚out of place‘ at home but necessary ‚out there‘, out of doors, in ’nature‘, in the engagement with an animal. With these materials come new forms of tactility and gestures: incising, piercing, slicing, ripping, breaking. This is the tactility of killing and death. When, as Ingold (2011) has argued, life binds substances and media (blood, air, water) into living forms, then field dressing continues the unbinding that started with the entry of a bullet into the animal’s body. With each gesture of the knife in hand, the animal body that was a thing, in the meaning of a gathering, transforms into an assemblage of parts, with less and less holding it together. This process culminates in the final butchering (German Zerwirken) of the body after it had hung a few days – the animal body now turned ‚meat‘ is cut into kitchen-ready pieces,  ‚game‘ having turned into ‚venison‘ (this transition is not depicted in the German hunters‘ language where Wild (the live animal) stays Wild (venison)).


When I reviewed various hunting ethnographies – and other literature dealing with human-animal relationships – I noticed that theoretical approaches impede directly on the kinds of descriptions I found in the text. It was hard to find descriptions that gave „justice to the lived complexity of experience“, as Michael Jackson has phrased it in the quote from the beginning of my lecture. In my research on hunting in Germany I have been trying to follow Jackson’s advice, experimenting with different ways to describe and evoke that ‚life as lived‘, because I believe this is where hunting makes sense to hunters. If we want to understand hunters, we need to understand the complexities and paradoxies of what Willerslev named the reality of hunting. By doing so, we acknowledge the agency of animals in hunting and give space to their role in conditioning the hunter’s experience and how they make sense of it.

So instead of taking up an omniscient God’s eye perspective and look down on the flat map of a symmetric network of human-animal entanglements (you may guesse the reference), my proposal has been to get oneself bodily, sensually, affectively entangled and start from there, thereby heeding Clifford Geertz‘ advice that

„A good interpretation of anything – a poem, a person, a history, a ritual, an institution, a society – takes us into the heart of that of which it is the interpretation“ (Geertz 1973:18).