Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Two Prehistorics go hunting. Two buddies, living in neighboring caves. This is not hunting for sport we’re talking about. Not beer coolers and antlers on the wall. We’re talking about is hunting as a life and death situation. And not just for the animals.

(I know you can also eat berries, but certain varieties are poison, and the book identifying which are which is eons in the future. Eating animals is safer, because there are no, or at least fewer, poisonous animals. The most poisonous animals are the ones that ate poison berries. To avoid them, you look for telltale berry stains around their lips and a look in their eyes saying, “I don’t feel so good.”)

After following the spoor – which is a fancy way of saying tracks, though it could mean animal droppings; either way, it’s something hunters follow – the two Prehistorics come upon a herd of animals, grazing in a meadow, or maybe slaking their thirst (which is a fancy way of saying they were drinking some water.)

Each hunter selects his quarry, which is a fancy way of saying the animal they’ll be throwing their spears at. (“Hunter talk” seems to bring out the “thesaurus” in me.) Quarry selection is extremely important. The animal can’t be too small; there are a lot of mouths to feed. But it can’t be overly large either. Though there’s this natural impulse to brag, “I killed the biggest one there!”, you must always consider the practical issue of lugging the thing home. Otherwise, it’s,

“I killed the biggest thing there!”

“Oh, yeah? Where is it?”

“It was too heavy to bring home.”

“Nice story.”

Trial and error (the only method of learning at the time) has shown the Prehistorics that for optimal success, the two hunters need to throw their spears at the same time. Throwing the spears consecutively will alert the herd to danger.

“Look! There’s a spear in Larry.”

“Yeah, we better get out of here.”

And they’re gone. For the best chance of nailing more than one animal, the “Two- Throw” is unquestionably the way to go.

So that’s way they do.

With varying results.

Hunter Number One is a superior hunter. His spear hits its mark, the animal falls – “There’ll be stew in the pot tonight!” (This is akin to a basketball announcer’s calling, “Swish!” or “Yes!” A Prehistoric “hits from outside”, and it’s “There’ll be stew in the pot tonight!” If they showed Prehistoric Hunting on the Versus network, I’m pretty sure that’s what they’d say.)

Hunter Number Two? Let’s just say hunting is not Hunter Number Two’s forte. But he does his best. When Hunter Number One chucks his spear, so does he.

In a demonstration of progress, Hunter Number Two’s spear actually hits the animal he was aiming at. Unfortunately, his spear turns in mid-flight, making contact with the animal, not with its point but with the wooden shaft that the point is attached to, before dropping harmlessly to the ground.

Hunter Number Two is working under a handicap. Severely limited arm strength. The prevailing wind, which did not affect Hunter Number One’s effort in any way, had pushed his throw sideways, resulting in the shaft striking the animal instead of the point. And “striking” is a generous description. The animal barely knew he’d been thrown at.

If this hunting failure had been an atypical episode – no harm, no foul. The wind blew his spear sideways. So what? We’ll get ‘em next time. The problem was, this, or some similar mishap, happened on every hunt. His spear fell short. It caromed off a tree. Once, he actually grazed the back of his own head.

Hunter Number Two never killed anything. The result of this failure was that, while the caves of successful hunters featured families looking comfortably fed, his cave presented the Prehistoric equivalent of Bangladesh. Skinny people. Nothing to eat.

Time was running out. There are only so many “no food” days a cave family can survive. Until, before you know it

They’re food.

It didn’t happen. And here’s why.

The two hunters are heading home, one empty-handed, the other with dinner slung over his shoulder. Hunter Number Two is in full “Complaint Mode”, hoping Hunter Number One, as he often does, will take pity on him and offer him, maybe the tail to take home, so his wife can pacify her family with bowls of unnamed animal-tail soup.

This time, however, the tail offer is not forthcoming. Instead, Hunter Number One utters five words that would change life as it was then lived forever. The five words were these:

“I really like your sandals.”

“These things?” replies Hunter Number Two. “I made them myself.”

“We make everything ourselves,” then adding, mumblingly, “though my sandal-making’s about as skillful as your hunting.”
“I guess we all have our talents,” observes Hunter Number Two. And that’s when it hits him. The world-altering insight.

You hear a lot about the barter system, but considerably less about what makes the barter system work. Which is specialization. There’s no point bartering if both people have the same thing.

“I’ll give you a hat for a hat.”

“I’ve got a hat.”

What makes bartering successful is that people trade different things – food for sandals – each of which springs from their special area of specialization.

With specialization, nobody has to do everything anymore. You offer your best thing, and you barter for what you need but aren’t great at doing yourself. Later, rather than trading something for something else, exchanges were transacted through the medium of money (which you received by providing your services to somebody else), then eventually through credit cards, and of course today, through the accumulation of enormous debt. But that’s another story.

(A story I presciently told in one of my weekly newspaper columns almost forty years ago. Check the archives of the Toronto Telegram, 1968-70. “Percy Neeps – ‘Where It’s Near.’”)

Specialization definitely has its “up” side. Without it, I’d be operating on my own heart.

“Hold that mirror still, will ya! I kinna see whot I’m dewing!”

(Sorry. I suddenly went Scottish there for a second.)

But there’s a “down” side to specialization.

Which I’ll happily grumble about tomorrow.


MikeThe Blogger said...

“A generalist is someone who knows less and less about more and more until he knows nothing about everything, while a specialist is someone who knows more and more about less and less until he knows everything about nothing.”

Joe said...

You missed a calling writing textbooks.