In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Justin Scheck reports on the latest in stone-age lifestylism: hunters who have eschewed high-powered rifles and composite compound bows in favour of weapons made with prehistoric materials and techniques. These include handmade bows, flint-tipped arrows, rudimentary spears, and 19th century muskets. They use these to kill deer and wild boar, along with alligators and feral pigs.
At first glance, this sounds like something straight out of Williambsurg, yet another click in the ratchet of urban cavemanism that briefly flourished last year in New York’s restaurants, fitness gyms, and yoga studios. If it was the height of authenticity last year to butcher your own pig and make your own moose jerky, the ante has most definitely been raised.
But we shouldn’t be too quick to lump Scheck’s paleo-hunters in with the hipster Groks and Urrgs wandering the stone-age wastelands of Brooklyn trying to one-down each other in their rejection of the comforts and privileges of civilization. There’s probably something to that: as Scheck quotes Ted Fry, the owner of Raptor Archery in Hood River, Oregon, more people now want to hunt with "a piece of handcrafted artwork that's functional." (I wonder if anything of them are making use of artisanal axes?)
But I think the overwhelming motivation is something that’s a bit more subtle, and a bit more tolerable to boot:
Prehistoric hunts are back partly because technology has made hunting a bit of a yawner, say some of the sport's aficionados. The proliferation of gear like high-powered sniper rifles and "compound bows"—which use carbon fiber, metal wire and a set of pulleys to fling an arrow almost as fast as a bullet—took much of the sport out of hunting, they say.
This motive -- to get back to a form of sport hunting where skill and technique are what matters, not how high-tech the equipment -- is pretty neat. Too many sports are being ruined because new gear makes it possible for weekend amateurs to hit professional quality shots. Tennis has been ruined by space-age power racquets with enormous sweet spots, while Polara recently announced a golf ball that won’t slice. Both of these are illegal for use by pros, but they have the effect of evening out skill levels amongst amateurs.
The ethics of this sort of equipment (along with composite bows and high-powered hunting rifles are fascinating – perhaps Wayne over at This Sporting Life will weigh in – but what I find interesting is the implicit status move here: the real hunters use primitive tools -- the fancy bows and guns are for weekend wannabes.
While this has many overt (and implicit) affinities with the authenticity-seekers at whom I like to poke fun, what’s really going on here is a form of counter-signalling: “the behaviour where agents with the highest level of a given property invest less into proving it than individuals with a medium level of the same property.” (Here's a good Tyler Cowen post on the phenomenon).
Counter-signalling is extremely widespread, and is in many ways the most delightful form of status-seeking. Paul Fussell’s book Class has some great anecdotes about how at the extremes of wealth in America, it is hard to tell the homeless men from the robber barons – both dress like complete bums. My own favourite example was from a few years ago, when I spent two weeks paddling down a raging mountain river in the Northwest territories. While all of the paying customers on the trip were kitted out in the latest high-tech paddling gear, my guide – a laconic 19-year old university student – went the entire trip without changing out of a ratty old pair of cargo shorts and a torn rugby shirt.
There is a great deal over overlap between authenticity-seeking and counter-signalling, but they are very different forms of status display. One is essentially a way of signaling one’s underlying politics, while the other is about signaling one underlying skill or competence.