Thoughts on Tracking and What Marks We May Be Leaving Behind

Written by Jacob Schor, ND, FABNO, AANP Board Member - A man, we think, of indeterminate age, medium height and weight, strides south, crossing a Forest Service dirt road into an open forest meadow darted with clumps of shrub and grass scattered amid dried hoof chewed mud. He walks slowly across the meadow at first toward a stand of pine trees a hundred yards to the south. His course skirts between small islands of grass yet intent on reaching the trees. The ground is uneven. It rained heavily a week before and cattle have grazed on the grass, their hooves sinking deeply into the clay rich mud, which is now dried and so hard that the man's boots hardly make an impression. At one point, about halfway across the open space, he pauses and pivots in a circle so that his heels drill slightly into the sunbaked mud. He stands there, staring. At what it isn't clear. Perhaps it was something in the sky because his weight rocks back. Suddenly, he takes a step then two steps to his right and crouches down, resting his weight on the balls of his feet and remains unmoving for minutes, at one point resting part of his weight on his right knee. We lose track of time but suddenly he continues in the original direction toward the trees, but with haste now, making longer strides at first his heels striking deeper into the soil and then breaking into a full out run. He makes the trees. This is when we eat lunch.
Several decades ago the Clackamas County Sheriff's Department invited me to attend a weekend course on tracking. While in naturopathic school, I volunteered with the Mt Hood Backcountry Ski Patrol and was invited to many of the Search and Rescue training programs the Sheriff's department put on. They were great breaks from studying and made for interesting weekends. It took three hours on our hands and knees, crawling across the ground learning to read this man's story from the faint the traces he left on soil and vegetation.

I have rarely felt so ignorant and blind in my life. I don't have adequate words to describe the experience. It was as if I had spent my life living in a library but being so illiterate that I had never thought to open a book. More than that, I was only vaguely aware that books contain stories. Watching and listening to the story a trained tracker could read in the dirt was humbling.

An article in a December 2013 issue of New Scientist brought these memories back to me. The article describes the work of a French archaeologist named Lenssen-Erz and how he has flown three San Bushmen from the Kalahari desert in Africa to examine foot prints in France. Old foot prints. The footprints date from the Magdalenian period of the European Upper Paleolithic, that is about 17,000 years ago. The footprints were left in a cave, part of the Cavernes du Volp in the Pyrenean foothills.

These Kalahari San are considered among the best trackers in the world. They are the most literate. "All three learned tracking from their fathers…. They have been working all their lives, mainly for trophy hunters. Their tracking skills are highly developed and used on a daily basis."

Last July Lenssen-Erz and the trackers spent two weeks inspecting a cave called Tuc d'Audoubert. They created a detailed census of the people who lived in the cave; the inhabitants ranged from a 3-year-old boy to a 60 year-old man. A total of 28 people of all ages lived in this particular cave, 17 thousand years ago. They left stories in the sand, undisturbed all this time.

[Some good photographs and more information:]

Something about this story touches me. I'm not sure how to put it into words. People in every generation put such effort into leaving their mark on the world, through some accomplishment, and yet most, if not all, leave hardly a trace, their impressions quickly fading away in a few short years. Yet here are these people who 17,000 years ago unintentionally left a record that lasted.

We can never know which of the little things we leave behind, even our footprints, may persist through time.

This story also reminds me of how little we modern people actually read our world, our brains better adapted to deciphering print, or these days touch screens, than touching a track. No doubt it is our evolutionary past that developed brains able to track and read our world that allows us to adapt to this new technology. Though does reading these things allow us to develop the full capacity of our brains in the same way tracking does? I don't have answers to this, just the question.

Christopher Kemp, New Scientist magazine, Issue 2948, "Kalahari trackers who read ice-age life in footprints," 26 December 2013