A Brief History of Human and Bear Interaction

August 25, 2018 Posted by: Russ Taylor
Humans and bears have had a complex history. From the perspective of a bear it would have to be described as sub-optimal. On this blog post we’ll be looking at the history of human interaction with bears.

We’ll begin with the Roman Empire. Suffice it to say that the Roman Empire did not revere bears. They saw bears as a symbol of nature’s power and savagery and this culture tortured bears to death. (As well as elephants, leopards, and other animals). They would bring them into the coliseum and slaughter them, or use them to kill prisoners.

Histories say the Roman Emperor Gordian liked to watch bloody matches between bears and dogs or gladiators and he saw the death of close to 1,000 bears.

A relief from the 2nd century (Wikimedia)

One wonders how you would catch wild animals in order to bring them to Rome. In his book on hunting, the 2nd century writer Oppian describes how live bears were captured in Armenia. After identifying bears dens with the help of dogs, hunters would drive animals out with a cacophony of trumpets and cymbals.

Once the bears were out in the open they’d run them into a net they’d set up. This would be a dangerous moment “for at that moment bears greatly rage with jaws and terrible paws.” The strongest members of the hunting team would restrain the bears by tying its limbs to wooden planks. They then placed it in a “cage of oak and pines.” (The Atlantic, March 30, 2016)

There were other actions of note in the 2nd century, such as the Greek Astronomer Ptolemy cataloguing the constellation Ursa Major. In Greek Mythology it is associated with Callisto, a nymph who was turned into a bear by Zeus’ jealous wife Hera.

Ursa Major is a well-known, significant constellation in many cultures. Being one of the oldest constellations in the sky, it has a history dating back to ancient times. The constellation is referenced in Homer and in the Bible. There’s a proverb that says it’s better to meet a bear robbed of her cubs, rather than a fool in his folly.

In some Native American cultures the Big Dipper is a large bear and the tail are the warriors chasing it. Since its low in the sky in autumn it’s said that the blood of the bear is what causes the leaves to turn red.

No virtue was more valued than bravery and no act required greater bravery than confronting a grizzly bear. You had to get very close with a spear in order to kill a bear and often a warrior or two was lost in the process of a hunt.

Ursa Major is prominently displayed on the Alaska flag.

Now that we’re beyond the 2nd century, surely things get better. Oh, contraire! Near the end of his classic 1606 play Macbeth, William Shakespeare included a scene in which the doomed character says that his enemies “have tied me to a stake; I cannot fly, but bear-like, I must fight the course.”

What could this have meant? 400 years ago people knew exactly what that meant. It was an obvious reference to them. The most popular sport was to tie a bear by its leg or neck, people would place bets, and bulldogs or mastiffs would be unleashed to torment and attack the bear. Queen Elizabeth I reportedly enjoyed the sight of bears being ripped by dogs. (history.com January 30, 2017)

Moving on to the early European explorers of the American Continent, let’s take a look at Lewis and Clark. These were by no means the first explorers to encounter bears, but unfortunately the earlier explorers did not write about them much. The journals of Lewis gave us some insight into how they viewed the bears.

Comparing grizzly to black bears he wrote, “It is a much more furious and formidable animal, and will frequently pursue the hunter when wounded.” He added, “It is astonishing to see the wounds they will bear before they can be put to death.” He mentioned one that had five balls shots through its lungs and five others in various parts” before it finally died.

He wrote later “these bear being so hard to die rather intimidates us all…”

In those days shooting a grizzly was potentially life-threatening. The latest rifles were single-shot, muzzle-loading guns that fired small-caliber bullets, and even experienced riflemen took at least 20 seconds to reload. Grizzlies were incredibly resistant to these early rifles. It took a shot through the head or heart to take one down.

When a rifle failed, a hunting knife was typically the last resort against an angry grizzly. I read one account where an early explorer survived by fighting a bear with a knife at close range. Most of the time an encounter at close quarters with a grizzly that was angered meant death.
A Girandoni System Austrian Repeating Air Rifle, Circa 1795, believed to have been taken on the Lewis Clark Army Corps of Discovery Expedition 1803-1806. US Federal Government Public Domain 

In the 1800’s the Grizzly Bear was formally classified as a species. After careful study, the naturalist George Ord formally classified it in 1815 – not for its hair, being grizzled, but for its character. So we’re talking grisly, vs grizzly. A grizzly bear is known as Ursus Arctos, but Ord classified it as Ursus horribilis, meaning terrifying bear. This did not help the bears cause.

This grisly reputation was aided a bit by President Roosevelt’s refusal to shoot a tired and exhausted black bear during a hunting trip in 1902. In some small way, the stuffed toys named after him may have helped a new generation of Americans see grizzlies in a more positive light than their predecessors, who generally regarded them as agricultural pests and menaces to mankind.

Yet still, the grizzly bears were persecuted. Look at this flag from the state of California. What’s on the flag? A grizzly bear.

How many grizzlies remain in California? Zero.

As the gold rush started, and as people were beginning to raise cows it was decided that the bears needed to go. So now the whole state is grizzly bear free. There were over 10,000 grizzly bears but by 1924 the very last one was shot.

In the modern era, especially in relation to national parks, things have been getting better for bears. It has taken some learning on the part of humans for this to be so. There was a time when parks such as Yellowstone and Yosemite would feed bears by dumping trash for them to rummage through in front of tourists or allowing them to feed in backcountry dumps. People were also leaving way too much trash in the campgrounds, so bears were habituated to humans having food. This led to the deaths of two backpackers in Glacier National Park in 1967. As a result, Yellowstone and other parks closed dumps to bears by 1970.

Moving closer to home, the Alutiiq people had been in the Katmai area for centuries. In 1912 the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century occurred, the Novarupta eruption, which would make the later eruption of Mt. Saint Helens seem small in comparison. In the days before and after the eruption, residents fled all four villages in the Katmai area. Fortuitously, no one was killed in the eruption or its aftermath. Katmai National Monument was established in 1918, later to become a national park.

Alutiiq people continued to harvest salmon at Brooks Camp in the summer and fall, in addition to other subsistence activities in the park area, after the eruption. They lived with bears, and needed to chase bears away from the areas where they were harvesting salmon. Both commercial and subsistence use began to decline in the 1950s with greater park presence and more tourism. By the 1980’s word had spread at what a great bear viewing area the Brooks River was and today the bears are thriving.

Bears feeding at Brooks Falls in Alaska Brooks Falls, July 14, 2018 NPS Photo/Russ Taylor

Let us hope that in the coming years the relationship between humans and bears continues on a more promising trajectory.

“Bears are not companions of men, but children of God, and His charity is broad enough for both… We seek to establish a narrow line between ourselves and the feathery zeros we dare to call angels, but ask a partition barrier of infinite width to show the rest of creation its proper place. Yet bears are made of the same dust as we, and breathe the same winds and drink of the same waters. A bears days are warmed by the same sun, his dwellings are overdomed by the same blue sky, and his life turns and ebbs with heart-pulsings like ours and was poured from the same fountain…..” –John Muir


Last updated: August 25, 2018

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