The eagle hunters of Central Asia

Marco Polo, the great Venetian traveller, was probably one of the first Westerners to describe hunting with eagles, as practised to this day by the Kazakhs and other Central Asian people. In Book 2, ch.18 of his Travels of Marco Polo the Venetian he describes seeing eagles at the court of Kublai Khan in Karakorum in present-day Mongolia:
There are also a great number of eagles, all broken to catch wolves, foxes, deer and wild goats and they do catch them in great numbers. But those specially that are trained in wolf-catching are very large and powerful birds and no wolf is able to get away from them.”

Sir Henry Yule’s edition of the book, published by John Murray in 1874, also includes an illustration of eagle hunting. On coming across this for the first time recently I was surprised to see that it was in fact a woodcut taken from Thomas Atkinson’s book, Oriental and Western Siberia. Atkinson wrote extensively about eagle hunting, providing one of the earliest modern-day accounts of this remarkable phenomenon.

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Atkinson’s woodcut of a hunting eagle attacking a deer

In a footnote commenting on Marco Polo’s observation, Sir Henry writes: “In Eastern Turkestan and among the Kirghiz (Kazakhs-ed) to this day, eagles termed Barkut (now well known to be the Golden Eagle) are tamed and trained to fly at wolves, foxes, deer, wild goats, etc. A Kirghiz will give a good horse for an eagle in which he recognises capacity for training. Mr Atkinson gives vivid descriptions and illustrations of this eagle (which he calls ‘Bear coote’), attacking both deer and wolves. He represents the bird as striking one claw into the neck and the other into the back of its large prey, and then tearing out the liver with its beak.

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A modern-day Kazakh with his Golden Eagle

At least Sir Henry acknowledged Atkinson’s drawing. Other writers at that time shamelessly plundered his artwork and used it without acknowledgement.

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