Reviewed by Jim Mason
Edited by Sue Colledge, James Conolly, Keith Dobney, Katie Manning, and Stephen Shennan
Routledge, 2013, https://www.routledge.com/.
354 pages hardcover, also available in paperback and Kindle formats.
This book is an academic work, a collection of recent writings by zooarchologists (or archeozoologists) on the origins of animal domestication in the prehistoric Middle East, also called Southwest Asia or the Near East by scholars in this field.
As such, that may make it undesirable for many animal activists.
But read on….
The beginnings of animal slavery
Aside from the price of $180, the subject is undesirable for us because it tells the story of the beginnings of animal slavery by Homo sapiens for meat, milk, leather, fiber; and work pulling plows, carrying loads, and eventually chariots and warriors.
Here I must note that use of the word slavery in regards to exploitation of our animal cousins is considered extremely offensive to African-Americans and other people of color. Yet the word has been used by zoologists—notably FrIedrich Zeuner, author of the classic A History of Domesticated Animals (1963)––to describe a relationship in which one species exploits another for its energy to do work or provide materials.
The classic example is a species of ant that “farms” aphids for their “honeydew”—a sugary secretion. And some slave-maker ants enslave other ants, not only using them for labor but denying them the right to reproduce. They stage slave raids, use deception, and deliberately sow confusion in the ranks of their targets to achieve this.
(More recently, however, writers in this field have turned to using symbiosis instead of slavery. This, however, is a distortion of the traditional dictionary definition of symbiosis, which is “interaction between two different organisms living in close physical association, typically to the advantage of both.” Slavery is to the advantage of only the slave-keeper.)
Model for human slavery
In my book, An Unnatural Order, (see An Unnatural Order: The Roots of Our Destruction of Nature by Jim Mason), I argue that animal domestication/slavery may well have been a model for human slavery, the first stage of it having been the enslavement of women and girls taken as war captives during raids and wars among city states in the millennia before recorded history begins, circa 3,000 BCE.
Sex trafficking has been with us since before Western “civilization” began! It was a fixture of the patriarchal cultures that became the founders of Western civilization.
Note that patriarchy, or male supremacy, was a fixture of pastoral or herding societies, famous in anthropology as well for their fierceness, expansionism, raiding, polygamy, and slavery. In these societies, females tended to be regarded as just another kind of livestock—maintained, husbanded, to increase the wealth of men through work and reproduction.
And of course slavery was an important economic institution in ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome , and most if not all of our other Western cultural ancestors.
Who wants to know the gory details?
There are reasons why the agricultural revolution––specifically the animal domestication/slavery/husbandry part of it—should be of interest to animal advocates, indeed, to all progressive activists. But especially to animal rights activists, because we so often claim sisterhood with movements for women’s rights, civil rights, and others.
We should teach our colleagues that misogyny and racism are rooted in our distant past, in the very foundations of our Western world view of human supremacy and exceptionalism that took shape as humans learned to control the lives of plants and animals. I call this view misothery: contempt and loathing for animals and everything in the living world that humans cannot control.
And we should know more about the history of animal slaughter and meat eating, especially now that there is growing concern about the cruelties and environmental impacts of animal agriculture.
So, back to the book before us: Who among us wants to know the gory details of how wild—or indigenous—species of sheep, goats, cattle, etc. were removed from their natural habitat and brought under control by early farmers?
Under control at first meant simply guiding their herd to better grazing areas and water sources. Millennia later, control extended to sexual selection and the very shaping of the sizes, shapes, metabolism, and other functions of their bodies.
Such that now we have domestic turkeys selectively bred to be so big that they are incapable of having sex and have to be reproduced by artificial insemination for factory farms, chickens who grow so large and fast that they can hardly walk, and dairy cows whose metabolism has been cranked up to secrete volumes of milk that are seven to ten times more than are needed by their calves.
We have dog breeds that suffer inbred cruelty because of the deliberate misshaping of their bodies to suit our needs—once for some sort of work, more recently for some kind of “look” we like.
It is beyond infuriating.
Fall from grace
The agricultural revolution has been praised and glorified as the most important technological development in human evolution because it enabled people to increase the food supply, stay put, build cities and nations, and specialize labor into arts, crafts, and industries, generally raising the standard of living so that civilization could develop.
The agricultural revolution has also been described as “the worst mistake in the history of the human race” and “the seed of alienation from nature”.
Even the Holy Bible suggests this was a tragic downfall, a fall from grace, when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden to live a life of hardship tilling the soil. This view is right up front, in the creation story—always the most important myth in any culture.
The agricultural revolution brought not only hard work, but disease epidemics, famine, crowding, social conflict, kings and ruling elites, wealth, and armies to both defend and extend it all.
It was a mixed bag, to say the least.
The importance of animals to the human mind
These days it is common knowledge—at least among those who think about such things—that the agricultural revolution caused not only all of the above, but a seismic shift in human consciousness. It was an earthquake of the human psyche, and hence culture. It upended our worldview, which is how we see ourselves and our place in nature.
Today that is, of course, human supremacy and exceptionalism. We have been taught to think: We are not animals, we are better than animals and we have a god-given right to exploit them for our benefit.
This brings me to my pet peeve against those who criticize the agricultural revolution for its impact on our worldview: they are avoiding the significance of the animal side of domestication.
They talk and write about the move to farming and sedentary economies as if that is the whole bag.
They avoid discussion of how the domestication of animals was the heavier blow to our consciousness.
They avoid the importance of animals to the human mind before domestication.
Before farming, we were foragers living off the land in small groups. I call it primal and scholars call it totemic society. That was the way of human life for millennia before domestication begins c. 11,000 years ago. The longest time of human existence by a long shot. Like maybe a thousand times longer.
Our distant hominid ancestors branched off from the other great apes about 5 to 10 million years ago. That’s when we became more human than ape, i.e., walked more erect, used tools, etc.
We hominids were several different species until about 200,000 years ago when a mutation occurred and our current species, Homo sapiens appeared.
Homo sapiens did not appear out of the blue, but carried with it all of the knowledge and practices of its hominid ancestors. Millions of years of them. Foraging, living in kin groups, tools, ideas about the world—all the while living mostly outdoors exposed to the sights and sounds of animals, our animal cousins.
Powers that impressed us
Some were food, some were dangerous. All were fascinating and thought-provoking. They seemed like us in some ways. They ate, slept, ran, jumped, played, fought, had sex, urinated, defecated, had babies, called to each other, and did lots of things familiar to us.
Some of them seemed to have powers that impressed us: size, strength, ferocity, cunning, or some behavior. In totemic society, an animal species that was especially powerful to the society would have been seen as the totem animal.
Very special it was, sometimes an ancestor and teacher of the society. If a hunted animal species, rituals were needed to take the life (and power) of a member. The ritual usually involved getting permission from a mythic individual called the “master” of the animals’ species.
“Kin of sorts”
Our animal cousins were the main things in the world to hominids as we were evolving for millions of years toward Homo sapiens, modern humans. As primal foragers, we did not see them as so different from us as we do today. They were kin of sorts.
Mythologist Joseph Campbell called this era of human lifeways the way of the animal powers, when, for the longest time of our existence, our animal cousins were at least as important as us in the scheme of things.
In the words of Arkadiusz Marciniak, the author of one of the papers in The Origins and Spread:
“The elevated status of animals derived from their position as sentient beings sharing many of the ontological qualities of people—for example, comparable life cycles and behavioral traits, the display of dominance hierarchies, and differing degrees of sociality—all while at the same time retaining clear biological and behavioral differences.”
“From gods to goods”
Thus we have to wonder what happens to all of this kinship and totemic importance of animals once we take them under our control and make them livestock. Live stock!
We confine them and shape them and bend them to our will. We destroy that primal sense of animals’ power and kinship.
We construct new myths and rituals to erase and replace the old primal views with the new agrarian ideas about animals as tools, materials, property.
We invent an almighty god who created everything just for us. Our new God gives us a license to steal animals’ lives to make our lives better. The agricultural revolution takes animals down off their pedestal, turns them from sacred beings to slaves, from gods to goods, from revered to reviled.
One of the authors of papers in the book under review here says as much, calling the new relationship with animals and nature as a “fundamental paradigm shift.”
And further, “the principle of egalitarianism that might have typified the Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers’ [foragers’] world view would have been abandoned, thereby promoting the legitimization of human beings’ power over animals”.
The transition took a few thousand years of rituals, art, story-telling, and all the other bits and pieces of culture formation.
The evidence—and this field is only a decade or two old—is that animal domestication begins with sheep and goats roughly 11,000 years ago in the mountainous region that is now eastern Turkey and northern Iraq.
Much of the evidence comes from finding, sorting and counting bones, so the papers can be tedious to read.
“All according to ritual”
Domestication begins as forager/farmers in the region learn to selectively kill—cull—younger males and older females from one of the herds they know best.
All according to ritual, of course, because the old primal views of the animal powers die hard.
Gradually the people learn to manage their herd, perhaps by guiding it to water or better grazing areas or by providing fodder in harsh weather.
Over time, the people and their herd become familiar with each other, the sheep and goats become tame, and some are selected for confinement in the villages of early planters.
Villages had emerged as people in the region began cultivating wheat and barley and perhaps other food crops. Foraging required moving about constantly, which was becoming impossible in the increasingly crowded Fertile Crescent.
The papers suggest that this new pattern of farming both plants and animals spread relatively quickly from village to village. The scholars refer to it as the “barnyard complex” or the “integrated agropastoral economy”.
In the next thousand years or so, people in the greater region repeated the process to domesticate pigs, then cattle, then camels and eventually horses.
The barnyard complex spread first across the Middle East, then into Greece, Eastern Europe, and on to the rest of the Western world.
True animal husbandry began as people learned selective breeding and produced animals specialized for commodities. Some regions specialized in developing woolier sheep, or fatter pigs, or cattle for milk and dairy products. So today we have hundreds of kinds of cheeses named, like wines, after the regions where they were developed.
Some millennia later and well before written history begins around 5,000 years ago, some tribal societies—perhaps tired of the crowding and drudgery of barnyard farming—went on the move with their herds.
Some think that they began as providers of meat and animal products when the villages grew larger into towns and cities. These early urban centers would not have been able to maintain a steady supply of meat and hides from hunting, as the region had become “hunted out’.
Having wool and cheese requires herd-keeping, impossible in the city space. So some tribes specialized in herding sheep, goats, and cattle, and by necessity kept to the grazing lands in the regions surrounding urban centers.
These pastoralists made a living trading commodities with the city folk. They sold sheep, goats, and cattle for animal “sacrifice” ––slaughter by priests according to rituals prevailing in that city.
Bear in mind that the older sense of animal powers had not yet worn off, so the old hunting rituals had been gradually reformed into animal sacrifice in which a spiritual leader asked for “permission” to kill an animal.
The city folk became true believers because they loved the feasting and the hides and horns.
The ancient Hebrews, among other pastoralists, went on to invent monotheism in which one all-powerful god grants people “dominion” over animals as long as they give up their idolatrous, “pagan” primal notions of kinship with animals and the animal powers—all of which they had symbolized in art and myth.
Which is why Moses got so irate when he came down from the mountain with the ten commandments to find his people praising the golden calf. They were probably well into a ritual of animal sacrifice and were excited about the roasted meat, the feasting, and revelry to come.
Much to learn
Once horses became domesticated and brought under control with bit, bridle, saddle, spur, whip, harness, stirrup, etc., all hell broke loose. This is when we see the Scythians, Assyrians, Turkic tribes, Hittites, and later on Huns, Mongols, Aryans and so many other horse-mounted tribes swarm out of Central Asia and the Caucasus to plunder the wealth of the Mesopotamian city states (and Egypt).
Alexander the Great was the scion of the Macedonian family whose wealth and power came from military use of its herds of horses. But that is a vast subject beyond the scope of The Origins and Spread of Domestic Animals in Southwest Asia and Europe.
There is much for animal activists to learn about domestication and how it shaped our consciousness and attitude about the living world around us.
(Jim Mason, attorney and carpenter, raised on a Missouri farm, co-authored the book Animal Factories with philosopher Peter Singer in 1980 (revised and reissued in 1990), and An Unnatural Order (1993 and 2020). See An Unnatural Order: The Roots of Our Destruction of Nature by Jim Mason. Mason from 1981 to 1987 was founding editor of The Animals’ Agenda magazine.)
About the origins of The Origins & Spread of Domestic Animals in Southwest Asia & Europe:
Sue Colledge, a research associate at the University College London Institute of Archaeology, focuses on the archaeobotany of early prehistoric sites in southwest Asia and Europe. She is the co-editor (with James Conolly) of a parallel volume entitled The Origins and Spread of Domestic Plants in Southwest Asia and Europe (2007)
James Conolly is Canada Research Chair in Archaeology at Trent University. He is co-editor (with Sue Colledge) of The Origins and Spread of Domestic Plants in Southwest Asia and Europe.
Keith Dobney, the 6th Century Chair of Human Palaeoecology in the Department of Archaeology, University of Aberdeen, is actively involved in using the remains of domestic and commensal animals to explore the dispersal of early farmers across the Old World. He is a co-author of Pigs and Humans: 10,000 Years of Interaction (2007).
Katie Manning, a research associate at the University College London Institute of Archaeology, studies the ecology of early farming practices and the evolution of dietary specialization in Neolithic Europe. She has also worked extensively throughout West Africa. She is the co-editor of African Pottery Roulettes Past and Present: Techniques, Identification and Distribution.
Stephen Shennan, professor of theoretical archaeology at University College London and director of the University College London Institute of Archaeology, focuses on the development and application of cultural evolutionary theory and methods to understanding the past. His books include Pattern and Process in Cultural Evolution (edited), and Genes, Memes and Human History, and Quantifying Archaeology.