Creating questions

Why and when and how exactly did domestication happen?

This week’s readings were about creating questions more than they were about answering them. In reality, we do not know how exactly animals came to be domesticated.

In Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers (for initial discussion of this work, see last week’s post), Bulliet argues that domestication happened as much because of religion, ritual, and sacrifice as because of a need for food. I find this to be highly improbable.The arguments in our first set of readings, describing domestication as a mutualism that developed almost naturally seems liker to me. How could religion and sacrifice take precedence over food procurement? Central to Bulliet’s argument is the suggestion that human males would be reluctant to give up hunting in favor of domesticating animals. I do not think that this is a reasonable supposition. Domestication was as favorable for the species domesticed as it was for

Bulliet’s argument for the use of animals for riding and heavy work is much more probable. I have ridden horses since I was little, and it seems very natural to me that humans would use animals for transport and heavy work. However, I do wonder how the initial riding or plowing training was done. I have broke horses to ride. The first time you get on an individual domestic horse is a little frightening–you don’t know quite how it will react. How frightening must it have been to mount a horse for the first time ever? What circumstances allowed for this to happen?

I do know that it was common practice among cowboys in the 1800s to bring colts in off of the range (2 and 3 year old horses that had rarely been handled), knock them down and castrate them (without any kind of anesthetic) and then get them up and ride them. Though this was traumatic for the young horses, it made the breaking to ride process much easier, because the colts were thinking harder about how much their surgery cuts hurt than they were thinking about how weird it was to have a person riding them. I wonder if a similar process allowed people to ride horses for the first time? Could people have initially gotten on a sick or hurt animal that would have a harder time hurting them?

In general, the arguments presented in Clutton-Brock’s Animals as Domesticates seem much more probable and reasonable to my mind than are Bulliet’s. Clutton-Brock uses a much more even-handed tone than Bulliet does–she is not passing wisdom down from on high, as Bulliet sometimes sounds like he is, but rather is presenting information that she has gathered from a variety of sources. I was interested to learn (after I had finished the reading) that she is in the zoology department at her university–apparently I have a bias towards the writing of those in fields similar to my own.

In particular, Clutton-Brock’s description of humans as nurturers was very compelling and I would like to hear her expand upon it. Humans care for their own young and for the young of other humans. The common saying “it takes a village to raise a child” really expresses this–culturally, we are OK with other people raising our children and with raise children for others. A clear modern-day example of this is human’s tendency to take their children to daycare centers. We aren’t really raising our own children in today’s society.

However, to return to the original point: humans are nurturers and we (today, at least) nurture our animals like we nurture our own young. People refer to their dogs or cats as their “children” and to themselves as their dogs’ “moms” and “dads.” It isn’t too large a jump, then, to imagine that early humans were more likely to want to care for another species than, say, early chimpanzees. Ingold touches on this point also, but in a slightly different sort of way, saying that hunters knew and cared for their prey in much the same way that they knew and cared for their fellow humans. Could humans have domesticated animals because of some sort of nurturing instinct over which we have no control?

Overall, these readings do not explain how domestication happened. Rather, they show that we do not know how it happened, exactly, and we really never will know, because history has happened–we can’t go back and check to see how it happened. Ingold sums up my opinion on the matter very eloquently in the introduction to his essay From Trust to Domination:

“Only humans… construct narratives of this history. Such narratives range from what we might regard as myths of totemic origin to supposedly ‘scientific’ accounts of the origins of domestication. And however we might choose to distinguish between myth and science, if indeed the distinction can be made at all, they have in common that they tell us as much about how the narrators view their own humanity as they do about their attitudes and relations to non-human animals. “

Every story we tell about how domestication happened is just that–a story. We do not know how exactly domestication happened and we never will. We can only theorize. I am beginning to realize that history is a discipline with many more questions than answers. In the study of history, you get a finite amount of evidence from which you must draw conclusions and, depending on who you are, those conclusions can vary widely.

5 thoughts on “Creating questions

  1. To address just one point of your well reasoned argument, I think a discussion of religion as a possible impetus for domestication. My knowledge of very early religion is minimal, but I think the idea of domestication animals for religious purposes is reasonable. In the past, religion played a very central role in people’s lives, much more central than it does today. If early humans thought a sacrificed animal would bring a better harvest or fatter animals, they would want to do it with a regularity that I think would require domesticated animals. I don’t mean to suggest that this is the only reason why animals were domesticated, or even that it was the main reason, but I think it is an interesting argument to consider. Religion could be an interesting part of the domestication puzzle.

    Also, I don’t mean to nitpick at something you only briefly mentioned in your blog, I just think it is an interesting point to consider.

    • That is a good point. I, too, do not know a lot about early religions. I’m interested to hear what everyone has to say about religion tomorrow.

  2. I thought you comments of the breaking of horses(? I’m not quite sure how that word is used in terms of horses haha) were very interesting. There has to be some reason why animals, such as horses, were able to be mounted and used for labor, and I think your idea about sick or injured animals makes a lot of sense. Humans would have had a very difficult time dealing with any of the large work animals at full strength, but maybe the whole process of domestication was spurred by a chance meeting of an early human with an old or weak animal.
    Also I agree with your opinions of Bulliet having a sort of arrogance in his style. I sometimes get sort of irritated by his matter-of-fact opinions and simple dismissal of others ideas. But I guess everyone is entitled to their own opinions and why bother to have opinions at all if you don’t think that yours are more correct that others. Haha

  3. I also found religious sacrifice as the creation for domestication unsatisfying. Bulliet had my attention up into that point because, as in the essay and Animals as Domesticates, he discussed a mutually beneficial relationship between humans and animals such as pigs and wolves. I hope that I am not just biased and just hope the reason behind domestication was not as one sided as an animal sacrifice. In his opinion Bulliet dismissed meat to be the reason behind domestication. I thought he was abrupt and unfair in this determination especially once he revealed what he believes to be the true reason. If the domestication of animals for meat was too much work without enough benefit, could religion provide enough of a cause for these hardships? I cannot answer this question without knowing more about ancient religion and culture but it does raise some more questions for me. For example if the hunt of an animal was deemed honorary then how did humans deem it ok to go into their back yard and grab a lamb they had been keeping for slaughter? What honor is there in that for the gods?
    I agree that Animals as Domesticates provides much less bias than Bulliet. In my mind it is much more of a textbook that leaves opinion and speculation up to the reader and just provides raw information. The nurturing aspect presented in that reading was very interesting and something that Bulliet never even addressed. I do not see this as the only reason we domesticated animals but it does show a better representation of human-animal relationships.

  4. I agree with you on challenging Bulliet’s assertion that animals were domesticated for any sort of ritual or belief. Once again, we have a case of Bulliet possibly not being as educated in evolutionary history as we’d like him to be. I would suspect that humans established animal relationships for survival and pragmatic uses long before we developed ritual religion. Now, humans may have been ‘superstitious’ of the world around them, or scared of routine and harmless natural phenomena, but to argue that we had religion before consistent food sources and a few basic animal relationships seems silly.

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