Monthly Archives: November 2014

Rosie, Buddy, Agency and History

“(Animals) permeate our history and we theirs: tug at the threads and our stories, woven as they are into the same tightly knit tapestry, will not disentwine.”[i]

Animals permeate my personal history. And as such, I love this quote by Brett Walker in Animals and the Intimacy of History. I thoroughly enjoyed this week’s readings and as this is our last post, I am going to take the liberty to draw very personal examples in arguing not only for their agency, but for the existence of specific animal cultures as well. Beyond their own agency and culture, animals have played a significant role in and deeply impacted our family’s history.

I live on a farm. And over the past twenty-five years, I have been intimately connected with animals, most intimately with cows, goats and dogs. Almost everyday I interacted with them and they interacted with me.

When looking at definitions of agency, I like the one purported by Linda Nash and credited to animals by Walker in his piece. By this definition, agency of a person or animal is the “ability to convert ideas into purposeful actions”.[ii]  So can animals really do this? I believe they can and do.

My dog, Rosie, is a Great Pyrenees. She’s a big dog but very shy. She only allows my husband and I to pet her. Everyday, I believe she converts ideas into purposeful actions. Let me give you just one example. My neighbor owns chickens. Every night she locks her chickens into a pen to help keep them safe. Often Rosie attends the nightly ritual. One night, after shutting the door to the chicken coup, my neighbor began walking back into her house; however, Rosie started barking up a storm. My neighbor tried to dismiss her and tell her to go home, but Rosie continued barking in the vicinity of the chicken coup door. My neighbor finally turned around and looked back at Rosie only to discover that one of the chickens was still outside the coup. Rosie was desperately trying to tell her. In this example, Rosie converted the idea of a “chicken is in danger” or “a chicken is out of place” or some similar idea (of course I do not know and cannot know her exact idea) in to a purposeful action of barking and yes, communicating, to my neighbor.  Rosie showed agency. Rosie showed “intelligence, emotion and purpose”.[iii] What Rosie did is not too different from my yelling at my neighbor that one of the chickens was still out. Other examples would show that Rosie shows agency every day.

I also believe that animals have their own cultures, sometimes heavily influenced by their human caretakers, and sometimes developed on their own. I want to turn to the goats for examples here. Once we gave a goat to a neighbor. Not long after the goat left, the new owners called, said she was sick and they didn’t know what to do. So, we went back and picked her up. She was sick. The new owner had not taken proper care of her and she was very sick. The vets felt she needed to be “put down” but that almost never happens at our farm, because we believe all animals should have a chance to live. My husband, who is the best ‘animal’ nurse I have every met, began working with her. We both attended her around the clock. She recovered and lived to die of old age. The ‘culture’ she encountered on one farm was very different from the ‘culture’ she encountered on another farm. Albeit, those cultures were manmade, they were different and certainly impacted her life.

Animals make their own culture as well. In our goatherd, the dominant goat is a male whether that we raised from a baby. The mother abandoned him shortly after birth and my husband found him cold and almost dead in the evening. He slept on my stomach that night as I fed him about every two hours with a syringe. He lived and actually became a house pet for a few weeks. After we put him in the herd, he grew to be a very tall, dominant leader. Because he is still attached to us, he always comes to the barn when he sees us. And all the other goats follow him. Also, because “buddy” is tame, the other goats in the herd do not often register us as a threat. So, one of the aspects of the culture of our goatherd is a relative “tameness” to humans. “Buddy” is the main driver in this culture.

Animals should always be a part of history. My children’s childhood history is intricately entwined with those of goats and cows and dogs and cats. This just is common sense to me. Animals have agency. They impact our history, and we impact theirs.

I somewhat apologize for a “less than academic” post, but my experiences with animals brought home the point to me that historians need to look at animals and their impact on history and also of our impact on their history. I’m almost positive that had Elizabeth Elsing tried to milk one of our milk goats that my husband would be calling for her punishment not only for stealing our milk but also for upsetting our goat![iv]



My granddaughter and her friend with Buddy.



[i] Brett L. Walker, “Animals and the Intimacy of History,” History and Theory 52, no. 4 (December 1, 2013): 49, doi:10.1111/hith.10687.

[ii] Ibid., 51.

[iii] Chris Pearson, “Dogs, History, and Agency,” History and Theory 52, no. 4 (December 1, 2013): 136, doi:10.1111/hith.10683.

[iv] Erica Fudge, “Milking Other Men’s Beasts,” History and Theory 52, no. 4 (December 1, 2013): 26, doi:10.1111/hith.10682.


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Beads and Gossip

Beads and gossip.

I never knew beads and gossip held so much history.

Our readings this week expound the idea of a methodology of historical research in which natural science intersects with history and ideas of periodization, temporality and historic disruption give way to a history devoid of the “pre”. Often historians look to temporality or disruption to begin their historical narratives and investigations, or perhaps look to a particular period, especially the modern era. Everything before is pre-history.

According to David Lord Smail in On Deep History and the Brain and to Smail and Andrew Shyrock in “History and the “Pre””, however, the “pre” needs to be prefix no longer associated with the word history. Beads and gossip show us why.

Let’s start with beads, just because they are easier to explain. Way back in time, around 110,000 years ago, beads with holes in them appeared in human populations. About 43,000 years ago perforated beads began to explode in proliferation. It is believed that the strings of beads (cowrie shells and red deer teeth) were “an emerging medium for sharing and exchange”  and that “extensive networks of marriage, friendship, and exchange grew up along chains of bead-giving and receiving”. (AHR, 723 & 725) Even though production of perforated beads exploded 43,000 years ago, it is Smail’s contention that we are not to look at that as a type of modernity at that time, but to realize that the language of beads was already ancient. (726)

The use of small perforated objects as modems of exchange continue to be seen. Grave goods found in what is present day Bulgaria but which date to 4500 B.C.E., contain metal perforated objects strung together. (729) The oldest coins found in China contained holes and were strung together reminiscent of the strings of cowrie shells. (732) Also, paper money from the Ming dynasty is in inscribed with a picture of a thousand coins strung together in groups of one hundred. (736) And, interestingly enough, in my drawer at home a have a souvenir from Japan – a coin with a hole in the middle. According to Smail and Shyrock, “The phylogeny of the bead offers a model for writing history that can work in many other domains. Food, kinship, ecosystems, language, migration, goods, religion, sex, energy use and the body can all be treated using similar ideas and frames.” (735)

So, let’s look at another idea, gossip. According to Smail in On Deep History and the Brain, gossip plays the same role as grooming in primate social structures. It is social interaction in the form of gossip which produces the “stimulation of peace and contentment hormones” (176). In historicizing gossip, Smail points to the general belief that women participate in gossip more than men in an opposite reaction to the male “fight or flight” response in a “tend and befriend” response. (177)

Smail then points out the history of gossip, or rather, the history of trying to regulate and control gossip. Smail argues:

As I suggested earlier, alpha individuals in human and other primate societies routinely practice a range of behaviors that induce feeling of stress in subordinates. Since gossip, like grooming, is a practice that eases stress, the denigration of female gossip in human societies has the appearance of a cultural device for preventing the alleviation of stress among women, the better to control them…177

Smail continues on to espouse that gossip then joins other mildly addictive practices prevalent in postlithic societies whose origins begin in the deep history of the brain.

So, beads and gossip…I’ll be honest, in my pragmatic and somewhat mathematical mind, the beads make sense but, the gossip,…that is a bit of a stretch, for me at least. In Smail’s book, I would prefer he spent less time setting a framework and arguing against detractors and more on his ideas and examples of history across the millennium.

On that note, I think I will leave the last word in this post to someone else, Akinwumi Ogundiran, an Africanist historian whose methodology for many years included a broad intersection of history and natural science.

“The study of Man’s past should be indivisible and there can be no such thing as an historical time before history…”


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