Juliet Clutton-Brock. Animals as Domesticates: A World View through History. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2012. xi + 189 pp. $44.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-61186-028-3.
Reviewed by Harriet Ritvo (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
Published on H-Environment (March, 2013)
Commissioned by Dolly Jørgensen
In Animals as Domesticates, Juliet Clutton-Brock suggests that "the keeping of tamed livestock as a 'walking larder' ... may be seen as the most important change in social and cultural behavior to have occurred throughout the history of the human species" (pp. 23-24). Despite its long history (eight to ten thousand years), however, sheep and goats were not the first species to be domesticated and livestock husbandry does not represent the initial human engagement with domesticated animals. In the field of archaeozoology, where the elusiveness of evidence keeps many points open to continued scientific debate, there is general agreement that the first nonhuman animal to be domesticated was the dog. There is, however, less consensus about when this happened or what the motives were of the humans and wolves who initiated this enduring partnership.
In the introductory chapter of this attractive and authoritative overview, Clutton-Brock speculates about "the uniquely human capacity" and desire to form close bonds with members of other vertebrate species, and about the relative rarity among those species of a reciprocal inclination, or even tolerance, for proximity to us (p. 1). She also lucidly summarizes several important theoretical arguments. Her explanation of the criteria for deciding when a group of animals has become domesticated provides the basis for her argument that such groups should receive taxonomic recognition as separate species, whether or not they fit the ordinary standards that are applied to species in the wild. Of course, the species itself is far from an absolute category, and Clutton-Brock's contribution to the long-running debate between splitters and lumpers offers a nuanced understanding of the way it reflects both concrete evidence and human intellectual convenience.
After laying this groundwork, Clutton-Brock provides a region-by-region survey of animal domestication, beginning with Eurasia in general, and going on to ancient Egypt, ancient southwest Asia, Greece and Rome, ancient south and southeast Asia, Oceania, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Americas. The heavy emphasis on lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea reflects the practices of both ancient pastoralists (this was the location of the earliest livestock domestication) and modern researchers (for various reasons, it is also the area that has proven to be most appealing to archaeologists and archaeozoologists). As she has often done in her previous work, she skillfully synthesizes osteological evidence (the traditional stock-in-trade of archaeozoologists), with evidence from literary and material culture, and with the genetic evidence that has been rapidly accumulating in recent decades. In some cases this new source of insight has confirmed existing assumptions, but in other cases it has prompted the revision of previous understandings. For example, both the llama and the alpaca were once thought to be descended from the guanaco, but DNA analysis has revealed that the alpaca's wild ancestor is the vicuña, which means that early human settlers in the Andes managed to domesticate both local camelid species. This revision has significance beyond the discipline of archaeozoology, since paucity of domesticates has often served as the basis for disparagement of indigenous American, African, and Australian cultures.
Within each chapter, the emphasis is on livestock, although Clutton-Brock also mentions other domesticates, and on ancient origins, although she also notes subsequent events that have had significant impacts. Thus the chapter on south and southeast Asia devotes most attention to the diverse types of indigenous domesticated bovines and pigs, all of which present challenges with regard to their derivation and classification. But there is also space for elephants (not completely domesticated, according to Clutton-Brock's criteria, since for most of their long relationship with people, young elephants were captured rather than bred); dogs; cats (genetic analysis has shown that Siamese and similar breeds have been isolated from other domestic cats for a long time, although they ultimately descend from the same north African subspecies of Felis sylvestris); chickens; peacocks; and goldfish. And the chapters on Oceania and the Americas, where the indigenous faunas have been most drastically affected by the domesticated animals and commensals that accompanied European colonization, include discussions of this relatively recent influx.
Overall, however, Animals as Domesticates focuses on the transformative cultural and economic importance of livestock husbandry. Its central theme is the domestication of sheep, goats, and cattle, and the millennia-long process by which they spread from the lands at the eastern end of the Mediterranean across the inhabited globe. Depending on the available evidence, the various episodes in this long story highlight different aspects of the human relationship to domesticated animals. For example, the ancient Egyptians left behind a plethora of animal bones and mummies, as well as zoological representations in art and hieroglyphics, all of which lead Clutton-Brock to claim that their culture was more intensely engaged with other species than any other, before or since. When discussing classical Greece and Rome, she relies on literary evidence, including scientific works by Aristotle and the husbandry manuals by such Roman authors as Columella and Varro, who could "equally well have been writing for today's small farmers, apart from the instructions for their slaves and practices concerned with their religious beliefs" (p. 78). And although such evidence is often ambiguous, Clutton-Brock points out suspected modification of domesticated species into breeds adapted for specific functions or environments.
This protracted dispersion has culminated in the factory farms of today, which accommodate enormous crowded animal populations in order to feed enormous crowded human populations. Clutton-Brock's focus on origins means that almost all of the animals described in this historical survey experienced husbandry regimes much less intensive than those that are standard in many parts of the world today. Of course this does not mean that their lives were pleasant, or that they were treated with respect, or even with consideration, by the people who used their labor and their flesh. She notes that even the ancient Egyptians, whose artworks indicate that they revered cats, also left "literally tons of mummies" with broken necks that suggest that many kittens were bred just to be sacrificed (p. 60). But today's industrial production of meat involves animal suffering on an unprecedented scale, and Clutton-Brock concludes by urging that moral and ethical considerations, as well as economic and environmental ones, should be taken into account by agricultural practitioners and policymakers.
In sum, Animals as Domesticates offers an accessible account of the origin of the species, and to some extent of the breeds, on which humans have depended for thousands of years. Within its broadly historical setting, it integrates the results of recent scientific research, and it clearly explains why consensus on some points has changed and on others remains elusive. The book is very nicely produced, with well-chosen illustrations that represent the impressive variety of Clutton-Brock's evidence, and a comprehensive bibliography and index. It provides essential background for the more recent history of the animals it describes.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-environment.
Harriet Ritvo. Review of Clutton-Brock, Juliet, Animals as Domesticates: A World View through History.
H-Environment, H-Net Reviews.
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