A history of seeing animals, part one

“The kinship between humans and animals has never been static, having been at the mercy of changing social norms and fleeting trends… human economic, cultural, and demographic factors play a major role in how we perceive of, and treat, animals.  So do age, education, ethnicity, occupation, religion, and sex.”
– Brian Fagan

As we saw when we looked at bestiality, how we view animals and think of them is time and culturally specific.  As we are at time when it seems clear we need to rethink our relationship with nature, a quick glance back seemed useful.

Our ancestors developed an awareness and understanding of the animals around them, predators and prey.  At least seventy thousand years ago, human cognitive abilities improved and so did hunting skills and technology.  This would be a move that changed how humans interacted with their world.

Hunters would treat prey as a living being, often seeing them as sacrificing themselves for humans, and thus we treated them with respect.  In order to successfully hunt, and hence survive, they had to know their prey.  They had to watch them and understand them, they had to know when not to approach and how to make their prey less fearful.  This creates an intimate relationship between predator and prey and we can see this in the cave art and in the stories that we told each other about the world.  Importantly, humans and animals were equal and there was no hard line between humans and other animals.  In this culture, individual wealth wasn’t a concept in the way it would become with domestication.

“Domestication changed the world, it’s landscapes, animals – and humanity.  About ten thousand years ago – the precise date will never be known – numerous deliberate acts, such as the corralling of young ungulates, turned animal-human relationships on end… Humans were now the masters, so the role of animals changed.  They became objects of individual ownership, tangible symbols of wealth, and powerful social instruments.”
– Brain Fagan

Domestication marks a shift in attention from dead animals to live ones, from communal resources to personal ones.  Its thought that dogs started to be domestication around 15,000 BCE and by about 10,000 BCE, other species followed.  In particular goats, sheep, pigs, cattle, donkeys, horses and camels.

“There were advantages on both sides in these history-changing partnerships.  What were now farm animals, bred in captivity, acquired better grazing and foraging carefully orchestrated by deliberate herding, and security from predators.  Humans acquired predictable meat supplies, milk, and a whole range of valuable by-products – everything from hides and fur to horn and sinew.”
– Brian Fagan

Dogs helped our ancestors to hunt, they offered guard functions, they may even have pulled loads and would become companions in their own right, as we are familiar with today.

Through domestication of sheep and goats, humans were able to settle in an area.  Livestock would provide meat, milk, skins and wool and would be a predictable and more reliable resource.  It also allowed humans to claim a piece of land as theirs, and this land would pass from generation to generation.  This was the time at which animals became more than just resources, they became a symbol and they linked generations.  The size of your herd was a sign of your wealth and thus your status.  Where previously animals were not owned, they were prey for hunters, now animals were property and with this came changes to human existence.  Rules around inheritance arose and this meant marriage ties became more important.

Around 6000 years ago, humans hitched a plough to an ox and established the first source of animal power for food production.  This meant it was possible to create surplus food which meant less time needed to be spent working and created leisure time and a social division of labour.

Then, around 4000 BCE, cities were established and grew which in turn meant a increased demand for goats and sheep.  This would lead to increased flock sizes which would have its own impact on how we saw and related to livestock.  In more rural areas, farmers and herders knew their animals by name, maintaining a close relationship but in more urban areas, the relationship between human and beast was changing.  The demand for meat and animal products increased and in response, so did the size of herds.  This led to depersonalisation, and seeing livestock as commodities rather than living creatures.

By 2500 BCE, pack animals were on the scene.  This involved the donkey, the horse and later the camel and would allow humans to travel over long distances, carry commodities for trade, supported armies and so on.  Areas became linked, empires grew and the world became more interconnected.

“Donkeys have worked alongside people for more than eight thousand years – but “alongside” actually means in the background, for they have always been inconspicuous players in history.  Plodding asses carried food and water, exotic luxuries, and essential commodities.”
– Brian Fagan

Despite the huge role they have played in our history, we still tend to see donkeys as stubborn beasts of burden.  As pack animals were often used as a caravan, they were treated as a group rather than individuals, and relationships are between individuals, thus it was easier to mistreat or overuse the donkeys.  This highlights a difference in how we have seen donkeys and horses – humans ride horses but tend to use donkeys to carry things, the former is a one to one relationship, the latter isn’t.  Thus there tended to be a bond between man and horse that wasn’t there when it came to donkeys.

Horses were likely domesticated somewhere around 4000 BCE and from there on, we established an, often, intimate relationship with them.  This was a relationship which was beyond function, the horse and rider were bonded, they were a team.  Horses, like cattle before them, became a status symbol.  They were an animal which brought prestige to the owner or rider.  They were noble creatures and as such were named and cherished.

“The Greeks made a clear distinction between the noble horse and the “servile” donkey, which corresponded in broad terms with that between people who were free and slaves.”
– Brian Fagan

Aristotle felt that nature had made animals as food and labour for humans and that they were subservient to us.  This fits with how we used animals and also made it ok for us to use them that way.  Animals were utilised for human benefit and human development.  Whilst some people will have had a personal relationship with some animals, on the whole, they were considered food and labour.  For the Romans, animals were beasts of utility as well as a source of entertainment.  Animals were pit against each other, against humans and were slaughtered as a form of amusement.

For more about how we view non-human animals, come back tomorrow!

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