What animals were like (Archaeology of People) Part 1

Animals have been treated in many different ways, not only in the past millennia which are the subject of this topic but also in the divergent traditions of anthropology and archaeology. When the British Early Agriculture Project, for example, was being formulated in the 1960s and renewed attention was being given to the criteria for domestication and the closeness of man—animal relationships, the overriding concern was for subsistence economics (Higgs and Jarman 1969). By this time, Levi-Strauss’s topic on totemism had been translated into English (Levi-Strauss 1964), and British anthropologists were commenting further on the ways that animals were used in systems of thought (E. Leach 1964; Tambiah 1969; cf. Douglas 1957; 1966). That anthropological tradition continued, with little sign of cross-fertilisation in archaeology, until recently. In adopting a more anthropological approach to animals, some prehistorians have given particular attention to categorisation and symbolism. It is the aim of this topic to explore both the strengths and weaknesses of this fusion. In particular I will claim the necessity of maintaining a broad approach to animals. I argue that animals were central to the way of life under investigation; they were an inseparable part of how identities were constructed and how the world was seen, but in stressing their symbolic and conceptual importance, it is vital not to lose sight of their physicality, animality and sociality. Animals were a central part of the diversity which this topic claims, and another factor in the very slow rate at which fundamental change took place.


A brief contrast between anthropological and archaeological traditions of dealing with animals will help to set the scene. When Levi-Strauss (1964, 89) declared that animals were important in symbolic schemes not because they are ‘good to eat’ but because they are ‘good to think’,1 he was not really engaged in a detailed discussion of animals as such. The much-quoted phrase emerges from his discussion of Radcliffe-Brown, the British anthropologist in many ways quite alien to the concerns and approaches of Levi-Strauss but who in a renewed attempt to explain totemism had begun to stress the importance of metaphorical thought (Kuper 1996, 53—6). The principal aim of Levi-Strauss’s Totemism was to deconstruct totemism as an anthropological construct, and to use the subject of how ‘natural species’ were thought about as a way into the universal workings of the human mind, especially the propensity to use analogy and metaphor. Animals, though of course referred to throughout the topic, seem in themselves to be taken for granted. Levi-Strauss dispassionately notes (1964, 57) in Malinowski’s treatment of totemism the ‘easily verifiable’ affinity between people and animals, through the sharing of movement, vocalisation, the expression of emotion, and the possession of body and face. He also underlines the limited explanatory value of a naturalistic approach, praising Evans-Pritchard’s discussion of the Nuer, in which the latter had gone no further than suggesting some power of association, for example between the flight of birds and their ability to communicate with the spirits of the sky (Levi-Strauss 1964, 79).

In real senses, Levi-Strauss’s arguments were little heeded, both over the longer term as structuralism was weighed and found wanting, and in the shorter term as anthropological discussion of animals continued. Much more recently, Willis has noted that totemism itself has far from given up the ghost (1994, 5). But already in the 1960s, other commentators had noted much more complex situations than Levi-Strauss had appeared to allow. Among the Karam of the New Guinea highlands, for example, a web of categorisations of creatures, from birds to animals such as pigs and dogs, was bound up with sets of cultural and cosmological distinctions among people (Bulmer 1967). Bulmer’s starting point was the indigenous classification of the cassowary, for other highland groups a (flightless) bird, but not for the Karam. Rather than explaining this by its ‘taxonomic status’ or its natural characteristics, Bulmer considered the status of the creature as a prime hunting prey, and from there the importance of the wild, the antithesis between forest and cultivation, conflicts within kinship roles and obligations, and contrasts with dogs and pigs. For the Karam, dogs are notable for their prominent mouths and genitalia, and ambiguous because of origins in the wild forest and of their domesticated co-presence, both helpful and disruptive, among people in settlements and gardens, taking part in hunts on the one hand but on the other hand stealing food, eating filth, killing piglets and breaking open graves. The killing of dogs is hedged with numerous proscriptions and restrictions, and domestic dogs are regarded as the adopted children of their owners (Bulmer 1967, 19). Pigs are regarded as chiefly domestic, filthy but tasty, in a sense like women: dangerous but to be lived with (Bulmer 1967, 20). This treatment seems to share much of Levi-Strauss’s approach but at the same time to go beyond it, in the way that categorisation is rooted in the lived contexts of forest and garden, in the lived roles of men and women, and in the actual characteristics of dogs and pigs.

In a similar way, the relationship of villagers in north-east Thailand to the animal world was presented as complex, expressing ‘neither a sense of affinity with animals alone nor a clear-cut distinction and separation from them, but rather a co-existence of both attitudes in varying intensities which create a perpetual tension’ (Tambiah 1969, 455). Such attitudes of ‘affinity and separation, opposition and integration’ are seen at their sharpest in relation to domestic and wild animals, and are bound up with dietary rules and prohibitions, which in turn are related to gender, kinship and household distinctions. The dog, for example, is seen as partly incorporated into human society, and cannot be eaten, but is also considered ‘degraded and incestuous’ and ‘the antithesis of correct human conduct’. Ox and buffalo are positively valued, but are edible, with rules; these include prohibitions on eating their meat at a marriage feast, as a metaphorical statement of the proper rules governing who can marry whom. Wild forest animals are considered inedible, a ‘statement of their extreme distance and difference from man’, but they have strong metaphorical significance (Tambiah 1969, 455—6). The conclusion that human conduct is not purely intellectual and that ‘cultures and social systems are . . . not only thought but lived (Tambiah 1969, 457; emphasis added) rests on a strong sense of specific context.

The classic ethnographies of Evans-Pritchard (1940; 1956) and Lienhardt (1961) on the Nuer and Dinka respectively of east Africa showed long ago the importance of cattle and their fundamental place in systems of value, belief and social relationships (and see discussion in Tilley 1996, 183—4; 1999, 51—2). Further studies have been no less relevant, especially for underlining diversity from situation to situation. Among the Himba of north-western Namibia, cattle are separated into two different categories of value, based on a varying conception of time (Crandall 1998). In the larger set, operating through matrilineal descent and transfer, cattle are a means of gaining wealth and power; they are used in rituals, for example surrounding births, marriages and deaths, but have little symbolic importance as such. The cattle of the other set, controlled patrilineally, are given great symbolic value, but are not much used in rituals or political manoeuvring by men. These and their flesh and milk are sacred, and they are seen both to represent ancestors and to be the possessions of ancestors of the patrilineal descent group in question. It is suggested that the differences can be explained by reference to Himba conceptions of time (Crandall 1998, 109—11). Himba inhabit both a temporal and a timeless world. The stable and permanent world of God and the ancestors exists alongside the transient and changing world of people. Cattle are important for subsistence and for social exchanges, for living, but the most valued animals are those related to the Himba sense of the sacred and immortal.

Another study of cattle in relation to notions of ancestry indicates the ambiguous significance which animals can be ascribed. For the Merina of Madagascar, ancestors are at the heart of existence (Bloch 1985; cf. Bloch 1971). Land and its products are inherited from the ancestors, who are housed on the land in tombs to which the dead will in their turn be taken (Bloch 1985, 635). Descent is ‘the merging of the living, the dead and the ancestral land in order to produce an enduring, ideally eternal, entity’ (Bloch 1985, 640). Being in the ideal state of the ancestors, however, requires being dead, wholly opposite to the vitality and desirability of existence. In its turn vitality is morally ambiguous, because it is conceptually opposed to ancestorhood and leads to putrefaction. Various myths can be seen to represent speculation about these problems of the nature of existence. Vitality is invested in cattle, and their violent ritual killing is a means to overcome, to get round, the moral ambiguity of this vitality. In actual rituals, an atmosphere of ‘violent conquest’ prevails, though after the event butchery and cooking seem to take place in a matter-of-fact kind of way (Bloch 1985, 643).

Broader comparative studies have suggested a general shift between hunter-gatherers and farmers in attitudes to animals. Ingold has suggested the general notion of a shift from trust to domination. Hunter-gatherers may be seen as sharing the world with the other creatures that inhabit it; the environment can be seen as ‘giving’ (following Bird-David 1990). Detailed ethnographies, for example from the north-west coast of America, repeatedly show attitudes of profound respect for animals, and a refusal to create a clear separation between people and animals, or even between animate and inanimate things; creatures had both souls and knowledge akin, or even superior, to that of people (e.g. Hymes 1990). By contrast, pastoralists can be seen as driven by a quite different ethic, of acquisition and domination.Whether this does full justice to the cattle keepers already briefly sketched is an open question. It raises too the question of whether we should take from this kind of comparative study, focused particularly on the worldviews of modern hunter-gatherers, a sharp and instant distinction in attitudes, and simply transfer this to the varied situations of transition in central and western Europe in the sixth to fourth millennia BC. Other documented examples suggest that this may be unwise. Attitudes to the woodland surroundings of rural settlements in Malawi and the wild animals which these contain seem to be ambivalent rather than clear-cut (B. Morris 1995; cf. B. Morris 1998; 2000). From one perspective, the wild creatures of the woodland are conceptually as well as practically opposed to the flow of life in horticultural villages. In these matrilineal communities, the focus is on agriculture and procreation; the woodland can be seen as in part antagonistic to the efforts and aspirations of cultivators (B. Morris 1995, 310). The woodland domain is associated with fierce wild animals, though these are also the source of meat and medicines; hunting is a male activity. Woodland is also the preserve of the spirits of the dead, which makes hunting a conceptually hazardous activity. Wild animals are associated with the spirits of the dead and with affinal (that is, related by marriage) males. Uniting woodland and village is again a sense of time, ‘a cyclic conception of life processes’ (B. Morris 1995, 310). More detailed accounts show the numbers of occasions on which wild animals or representations of them are used for rituals within the village (B. Morris 1998; 2000). In another central African context, animals as meat are an important medium of exchange and communication between adjacent and symbiotic horticulturalists and foragers (Grinker 1994). The village Lese attach considerable importance to sharing meat between households and kin groups. They do not share meat with the forest Efe, though the latter are expected by the Lese to act as good kin or village members and provide meat for the Lese, for the sake of friendship, loyalty and kinship (Grinker 1994, 155—6). In Lese classification, meat is female, but its acquisition is a male activity. Lese men are involved not only in hunting but also in the creation of clearance and the initiation of gardens, which then become a female preserve. These gendered differences may also be relevant to the conditions in which change was established in central and western Europe from the sixth to the fourth millennia BC.


There is no need at this stage to rehearse the detail of other components of this anthropological tradition (e.g. Willis 1994; Ingold 1988; Manning and Serpell 1994); the difference between this and the dominant archaeological approach, at least until recently, should be very clear. In place of notions of value, belief, categorisation, symbolism, time and gender, the principal concerns in the archaeological field have been practical, economic and evolutionary. Innumerable specialist animal bone reports (to which no disrespect is intended) principally establish species present, and patterns of age and sex, some with detailed attention also to taphonomic process (e.g. Grigson 1999; Halstead 1998), in an effort to reconstruct the site-oriented pattern of the subsistence economy. Bogucki (1993, 492) has noted how easily animals have been considered as products rather than assets, within this dominant model. Specialist reports themselves comparatively rarely discuss the embeddedness of the economy, or its wider social as opposed to practical and economic goals. More reflective papers have sought to investigate the wider implications of particular situations. The shift from the general dominance of sheep and goats in early assemblages from the Carpathian basin to that of cattle in LBK assemblages from the woodlands of central and western Europe has been related to the differences in the underlying ecological conditions (Halstead 1989). A detailed attempt has been made to model possible variations in the practicalities of subsistence in a small settlement of the Alpine foreland (Gross et al. 1990). Here the concern has been to calculate the calorie and protein needs of over twenty people (including children and adults); the possible yields of cereals, animal meat and milk, wild plants, and fish; and labour requirements for cereal cultivation and other tasks. Some of the underlying assumptions can be noted. It is assumed that people were constantly in one place, that the principal element in the subsistence economy was cereal cultivation, and that life was a grim struggle, with very little room for manoeuvre when things went wrong (Gross et al. 1990, 96).2 Principal constraints were the lack of labour available for cultivating the few hectares required in the model, uncertain climate and weather, and the need to provide winter fodder for animals. Risk was countered by the diversity of resources used, but diversity is seen to hold back technical innovation or experimentation.

This particular model has led to the novel suggestion3 of economic crash in the thirty-seventh and thirty-sixth centuries BC in the Alpine foreland of northern and western Switzerland (Schibler, Jacomet et al. 1997). In sites at the head of Lake Zurich (e.g. Schibler, Huster-Plogmann et al. 1997), and westwards and south-westwards on the other large glacial lakes, occupation levels of this date show a continuation of existing patterns of domestic animal use, but also suggest an increase in the hunting of game, principally red deer (as measured by counts of bones per square metre of excavated sites), an increase in wild plant collecting, a shift to larger fish, and a probable decline in the amount of cereal cultivation (Schibler, Jacomet et al. 1997). This coincides with good evidence for a colder climate, seen in tree ring evidence and manifested also in higher lake levels (and some reduction in the number of visible lake-edge sites). It is supposed that the principal effect would have been shorter, colder and wetter growing seasons. Given the assumptions of an economy already at the limits of sustainability, the suggested response was to survive by resorting to hunting, gathering and fishing on a far greater scale than would normally have been the case. I will examine this suggested scenario in more detail later in this topic, and explore a possible alternative explanation. Here the potential value, as well as the general character and assumptions, of this kind of model can be emphasised, for it could lead to a ‘thick description’ of the conditions and realities of lived existence, and to a detailed account of a specific historical trend.

The establishment of difference and change seems to be the underlying goal of much research on animals. A particularly influential model, that of the secondary products revolution (Sherratt 1981), has operated at a much higher level of generalisation than the Alpine foreland model just discussed above.4 As is too well known to need detailed repetition, the model proposed a series of innovations subsequent to a primary Neolithic economy which concentrated on primary products, such as cereals and meat. ‘Secondary products’ were the traction power of animals harnessed for use with wheeled vehicles and ploughs, their milk and wool, and in due course the fermentation of grapes and barley to produce alcoholic drinks (Sherratt 1987). The model has been commented on many times.It treats too much together, in the search for broad historical pattern. It may have correctly predicted the introduction of wheeled vehicles (Bakker et al. 1999) but the effect of these may have been very limited: more like small hand-carts than massive waggons, on the evidence of the Alpine foreland. The date of the introduction of the plough remains uncertain, and again its effect may not have been an instant shift to extensive cultivation. Milking may have been introduced earlier than predicted, as is beginning to be tested in Britain by the development of techniques for the identification of lipids in pottery (Richard Evershed, pers. comm.; cf. Halstead 1998; Balasse et al. 2000). Fermented drinks may likewise have been made by a variety of means, from the start of the Neolithic if not earlier. These will persist as issues for technical debate. The assumption that intensification and specialisation were to be expected within general patterns of change, with innovation accepted from far-distant sources.

Perhaps following the lead of collected papers such as Ingold (1988) and Willis (1994), a more recent trend within archaeological writing on animals has been to draw much more explicitly on the anthropological literature, to examine the categorisation of animals and associated symbolism. The character of these arguments has varied. Discussing the Late Mesolithic of southern Scandinavia, Tilley (1996, 62—5) drew attention to the frequent occurrence in graves and other contexts of red deer bones and antler and artefacts made from these materials, and argued convincingly for considerable symbolic importance. He also noted, drawing explicitly on Levi-Strauss and others, the ambiguity of animals, on the one hand different from but on the other hand similar to people in their basic anatomy and behaviour, as the reason for their use as appropriate metaphorical media (Tilley 1996, 63). The argument, however, in large measure rests on the natural characteristics of the species that could be presumed to have made them symbolically appropriate, especially their sociality and affective behaviour, but also their fertility and vitality. The claimed ‘natural basis for drawing analogies’ (such as red deer=herd=clan= territory, red deer= sociability=sharing = kinship, and red deer=hunting blood=vitality and fertility=social reproduction) may be plausible enough (Tilley 1996, 65), but it is not a position, as we have seen, that Levi-Strauss himself would have supported. In the Early and Middle Neolithic of southern Scandinavia, votive deposits (in wet places and elsewhere) suggest clearly that cattle replaced red deer as the dominant animal symbol, with blows to the animal head indicating the kind of killing, perhaps sacrificial; cattle became ‘emotional subjects of desire’ (Tilley 1996, 184), at the heart of a domesticated world turned against and opposed to the previously life-giving and benevolent forest (Tilley 1996, 111—12; 183—4). In this case, however, there is little or no discussion of the natural characteristics of cattle (or their possible ambiguity), and the underlying symbolic logic is ascribed to the ‘production and provision of food’ (Tilley 1996, 111), with wider analogies drawn from the Nuer and Dinka cases as described by Evans-Pritchard and Lienhardt (Tilley 1996, 183—4).

A naturalistic position has also been set out by Andrew Jones (1998) in discussion of the Orkney islands. The main argument is that animal remains were frequently placed in both domestic and other contexts, for example cattle bones in the outer walls of houses at Skara Brae, in such a way as to draw in and represent the surrounding landscape; animals help to constitute the experience of place (A. Jones 1998, 303). In perhaps the most striking example, it is noted how on the south side of the small island of Rousay, long known for its concentration of chambered cairns, cattle remains are associated with constructions on the lower slopes such as Midhowe, which also contains disarticulated human remains in segmented spaces, while deer remains are found in the higher placed cairns such as Knowe of Ramsay and Knowe of Yarso, where amongst other human remains there are skulls. The view is that deer as upland animals are appropriately placed on the higher parts of this landscape (A. Jones 1998, 315—17).

A less universalised view of red deer has been argued by Sharples (2000), in the context of the British Neolithic as a whole and Orkney in particular, where there are good reasons to suppose that deer may have been introduced to the islands and carefully managed. Here the argument is for an ambiguous status for this species, in the Orkney context deliberately introduced but probably never domesticated as such, but neither wholly wild, and in the wider British context perhaps partially subject to prohibitions on consumption, given the low numbers in most Neolithic assemblages (Sharples 2000, 113—14). There are also cases on the Orkneys where red deer appear to have been slaughtered, consumed and deposited in special circumstances close to settlements (Sharples 2000, 110—12). Given these observations, as well as bearing in mind the position of Levi-Strauss, it might be legitimate to consider other interpretations of the Rousay situation noted above. It might be more important metaphorically than is allowed in a straightforward representation of the landscape and the place of creatures in it, that cattle and humans are bound closely together as some kind of indissoluble collective, while the human spirit or soul, as suggested by the skull, is associated with the ambiguous category of (half-)wild red deer. We will come back again to the significance of deer and other game in early Neolithic contexts elsewhere later in this topic.

In the context of a wider discussion of metaphor, Tilley (1999, 52—4) has also drawn attention to Melanesian ethnography on the symbolic importance of pigs. He highlights, to illustrate the ‘pre-eminent ritual significance’ of pigs throughout the region, the particular case of the northern Vanuata islands (in this case as documented by Layard 1942), where boars with tusks so long that they formed circles were prime sacrificial animals and items of exchange; tusks were a measurement of time, an exchangeable valuable, a means of male advancement and both a metonym of and metaphor for male identity. This is an interesting case study, but there is little discussion here of the pigs as pigs; the focus is on their tusks and on male agency. In other Melanesian cases, for example among the highland Karam already noted (Bulmer 1967), the behaviour of pigs is part of the basis for their symbolic status, while among the Tsembaga people of highland New Guinea it seems to be the facts of their reproductive fertility, growth and desirable taste that make pigs the central focus of the ritual cycle (Rappaport 1968). In the Mount Hagen case, the indigenous view is that products are created by multiple means; neither husband nor wife can claim sole ownership of land and its products (M. Strathern 1988, 162—3). Food given to pigs by wives is grown on land belonging to husbands’ clans, cleared by men and planted by women; ‘sole "ownership" is claimed by the husband only vis-a-vis other husbands, in the sphere of ceremonial exchange’ (M. Strathern 1988, 163). In the Vanuatu case, using these observations, there may be much more to the significance of pigs than male agency alone.

A final example of more recent archaeological discussions takes us back to cattle (Parker Pearson 2000). Starting from the universal symbolic importance of food (cf. Gosden and Hather 1999), Parker Pearson examines the economic and symbolic importance of cattle among the Tandroy people of southern Madagascar. Cattle are central to the Tandroy (Figure 4.1). They are part of a way of life that is at once sedentary and mobile. They help to define male identity. They are accumulated for wealth, exchanged at marriages, and sacrificed at funerals, to open ‘the channels of communication with all the ancestors’ (Parker Pearson 2000, 225). Cattle, however, are not part of normal diet, their consumption being restricted to ritual events, especially connected with funerals, when sheep and goats are also sacrificed; who may or may not share helps to define kinship relationships. Regular diet is provided by a variety of cultivated plants, imported rice (regarded as more or less sacred), chickens and guinea fowl; cow’s milk is available only for a short period in the wet season, and sheep and goats are not milked. Many wild animals are taboo, or eaten away from settlements. Cattle bucrania are deposited at ancestral tombs, but there is little else in the deposition of animal bones around settlements that would indicate their importance as ritually sacred. Many bones in the refuse of a given settlement are from animals not raised there. Much bone is fragmented and destroyed by dogs.

This ethnoarchaeological study manages to combine anthropological concerns for the social, symbolic and sacred with archaeological interest in diet, subsistence, patterns of residence and taphonomy. It begins perhaps to indicate the scale of the challenge involved in better understanding of the place of animals. On the one hand, much of the anthropological evidence reviewed so far has been fragmented: cattle here, pigs there (some treated as objects of value, others as ambiguous, related in part to their behaviour), sheep rarely present (except in the last example), and hardly ever all together at the same time.

Tandroy cattle, southern Madagascar. Top: on the move; middle: entering a mortuary ceremony; bottom: transformed into meat after sacrifice during mortuary rites.

Figure 4.1 Tandroy cattle, southern Madagascar. Top: on the move; middle: entering a mortuary ceremony; bottom: transformed into meat after sacrifice during mortuary rites.

Most attention is given in these accounts to the definition of social relationships and the workings of sacred imperatives, and relatively little to the flow of life as constituted in part by animals and their behaviour. On the other hand, much of the archaeological literature has concentrated on species by species descriptions, seeking purely economic explanations within an evolutionary framework and a logic of self-sufficient, sedentary existence. What has been reviewed so far shows both opportunities and difficulties. The rest of this topic attempts to reinforce a sense of how closely people and animals were bound together both in their daily lives and in domains of sacred significance. I want to restate the ubiquity and physicality of animals, explore the varying human socialities involved in their tending, review the probable closeness of the bonds between people and animals, and emphasise the intimacy of the ways in which animals were used as social and symbolic assets. My contention is that this relationship was part of a considerable diversity and sometimes ambiguity of identity, and is also another important indicator of slow, long-term change.

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