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Introduction to Anthropology

18.1 Humans and Animals

Introduction to Anthropology18.1 Humans and Animals

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Restate the scientific meaning of animal.
  • Describe the human-animal continuum.
  • Define multispecies ethnography.
  • Identify highlights in the domestication of dogs.

The Human-Animal Continuum

Nonhuman animals are part of many facets of our lives. Many people rely on animals as part of food and subsistence systems, particularly in the areas of hunting, herding, and agriculture. Some people worship deities who are all or part animal. Many people recognize animals as symbols of clans or sports teams. For example, did your school have an animal as the mascot for its sports or debate teams? Across cultures, people love animals as pets and companions, and, as recognized by evolutionary theory, humans are connected to animals as ancestors and relatives. Animals are integral parts of the lives of humans around the world, in which they play a variety of roles. Defining an animal, however, can be complicated.

With some exceptions, an animal is defined in science as a multicellular organism, either vertebrate or invertebrate, that can breathe, move, ingest and excrete food and food products, and reproduce sexually. This clearly also includes the human species. Western philosophical tradition supports this inclusion. The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BCE) grouped animals as being blooded (e.g., humans, mammals, birds, fish), non-blooded (e.g., shelled animals, insects, soft-skinned sea animals), or what he called dualizers, with mixed characteristics (e.g., whales, who live in the sea but have live births; bats, who have four legs but fly). Aristotle classified humans as animals with the intellectual ability to reason. In 1735, Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus introduced his binomial classification, which used two terms to identify every living organism: a genus and a species designation. In his work Systema Naturae (1735), Linnaeus divided the living world into two large kingdoms, the Regnum Animale (animal kingdom) and the Regnum Vegetabile (plant kingdom). Like Aristotle before him, Linnaeus classified humans as animals. Today, the scientific approach to the study of the animal kingdom accepts that there is a continuum between all living animal species with grades of difference between species. However, even though humans are animals, people across cultures define themselves as separate from animals.

French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908–2009) argued that cultures universally define themselves in opposition to what they view as nature, a domain they define as outside or on the margins of human culture. Humans and human culture are typically seen as everything that is not nature or animal. This makes animals and nature very important concepts to human societies, because they shed light on how people think of themselves as human beings in the world. Lévi-Strauss famously said of animals that they are “good to think” (1963, 89), meaning that animals provide good ways for humans to think about themselves. Animals are used as symbols in all cultures, a sign of the human tendency to identify similarities and differences between ourselves and (other) animals.

In all societies, culture plays an important role in shaping how people define animals. Cultures assign various meanings to animals; they are ancestral spirits or deities, companions, work animals, wild and dangerous creatures, and even objects on display in zoos or raised in factory farms for food. Think of American culture, which both loves and dotes on dogs as members of the family and raises pigs as a food commodity. In other cultures, dogs are considered a food species. Among the North American Lakota people, dog meat is considered a medicinal food (see Meyers and Weston 2020), and in Vietnam, specially designated restaurants serve dog meat as a male aphrodisiac (Avieli 2011). To further illustrate the blurring of boundaries between categories of animals, some species of pigs, such as the potbellied pig, are kept as family pets in the United States. How do cultures designate species as being one thing and not another?

A pig stands on the sidewalk, wearing a brightly colored harness.
Figure 18.2 Potbellied pigs are kept as pets in some countries. Here, a pet pig is ready for a walk in her neighborhood. (credit: “Potbellied Pig!” by Eric Chan/flickr, CC BY 2.0)

The study of group identity is central to anthropology. Different cultures distinguish what is animal from what is human by comparing “the other” with themselves. Sometimes called us versus them, we versus they, or even the Other, capitalized, this binary (two-component) comparison is a human tendency observed across cultures.

It is common for cultural groups to distinguish between humans and nonhuman species and also to designate some humans as “other” and not as fully human—comparable to animals or even isolated parts of animals. In the Andes, indigenous Quechua and Aymara speakers refer to themselves as runa, meaning “people” or “humans.” Those who do not speak their languages and do not live in the Andes are, by extension, nonhuman and are typically referred to as q’ara, meaning literally “naked and bare,” referring to their lack of social ties and community (Zorn 1995). This distinction between those within the group and those without is common among Indigenous groups all over the world as well as within Western societies. Although the origin of the word frogs as an epithet (nickname) for the French is contested, it appears to have begun within France itself as a way of referring to people who lived in Paris and ate frog legs. By the late 18th century, however, frogs had begun to show up in English newspapers and other written sources as a pejorative, insulting term for all French people (Tidwell 1948). Not to be outdone, the French have traditionally referred to the English as rosbifs (roast beefs), a food common in English cuisine.

Although these examples are relatively lighthearted, there is a dark side to human-animal imagery. In a recent book, German freelance journalist Jan Mohnhaupt (2020) examines the distorted relationships that some Nazi leaders had with animals. After coming to power in Germany in 1937, the Nazi state enacted many laws against the Jewish people, among them a 1942 law that made it illegal for Jewish people to own pets, while Nazi leader Adolf Hitler doted on his dog and military commander Hermann Göring kept lions as pets. Preventing them from having companion animals was yet another way in which the Nazis sought to dehumanize Jewish people. Human-animal relationships are important to our sense of selfhood.

In this chapter, we will explore various cultures’ approaches to and understandings of nonhuman animals, including both living and symbolic animals, and the diverse ways in which humans interact with and think about these “other” beings.

Multispecies Ethnography

In his essay “Why Look at Animals?,” English art critic and poet John Berger writes, “To suppose that animals first entered the human imagination as meat or leather or horn is to project a 19th century attitude backwards across the millennia. Animals first entered the imagination as messengers and promises” ([1980] 1991, 4). Recent trends in anthropological scholarship attempt to interact with these messengers and understand the relationship that humans and animals share. The term polyspecific refers to the interactions of multiple species. The relationships shared between humans and other species began with our ancestors millions of years ago.

The specialty of human-animal studies within anthropology suggests new forms of scholarship that deliberately move away from anthropocentrism, which focuses on humans as if they are the only species that matters. Human-animal studies opens a window into different ways of thinking about what it means to be human. One approach within the specialty, called multispecies ethnography, pays careful attention to the interactions of humans and other species within their shared environment—whether those other species be plant, animal, fungal, or microbial. Multispecies ethnographies are especially focused on the study of symbiosis, which is a mutually beneficial relationship between species.

Researchers conducting multispecies ethnographies utilize a broad, holistic approach that takes into account questions such as where and how interactions between humans and animals occur. This approach is more complex than traditional ethnography because it requires that the researcher acknowledge both the perspectives of nonhuman actors and their roles in how we see and understand ourselves.

Cultural anthropologists and ecologists Kirill Istomin and Mark James Dwyer (2010) conducted multispecies ethnographies between two different herding populations in Russia: the Izhma Komi, who live in northeast European Russia, and the Nenets in western Siberia. The two groups live in environments that are comparable in terms of geography, average temperatures, and precipitation, and they herd the same subspecies of reindeer year-round. Yet their herding styles are completely different. The Izhma Komi divide their reindeer into two large groups: a family group consisting of non-castrated males, females, and calves, called a kör, and a group of castrated males used for transportation and hauling, called a byk. Herders accompany the two groups to two separate grazing grounds during the day and direct them back to camp at night. While foraging for food, the reindeer stay within their particular groups and do not wander away. In contrast, the Nenets allow their reindeer to freely disperse and wander during the day, only occasionally observing their general whereabouts and well-being. Unlike the Izhma Komi herds, which stay in their two large groups, the Nenets animals forage in smaller groups and reunite at night as a single herd when they return on their own to camp for protection. Unlike wild reindeer, who do not routinely live in and around human encampments, these groups have a symbiotic relationship with their herders. The humans get meat, some limited milk, and leather for clothing, shoes, and trade products from the reindeer, and the reindeer get protection and supplemental foods at the campsite from the herders.

Istomin and Dwyer’s research notes behaviors that the reindeer have learned from their human herders, but it also addresses social learning within the herds. In their interviews with the researchers, both Izhma Komi and Nenets herders told stories about the difficulties they faced when introducing new, so-called unmanageable animals into the herds. These new animals had not yet learned the herding routines of the group they were joining. Some wandered off and were lost before they could adapt to the particular herd culture. Istomin and Dwyer conclude that the animals themselves pass along behavioral knowledge to each other across generations as offspring follow and learn from their mothers and other adult reindeer. This conclusion challenges the notion that animal behavior is solely genetic and instinctual. Expanding ethnographies to include an understanding of what animals are doing and thinking is a primary objective of multispecies ethnography.

Despite its recent emergence in anthropology as a separate specialty, the multispecies perspective has a long history. Nineteenth-century amateur anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan’s research on the North American beaver (1868), which includes material on beavers’ adaptation to and interaction with humans, remains one of the most insightful and perceptive works on the species. And the research conducted in the 1930s by British anthropologist Edward Evans-Pritchard on the relationship between the Nuer people of Africa and their cattle resulted in an ethnographic account of their interdependence, both socially and economically.

More recently, cultural anthropologist Darrell Posey used a multispecies ethnographic approach in his work “Wasps, Warriors, and Fearless Men” (1981). In this case, the relationships of interest are between humans and insects. Posey’s work utilizes a lens of ethnoentomology, exploring the relationships that the Kayapó people of central Brazil have with local insects and how these relationships shape their perception of themselves as human. Posey documents how Kayapó warriors deliberately provoke a local species of wasp to sting them, using the “secret” of the venom to become more powerful:

The warriors dance at the foot of the scaffolding and sing of the secret strength they received from the wasps to defeat the giant beetle. The women wail ceremonially in high-pitched, emotional gasps as the warriors, two-by-two, ascend the platform to strike with their bare hands the massive hive. Over and over again they strike the hive to receive the stings of the wasps until they are semi-conscious from the venomous pain.

This ceremony is one of the most important to the Kayapo: it is a re-affirmation of their humanity, a statement of their place in the universe, and a communion with the past. (172)

A group of people wearing colorful feather headdresses and body paint perform a group dance.
Figure 18.3 Kayapó tribespeople continue to practice their cultural traditions while fighting to protect their ancestral lands from Western encroachment. One of these traditions involves deliberately provoking wasps to sting them in order to enter a sacred state. (credit: “VI Aldeia Multiétnica no XV Encontro de Culturas Tradicionais da Chapada dos Veadeiros” by Oliver Kornblihtt/Special Secretariat of Culture of the Ministry of Citizenship/flickr, CC BY 2.0)

A Case Study: Domestication of Dogs

Humans interact with and relate to animal species that live in the wild as well as those that depend on them for their survival. Animals that are dependent on human beings are typically the result of domestication. Evidence suggests that early humans quickly developed a clear understanding of how selective breeding works, encouraging animals that shared preferred characteristics to mate and produce offspring. These desired traits included a calm temperament; the ability to get along with conspecifics, or members of one’s own species; usually a smaller body so that the animal could be gathered or herded in larger numbers; and an attachment to or tolerance of humans.

Eleven Siberian Huskey dogs pull a man riding on a small sled across a snow-covered landscape.
Figure 18.4 Dogs were among the earliest domesticated animals. Here, Siberian huskies race in a dogsledding event. Across cultures, dogs have been used for pulling and hauling loads. (credit: “Frauenwald, Hundeschlittenrennen, 6” by Rainer Lippert, edited by Ritchyblack/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The dog (Canis lupus familiaris) is believed to have been among the earliest animal domesticates, possibly the first. The origins of the domesticated dog are controversial. Most scientists agree that dogs originated from wolves, particularly from the subspecies Canis lupus pallipes (Indian wolf) and Canis lupus lupus (Eurasian wolf). The wide variety among dog breeds indicates that other wolf subspecies were also involved in selective breeding, making today’s dogs animal hybrids.

Wolves have various natural instincts that make them excellent candidates for domestication. They are highly social scavengers who could easily have become accustomed to human settlements and food handouts at a young age, and they have a hierarchical social structure that includes status and submission within the pack, traits that would predispose them to conforming to human direction and domination. Dogs today vary genetically by only about 0.2 percent from some of their ancestral wolf subspecies.

Historically and cross-culturally, humans benefit in many ways from their relationships with dogs:

  • Guarding and protection. Dogs are naturally territorial and highly social; they are both biologically and behaviorally prone to be keenly aware of their physical surroundings and their group (or pack). The impulse to guard and protect is a genetic trait that was easily manipulated in the species as humans selectively bred animals that were particularly loyal to their families and attentive to their property. As part of the domestication process, humans selected for dogs who exhibited a bark-howl response when alerted, with the result that domesticated dogs bark when concerned or excited. Among wolves, the bark is only used as an initial alert (Yin 2002). Wolves do not call attention to themselves as dogs do.
  • Hunting. Descended as it is from a wild predator, the domestic dog can be an excellent hunter and retriever. A trained dog offers considerable benefits to humans in the hunting of prey. Some Indigenous groups, such as the Chono of Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, trained their dogs to dive and to fish for seals. The Tahltan people of Canada used dogs on bear hunts. In czarist Russia, borzoi dogs were used to hunt for wolves.
  • Herding. Dogs were key to the development of pastoralism, a subsistence system based on herding animals. Many pastoral societies utilized dogs as shepherds for domesticated herds of sheep, goats, cattle, and even fowl. Once trained to identify and protect its herd, a dog can be a fierce defender of and guide for animals foraging away from human settlements. Trained herding dogs can shepherd their flocks on a consistent trail without constant human surveillance. Selective breeding moderated a natural instinct in dogs referred to as eye-stalk-chase-bite, a sequence of steps utilized by dogs to focus on another animal when hunting. This moderated instinct enables dogs to guide and protect another species by keeping the animals rounded up and moving away from danger. While not utilized by every pastoral society, dogs are considered vital to most pastoral societies, even today (see the Ethnographic Sketch at the end of the chapter).
  • Transportation. Historically, dogs served as beasts of burden, especially in cultures that had no larger domesticated animals such as the horse, donkey, or cow. Many Indigenous peoples used dogs to carry young children or possessions. Among North American Indigenous cultures such as the Assiniboine, Apache, and Inuit, dogs were traditionally used for transportation. Some of these groups developed specialized technology, such as the travois and the sledge, that allowed them to harness a dog to a platform loaded with items to be moved.
Three women wearing long skirts, shawls, and broad-brimmed hats stand beside their dogs. The dogs have loaded platforms strapped to their backs.
Figure 18.5 Kainai women use dog travois, constructed of two shafts lashed to a platform, to carry their possessions. This photo was taken around 1910 in what is now southern Alberta, Canada. (credit: “Kainai Women and Dog Travois” by Provincial Archives of Alberta/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)
  • Meat. In some cultures, domesticated dogs offer a dependable source of meat. Some of the earliest evidence of dog eating was found at a prehistoric rock shelter site located at Hinds Cave, Texas. At the Hinds Cave site, geneticist Raul Tito and his team identified domesticated dog remains in human coprolites (fossilized feces) dating to 9260 BP. From the Preclassic through the late Postclassic period (2000 BCE–1519 CE) in what is now Mexico, various Indigenous cultures, including the Olmec, Zapotec, Aztec, and Maya, raised and consumed dogs as a source of protein (Thompson 2008), eventually developing a hairless breed of dog known today as the Xoloitzcuintli. This breed existed when the Spanish arrived in Mexico in the 16th century.
A small dog, with no hair, sits near a bucket outside a house.
Figure 18.6 The Xoloitzcuintli is a hairless dog first bred in Mexico. (credit: “MX MM XOLOITZCUINTLE” Milton Martínez/Secretariat of Culture of Mexico City/flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Although dogs are primarily pets in contemporary societies, they continue to play other important roles in a wide range of human activities. As just a few examples, dogs are used as drug detectives at airports, therapy animals for a wide range of human needs, and guides and helpers for those living with physical challenges. Dogs also continue to be used as shepherds, hunting companions, and guards.

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