Complicating The Domestication Narrative

» June 17th, 2014

A central chapter in the “man was meant to eat meat” narrative insists that animal domestication reflected the natural human quest for flesh. That is to say, that the biological impulse to eat animals was so persuasive that it led humans to isolate chosen members of a wild species, coax them into genetic tractability, and then exploit them for food. On the surface, this claim seems sensible enough—if not beyond question.

But there’s a much more interesting (and historically accurate) way of thinking about the origins of animal domestication. In his excellent book Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers, Richard Bulliet argues that animal domestication was almost certainly not a conscious strategy driven by an explicit desire to eat penned or pastured animals. Eating domesticated animals, according to Bulliet, was likely an afterthought, an unintended consequence of a lurching process that happened so gradually, and over so many generations, that humans didn’t even know it was taking place. “It is unimaginable,” he writes, “that the humans who ultimately reaped the benefits of domestication had any clear recollection of how their domestic stock originated.”

This line of investigation is necessarily speculative, but Bulliet keeps it real with thrilling hypotheses and convincing results. Painstakingly, he makes the case that animals might very well have been passively domesticated and maintained in an increasingly tractable state in order to control for trash (pigs), play roles in rituals (cows), provide amulets (bull’s penis as “a sign of power”), serve as status symbols, pull/carry things (horses), protect humans (wolves/dogs), and even provide immediate aesthetic gratification (birds).  Nothing in his analysis prevents us from rightfully thinking that humans may even have wanted animals closer to them because we were curious, intrigued, and even overwhelmed by their beauty. All these motivations likely interacted and overlapped, all the while preceding the decision to domesticate animals for the primary purpose of eating them.

I think this is a truly important possibility to consider. Complicating the conventional domestication hypothesis is critical to countering the essentialist nature of the dominant carnivorous narrative, one that fails to question the primacy and centrality of meat consumption in human history. The whole debate about “were humans meant to eat meat” quite simply bores me. It bores me because it doesn’t matter what we were meant to eat. We eat it—and that is that. But what is relevant is the fact that today we control billions of animals to consume and this behavior seems perfectly normal—if not worthy of celebration—to most people, even people who think about these sort of issues.  But it may not be “normal” in any true sense of the word.

Humans have been around in our current anatomical form for around 200,000 years or so. It is only in the last 6,000 or so that we have started to systematically consume the flesh of domesticated beasts. The fact they we have only been doing so for about 3 percent of human history should be enough to give us pause of the place of this behavior in the human condition. The possibility that we only were at it as secondary or tertiary endeavor should convince us to stop elevating the act of eating animals to the status of sleeping and breathing.


6 Responses to Complicating The Domestication Narrative

  1. Mary Finelli says:

    People are so horrified by the thought of keeping humans captive for consumption, and it is a horrifying thought. We are so inured to the concept of keeping other species for consumption but when you really think about it, it is beyond appalling, especially the scale on which it is occurring. Consuming other animals is ghoulish and grotesque, if you only think about it.

    • Mountain says:

      “People are so horrified by the thought of keeping humans captive”

      The 2 million+ prisoners in the U.S., most of them for non-violent crimes, would be very surprised to hear this. And wish someone would do something about it. Of course, many of these same prisoners grew up captive in failed government housing projects, and failed government schools– so, at this point, the idea of not being kept captive might seem strange to them.

  2. Benny Malone says:

    Some very interesting ideas there. This article shows how issues are usually more complex than the oversimplified arguments we see about domestication and ‘meat made us smart’, ‘we are top of the food chain’ etc. Many hunters are opposed to canned hunts on the grounds that it takes away the idea of ‘fair chase’. It seems to me that a comparison can be made between animal slaughter in domestication and canned hunting. Confining and killing farmed animals is another type of canned hunt.

  3. Christiana says:

    James, I couldn’t agree with you more. “Meant to eat meat” is such a loaded phrase that people don’t even realize that they pass on. It implies that someone designed man a particular way with intentions and goals in mind. We “adapted” to eat meat as a survival strategy for the species when that was the most efficient way of acquiring nutrients. Mostly, this whole argument is null because the urgent question is what are we going to eat today in order to ethically, equitably and adequately feed 7 billion people, going on 9billion people by 2050, within ecological boundaries? Not even 1% of the global population lives and eats a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, and most modern day citizens of western societies don’t even have access to the diversity of wild foods and animals that sustained our ancestors. We are not going back, we must go forward, and going forward means sustaining humanity in ways that were not available to us 10,000 years ago.

  4. Mountain says:

    “man was meant to eat meat”

    Well, of course he was. You don’t do something for hundreds if thousands of years (millions, really) over every inhabited continent and across every known culture without it being meant to be.

    And, of course, man was meant to not eat meat, and to survive just fine. He has done so, by choice or by circumstances, across those very same time frames, continents, and cultures. For long periods of time, and probably even for entire lifetimes for some individuals. Total abstinence from animal products is a new thing, but there were no doubt many whose entire animal intake consisted of creepy-crawlies who were eating the very same food he was.

  5. When I was a strict vegetarian for eight years (which I gave up only because as a constant business traveler it became a nuisance to organize though things are much easier now than it was 25 years ago when a “vegetarian salad” was decorated with ham slices etc.), I heard all kinds of “excuses” (in my mind) for eating meat. One pertinent and constant one was “our teeth ‘prove’ we can eat anything, unlike the teeth of e.g. cats or cows” (and therefore we should). well Clinton’s excuse for a certain misstep was “because I could”. No, humankind in these 200,000 or 2 million years (even that is far from settled) has expanded from (probably Africa, but then again, there is competing evidence for the “cradle of humankind” as well …) one small place where the “first tribe” must have originated across the whole world. One habitat is the icy climate of the Inuit who practically only eat fish and some kinds of what you could call “meat”. The people in Lapland are herders of ruminating animals (and their lifestyle was all but wiped out with the Chernobyl catastrophe as these animals ate ferns and these became too radioactive for humans then to eat the meat from the next step in the food chain). Others are bushmen, yet others eat (or had to eat) a lot of insects etc. There is some intriguing evidence that milk acts as a kind of opiate and humans therefore began to raise cows or goats to get the milk. And there’s probably several other avenues to explore. However, to me it seems only logical that hunters e.g. would eventually fathom that these animals could also be corralled rather than searched for again and again. The same goes for gatherers who might eventually get an idea that planting the seeds might give them a better or more reliable source of plant material than waiting for some bird dropping them somewhere and the gatherer having to guess or search. All these pro arguments strike me as rather haphazard and thus I suspect they come from a worried conscience. And such worried conscience about eating meat and having to justify it actually speaks for me against an initial “insatiable” drive of the human race to consume meat. It might even have been so outrageous for the first plant eaters as today for us cannibalism feels.

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