Posts Tagged ‘Richard Buillet

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.