The Pokey Finger of God

meditations on religion and culture

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Tasty thoughts

November 17th, 2007 · No Comments · Uncategorized

I was thinking about how animal domestication developed. Animal domestication is one of those things academics use to indicate the onset of civilization. Like many things we think of as advances, one has to wonder if there is still any advantage to them.

Perhaps because it’s not something I do, I have the perception of animal husbandry as something very time and resource intensive. One one hand, the rancher always has meat at hand, on the other, the rancher may be obligated to feed, protect, and clean an animal for several years before it may be eaten. The early hunters pretty much followed the largest herds of animals, so while some effort and risk was involved to hunt the animals, none was needed to maintain the herds, and meat was generally always at hand for early hunters. One might also argue that such cultures maintained obligations for keeping certain animals, or a number of animals, alive.

In sum, it does not appear that “domestication” is the only, or even the obvious, choice. Picking the old and slow from a nearby herd of self-regulating animals is an easy way to live. Keeping your own herds alive is a lot of work. But grazing from grazers is behavior shared by several carnivores, so when the continuity of the herd is threatened due to the number of poachers (i.e. people), domestication is the only sustainable route.

So it makes sense that we’ve ended up with domestication, but when that first wise guy said, “But I want to do this the hard way!”, what was he thinking? The typical pattern of cultural shift is that new behaviors are developed by the elite, and these are gradually echoed by the classes beneath them until these, now old, behaviors become common to everyone, or exclusively lower class. I mention this because I suspect that the origin of domestication falls upon an elite palate.

I have not experimented with this myself, but I am given to understand that there are hormones that fill the body of any mammal with a rather foul-tasting chemical after a few minutes of stress and fear. No doubt, the hunting process would typically engender at least some fear and stress and running about, so I would guess that most of the meat eaten by hunter-gatherer types was probably somewhere between tangy and foul.

It was perhaps discovered many times that an animal taken completely by surprise had no tangy or foul flavor, but was sweet! Initially, there was probably an elite class of hunters who could reliably kill the favorite meat animal for the economic elites, doing so in such a way as to not shock or surprise the animal. In the development of their methods, domestication was discovered to be the most reliable and repeatable way to be close enough to an animal to kill it without overly stressing it. So stock animal domestication may have come about as an economic response to elite demands.

Domestication may have begun with people living with the target herd, bound in appropriate skins, in order to gain the trust of the animals. No fences, no horses, no ropes. Development from this to the situation where the animals lived with the herds of people was probably accomplished in less than four generations of the target animal. Any possible variations or speculations on this are interesting, because humans have, in various places and times, attempted to domesticate nearly every animal in the world, so every variation has also likely been tried.

Nowadays, we in the “civilized” world must rely nearly exclusively on our domesticated stocks, and yet that tradition of silently hunting our prey continues. People continue to gather fish with baits on string. Herds of wild deer and elk, even horses and bison run free on the American prairie such that one or another occasionally encounters a suburban housing development. The herds of ungulates are still hunted in no small number. Some folks have discussed creating an open commons area across the Great American Desert and allowing the great herds of bison, elk, and horses to run free again. Ironically, such a move just might save one subtype of human culture — if any of them remain who remember how to live that way.

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