Existential Caprine


You were



There were predators

The lions could be confusing

But you were free

goat painting, Herculaneum

Then came men

Faster, smarter than lions

They killed the wolves

Brought you food

(The bread of slavery, they say, is far sweeter than the bread of freedom.)

And shelter

Children were born, safe from wolves, hunger, or cold

and you grew used to man.

Centuries passed

And it seemed you outnumbered the stars

Perhaps your sons disappeared

But was it worse than wolves?

You could almost forget you were once wild

Could you return to the mountains, even if you wanted to?

And as they lead you away

You ask

Did I ever have a choice?


To explain: The process of domestication is fascinating. Some animals, like wolves, began associating with humans because they could pick up our scraps. Others, like cats, began living in our cities because they liked eating the vermin we attracted. (You might say the mice, too, are domesticated.) These relationships are obviously mutually beneficial (aside from the mice.)

The animals we eat, though, have a different–more existential–story.

Humans increased the number of wild goats and sheep available for them to eat by eliminating competing predators, like wolves and lions. We brought them food in the winter, built them shelters to keep them warm in the winter, and led them to the best pastures. As a result, their numbers increased.

But, of course, we eat them.

From the goat’s perspective, is it worth it?

There’s a wonderful metaphor in the Bible, enacted every Passover: matzoh.

If you’ve never had it, matzoh tastes like saltines, only worse. It’s the bread of freedom, hastily thrown on the fire, hastily thrown on the fire and carried away.

The bread of slavery tastes delicious. The bread of freedom tastes awful.

1And they took their journey from Elim, and all the congregation of the children of Israel came unto the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after their departing out of the land of Egypt. 2And the whole congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness: 3And the children of Israel said unto them, Would to God we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh pots, and when we did eat bread to the full… Exodus 16

Even if the goats didn’t want to be domesticated, hated it and fought against it, did they have any choice? If the domesticated goats have more surviving children than wild ones, then goats will become domesticated. It’s a simple matter of numbers:

Total Fertility Rate by Country: Purple = 7 children per woman; Blue = 1 child per woman

The future belongs to those who show up.

Which future do you chose?

Anthropology Friday: Hunters, Pastoralists, and Ranchers (part 3/4)

Illustration from Ingold's book
Illustration from Ingold’s book

Hello everyone, and welcome back to Anthropology Friday: Reindeer Economies: Hunters, Pastoralists, and Ranchers [PDF] by Ingold. As usual, I am using “” instead of block quotes and in some cases I have skipped his in-line citations in order to increase readability.

As always, remember that Ingold is one man with his own opinions, trying to construct a broad theory about the development of pastoralism and ranching from hunting societies, across a wide variety of cultures united primarily by their dependence upon reindeer, though he occasionally looks at other pastoralists.

“In Lapland, for example, reindeer hides were traded throughout medieval times, along with the pelts of fur-bearing species, in exchange for commodities such as cloth, grain, salt, metalware and spirits … Hvarfner (1965) has suggested that the massive systems of pitfalls for trapping wild reindeer, which apparently came into use over many parts of Lapland around the eighth century A.D., may have been constructed in order to meet the demands of this trade, and may have contributed to the decimation of the herds even before the earliest firearms were introduced. Their eventual abandonment during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries may be correlated with the decline of the wild population and the expansion of pastoral herds in their place.

“[However] equally elaborate reindeer-hunting systems, involving large inputs of organized labour for their construction, are encountered throughout the circumpolar zone, including arctic North America. Many are of great antiquity, and cannot be correlated with the rise of mercantile trade. Since the caribou populations of North America appear to have withstood millennia of human predation on a scale as massive as in medieval Lapland without suffering appreciable decline…

“We may take as an example the Skolt Lapps, who began to expand their domestic herds to provide a source of slaughter products as a result of the virtual disappearance of the wild woodland reindeer during the nineteenth century. It is estimated that the Skolt herds multiplied by a factor of thirty in the period 1830—1910. Some owners have built up herds of several hundred head, others continue to concentrate on year-round fishing and keep only a few tens of deer as before…

“Where pastoralists operate on the tundra, the edge of the woods tends to constitute a zone of contention over animal resources. In the course of their expansion, the herds of pastoralists penetrate ever further during their winter migrations into the customary hunting grounds of neighbouring peoples inhabiting the forest interior. For these hunters, the herds represent fair game to be pursued as freely as the wild woodland deer which they displace, and certainly in preference to the slaughter of their own domestic animals. The Skolt Lapps, for example, gained a certain notoriety for their raids on the herds of their pastoral neighbours,…

“There is no doubt that the Upper Palaeolithic inhabitants of northern Europe were as much dependent on the reindeer for their livelihood as the Nganasan, Chukchi or Caribou Eskimo
today … According to Polhausen, the reindeer deposits of the classic Hamburgian sites of Meiendorf and Stellmoor uncovered by Rust and dating back to 13,000 B.C. indicate that two-thirds of the animal population was herded. … Inferences that not only was the ratio of males to females in the kill as high as ten to one, but also that the animals were slaughtered with axes,  led him to reject direct analogies with modern reindeer-hunting populations…

“Simonsen has used just such an indicator to date the introduction of domestic reindeer to northernmost Norway. The faunal remains associated with Late Stone Age settlements in this region reveal a semi-nomadic cycle of movement between winter dwellings on the arctic coast, associated with the hunting of sea-mammals, and a series of inland river-fishing and reindeer-hunting sites, occupied during summer and autumn. Around the second century A.D., however, this pattern appears to have been abruptly reversed, to harmonize with the migratory movements of the tundra reindeer. Winter settlements are found inland, whilst coastal sites indicate an emphasis on fishing for salmon during the summer. …

“On the other hand, there is abundant documentary evidence to demonstrate that the transition from hunting to pastoralism took place throughout interior Finnmark during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries… If it is justifiable to correlate the change in seasonal movements with the introduction of domestic reindeer, and the date suggested for the latter is not unreasonable, then we can conclude that it preceded the emergence of pastoralism by some thirteen hundred years. …

“The Basseri of southern Iran keep sizeable herds of sheep and goats which provide them with a supply of milk, meat, wool and hides not only for their own consumption, but also for trade with neighbouring agricultural communities. In return, they receive flour, sugar, tea, dates, fruit and vegetables, which together make up a substantial part of the everyday diet. According to Barth’s estimates, the normal household needs to purchase annually goods to a value equivalent to some forty to fifty sheep, half the number of animals in a flock of average size.

“Great stress is placed on the growth of the herds, apparently in order to increase the rate of profit, and as a hedge against short-term loss. However, when the herd grows too large to remain entirely under the supervision of the owner, or of members of his household, the costs that are inevitably incurred in the employment of hired labour begin to outweigh the profits accruing from further growth. The more successful of the Basseri are therefore induced to invest in land as a form of long-term security, by obtaining plots in the villages bordering their migratory routes. They do not work the land themselves, for the tasks of cultivation are considered demeaning, but rent it out on terms which, given the high density of population and consequent intensivity of agricultural land-use, are highly advantageous.”

EvX: Wikipedia has rather little to say about the Basseri, but it does note:

Basseries are mostly Persians. Their origin is the “Pasargadean” tribe.The Pasargadean tribe was the biggest tribe of Persia and the tribe who helped Cyrus The Great constitute the Achaemenid Empire.They named “Karian” tribe in Sasanian Empire period. They were the relers [sic] of some parts of south Persia and the Karyan city of Persia cause They helped Ardashir I constitute the Sasanian empire.

After Muslim conquest of Persia They were under rule of Arabic Tribes of South Persia, who migrated to Persia after its conquest, till the constitute of Zand Dynasty by Karim Khan. In Pahlavi Dynasty period They were settled by the government in 1930 and again started to decamp in 1941. After the Land Reformations of Iran, they were settled in the cities and the villages of Fars Province; but after some years, They again started decamping. after the Islamic Revolution of Iran because of the problems of being nomad including inaccessibility to modern facilities (hospitals, schools, etc); successive droughts; destruction of the migration path; etc they again went to cities and the villages of the province for living.[2] …

The Basseri seem not to be very familiar with Muslim beliefs, customs, and ceremonies.They do not respect to divisions and events of the Muslim year, Although villagers remind them continually.

Perhaps the editor did not mean this to be funny, but I laughed. (BTW, this Wik page does not strike me as the most reliable, but it’s probably mostly correct about recent history.)

Qashqai.net has some very interesting thoughts/reflections on the same literature as I believe Ingold is working off of in Ritual and Social Drama in the Qashqai. Alamy has some relevant photos, which suggest that the Basseri could really benefit from some rain. According to Persian Travel:

Aryan tribes migrated into the Iranian plateau in the 2d millennium BC. There are over 1.5 million nomads in Iran today. Many of these tribes such as the Kurds, Bakhtiyaris (Bactrians), Lurs, Guilaks, and the Baluchs are descendants of the original invaders who came from Central Asia to settle in the Iranian Plateau.

Most of the tribes of Central Iran are pure Aryan, while others such as the Arabs of Khuzestan and Khorassan, the Qashqai, the Turkmen (decendants of Mongols), Shahsevan and Afshar tribes of Azarbaijan had ancestors who passed through Iran.

By 1920 nomadic pastoral tribes were over a quarter of Iran’s population. Their number declined sharply as a result forced settlement in the 1920s and 1930s. Continued pressure as well as the lure of the cities and settled life has resulted in a further sharp decline since the 1960s. …

There are over one hundred different nomadic tribes today, each with its own dialect, style of dress and housing, and its own chief or leader.

As always, travel websites should probably be taken with a grain of salt. Back to Ingold:

“Whatever the precise moment at which morphologically wild and domesticated forms began to diverge, it is evident that the displacement of wild game such as onager and gazelle by recognizably domesticated breeds of sheep and goats was taking place on an ever-increasing scale during the seventh and sixth millennia B.C., alongside the development of land-intensive cereal agriculture and a network of trading relations bringing adjacent communities of agriculturalists and herdsmen into close economic interdependence. From these beginnings, under pressure of rapid population growth in the villages, evolved the complex, differentiated economy of today, linking specialized pastoralists such as the Basseri with peasant cultivators, craftsmen and traders, and dominated by urban administrative and market centres. …

“the earliest dry-farmers of the Near East may have incorporated domestic sheep and goats as a means of ‘banking’ agricultural surpluses, in order to even out the effects of erratic rainfall. The rapid rate of increase of ovine and caprine herds would permit their exploitation as a supplementary meat resource, particularly in times of drought, whilst the limited numbers of animals that can be maintained within the framework of an agricultural regime, depending upon the supply of winter fodder, would necessitate periodic culling. Moreover, both sheep and goats furnish raw materials of particular value to people whose subsistence is based on the products of cultivation. …

“Though the origins of cattle domestication remain obscure, there is every reason to believe that the ox was initially tamed and bred by sedentary cultivators. Zeuner includes it in his category of ‘crop-robbers’ — animals which would have first come into close contact with man as invaders of his fields, attracted by the patches of lush vegetation in an artificially created environment, and displaced from their natural habitat by progressive agricultural clearance …

“Thus, writing of a band of Naskapi caribou hunters, Henriksen notes that ‘the boundaries of their hunting territory are determined by the distance they wish and are able to travel’. Every household is free to move where it pleases, and no family or group can claim prior rights to any part of the territory or its resources.

“Indeed, for any population of hunters dependent for their subsistence on a nomadic species, territorial compartmentalization would be profoundly maladaptive, since it would prevent them from adjusting to local fluctuations in the supply of game whose movements are not constrained in the same way. …

“Nevertheless, it is alleged that amongst many peoples of the taiga zone, in both Old and New Worlds, a division is made into exclusive ‘family hunting territories’ which appear to be subject, as any form of landed property, to rules of partition and inheritance …

“On the other hand, if game resources are available in such concentration and abundance as to permit the establishment of more or less permanent communities, as around the north Pacific coast, political enterprise may take on all the attributes of ‘bigmanship’. Through calculative munificence the bigman not only attracts but compels, so obligating his followers as to be able to exert a deferred claim on their productive effort. Drawing on a fund of credit established over many years, he can amass a surplus of consumables sufficient to challenge rival leaders from neighbouring communities in lavish giveaways. Such was the strategy of the Alaskan Eskimo umealit, literally ‘whaleboat captains’ but more generally ‘men of influence’, the most prominent of whom wielded an almost despotic power. …

From Ingold
From Ingold

“Today, the domestic deer of the Nganasan are indistinguishable from the wild tundra form. Their numbers appear to be growing rather rapidly. In former times, it is said that ten animals per household was the normal limit, a figure that conforms well with those for other hunting peoples employing domestic deer for transport. As on the Plains, people who lacked sufficient animals, and who could not borrow, had to pull their belongings themselves, on hand sledges. Nowadays, Popov recounts, a household with fifty domestic deer would be considered poor; yet the Nganasan remain hunters, and kill their deer for food only in emergencies. One consequence of herd growth has been to increase the quantity of stored food and household effects that may be carried along on migrations, including one or two sledge-loads of dowry goods for every marriageable girl.

“In particular, the availability of draft animals constrains the size of the household’s tent, which has consequently become one of the most conspicuous indicators of wealth and status. Among the tundra Nenets, pastoralists who share with the Nganasan a uniform cultural tradition, a wealthy man might possess three or four tents, to house not only his own family, but also those of his herding assistants. To transport all his belongings, he might require as many as a hundred sledge deer…

“It will be recalled that the Tungus employ small herds of domestic deer principally as beasts of burden, but also as providers of milk. Yet it would appear that these animals are themselves subject to rules of redistribution in times of economic stress: Although the reindeer belong to unit-families, when epidemics rage among them the clan may divide all the reindeer belonging to the members of the given clan among all the unit-families … Owing to this practice, units possessing over sixty animals have not been recorded: it happens too often that reindeer are divided among the poorer members of the clan.

“Why is it that among the Nganasan, or the Blackfeet, a man without domestic animals has to attach himself to a wealthy owner in the hope of obtaining loans for his hunting and transport requirements, whilst among the Tungus such inequalities of wealth are moderated by periodic redistribution?…

Nuer man at the Tuut Gatkuɔth cattle camp, from Pictures of Nuer Culture
Nuer man at the Tuut Gatkuɔth cattle camp, from Pictures of Nuer Culture

“Among the Nuer, ‘cattle are everywhere evenly distributed. Hardly anyone is entirely without them, and no one is very rich. Although cattle are a form of wealth that can be accumulated, a man never possesses many more beasts than his byre will hold’. The Nuer herds, like those of the Tungus, are periodically afflicted by epidemics, which effectively constrain their increase. Moreover, Nuer cattle are the subjects of complex and protracted social transactions, revolving principally around the institution of marriage, as a result of which several people besides the individual in whose byre an animal resides may have claims on it of one kind and another.”

EvX: The Nuer are closely related to the Dinka and among the tallest people in the world; they live in Southern Sudan, which as you probably know has been wracked by all kinds of warfare.

“Unfortunately, Shirokogoroff presents no details as to exactly how the division of reindeer during epidemics is carried out among the Tungus. He does say, however, that it operates through the clan rather than necessarily being confined within it, and that reindeer usually pass as gifts or loans. Moreover, we are told elsewhere that ‘the clan provides its members with wives and husbands, also with dowry and kalym [“brideprice”]’.

“I think it is legitimate to infer that the distribution of reindeer occasioned by epidemic follows the same principles as that occasioned by marriage: in other words, that the clan system constitutes the structural framework within which live animals pass in reciprocal transactions from household to household along particular chains of kinship and affinity. One of the most striking features of these transactions is their long-term character. There is little to distinguish between a loan and a gift when both involve a similar obligation to repay at some unspecified date with some unspecified animal, preferably of greater value than the one received. For all practical purposes, a borrowed animal is incorporated into the recipient’s herd….

“To sum up: through their incorporation into the domestic groups of hunters, live animals can become the objects of reciprocal transactions across household boundaries. However, the nature of these transactions varies significantly from one hunting society to another. In some instances, domestic animals may be used to fund the creation and maintenance of extensive networks of social relationships, as a result of which every herd comes to embody an aggregate of separable but overlapping interests. These interests will be mapped out in the distribution of meat from domestic sacrifice. But in other societies, there is little or no transference of stock from one domestic herd to another. Surplus animals are not given away but accommodated through the employment of herding assistants, and loaned only on a short-term basis to those who would use them for the procurement and transport of hunted produce. Consequently, a fortunate household may be able to accumulate sufficient wealth to be in a position to destroy a part of the incremental increase in the herd for food and raw materials. Moreover, it is not bound to distribute the products so obtained beyond the immediate domestic circle. Such are the social conditions that give rise to carnivorous pastoralism.”

EvX: To be continued (and finished) next week!