Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers: The Past and Future of Human-Animal Relations

By Dunk, Thomas | Anthropologica, January 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers: The Past and Future of Human-Animal Relations


Dunk, Thomas, Anthropologica


Richard W. Bulliet, Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers: The Past and Future of Human-Animal Relations, New York: Columbia University Press, 2005, 253 pages.

This study of the past and future of human-animal relations certainly contains information and arguments that will be of interest to anthropologists and other cultural analysts, and at times it draws on anthropological data and theories, although for the latter usually only as straw men [sic] to destroy. Bulliet divides the history of human-animal relations into three eras: the predomestic, the domestic, and the postdomestic. The predomestic era is the age before the agricultural revolution. During this time, the majority of human history and continuing today among surviving hunting and gathering societies, humans do not have a strong sense of their innate difference from or superiority over animals. Animal behaviour is understood to be quite similar to human behaviour, and animals are seen as deserving the same kind of respect that humans are. Humans have spiritual and affective attitudes towards the wild world. The anthropological work on the rituals of hunting among hunters and gatherers demonstrates this point well.

The agricultural revolution ushers in the era of domesticity. This is marked by the development and spread of ideologies about human difference and superiority over animals, and a growing economistic, as opposed to spiritual, understanding of the place and role of animals in human life. During its full development, animals are understood only from a very anthropomorphic perspective. They are appreciated in so far as they are useful to humans and systems of exploitation eventually develop which to a large extent are devoid of any concern with the emotional or spiritual well-being of animals.

Beginning with the industrial revolution, but really only reaching full development in some post-industrial societies, especially Anglophone nations such as the United States, England, and Australia, is the age of postdomesticity. This last and current phase is different from both predomestic and domestic periods in that the vast majority of the population have very little if any direct experience with animals, particularly the ones that we rely on for food and raw materials. The absence of direct observation of animal copulation, birth, death and the butchering and other processing of animal remains; the spread of Darwinian ideas about human evolution; and the spread of the idea of rights (initially for humans but, as Bulliet, points out, Jeremy Bentham himself suggested there was no reason to exclude animals from utilitarian ideas about the need to minimize suffering and maximize pleasure) have contributed to the new consciousness about animals occupying the same moral space as humans. This is what lies behind the emergence and growth of the animal rights movement and vegetarianism. In a reversal of Simmel's famous theory about how societies turn groups in their midst into strangers, the deep concern and empathy felt for animals by vegans and PETA members stems from the virtual absence of experiential relationships with the objects of their concern.

Along the way, Bulliet offers many, often rather speculative, theories about a variety of issues. He sees the current fascination with blood and violence in mass culture as a kind of return of the repressed. We evolved to be hunters, something few of us do anymore. But we still have a subconscious desire to see blood spilled. How else to explain that the society where animal rights is most developed is the also the home of the gory Hollywood blockbuster? With regard to the issue of how and why domestication happened at all, Bulliet suggests that there were three main avenues to domestication. For some animals it just happened by fortuitous circumstance: for example, the wild ancestors of cats who hung around early agricultural communities where they benefitted from an abundance of rodents and humans recognized their value as predators of rodent pests.

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