Working at Relationships: Another Look at Animal Domestication

Article excerpt

'Animals were wild, and then some of them were tamed and so became domestic.' The archaeological definition of 'domestic' is a fundamental, alongside the means by which the domestic is to be recognized in the archaeological record. Setting that relationship with human beings which we call 'domestication' alongside other relations between species clarifies the issues.

'Domestication' is one of those terms, like 'culture', that archaeology has long used as an important signifier, whilst struggling to find a satisfactory definition of it. As a fundamental event (or process) in the development of food production, domestication has assumed a prominence in the literature, and this paper does not set out yet another definition. The aim is to review terminology applied to functional relationships between people and other animals, and to compare our archaeological study of such relationships with respect to the zoological analysis of inter-species associations. This exercise is intended not to overthrow and replace existing models of animal domestication, but to see what may become visible from a different point of view.

'Domestication': concept and definition

Classical authors, notably Dicaearchus and Lucretius, speculated about the origins of animal domestication (Harris 1996a), and the topic was revisited by 19th-century scientists such as Francis Galton (1865). Charles Darwin's empirical observation of domestic animals contributed to his formulating the principles of natural selection (Darwin 1868). In archaeology, Gordon Childe (1928; 1936; 1942) returned to the subject repeatedly, seeking to understand both how and when the taking of crops and livestock into domestication arose. Childe's 'oasis propinquity' model held sway for a while, then fell into disfavour as overly deterministic and at odds with the palaeoclimatic evidence (Braidwood 1958); more recent analyses of the likely climatic parameters of the Younger Dryas stage in southwest Asia may be moving the argument back towards Childe's oases (Hecker 1984; Moore & Hillman 1992; Blumler 1996: 39-41; Hole 1996). Whether or not Childe is ultimately vindicated, his concern lay more with determining why a series of domestication events occurred and with the social consequences, than with detailed analysis of the nature of the relationships which resulted.

The present uneasy consensus on animal domestication can be largely traced back to papers in one conference publication: The domestication and exploitation of plants and animals (Ucko & Dimbleby 1969). In it, the late Sandor Bokonyi offered a definition of animal domestication, subsequently modified (1985) and then reiterated (1989: 22):

The essence of domestication is the capture and taming by man of animals of a species with particular behavioural characteristics, their removal from their natural living area and breeding community, and their maintenance under controlled breeding conditions for mutual benefits.

Note two things. Bokonyi sees the domestication process as heavily one-sided ('capture and taming by man of animals' - 'their removal from' - 'controlled breeding conditions'). The animals involved are essentially passive in the process, moved around and controlled to human ends, yet the last phrase refers to 'mutual benefits'. In reaction, Ducos (1989: 28-30) recapitulates an alternative definition he first published in 1978. This more anthropocentric view defines domestication as existing when living animals 'are integrated as objects into the socio-economic organization of the human group' (Ducos 1978: 54). Ducos affirms (1989: 29) that this was intended as an exclusive definition: 'Il y a domestication lorsque et seulement lorsque' - 'when and only when'; he further specifies that domestication exists because the humans, and not the animals, wish it so.

In introducing the later papers by Bokonyi and Ducos, Clutton-Brock (1989: 7) adds, with her usual clarity, a definition of a domesticated animal as 'one that has been bred in captivity for purposes of economic profit to a human community that maintains complete mastery over its breeding, organization of territory, and food supply'. …