ASA09: Anthropological and archaeological imaginations: past, present and future
Bristol, UK

Humans and other animals
Location Wills 3.30
Date and Time 7th April, 2009 at 09:15


Samantha Hurn (University of Exeter)
Piers Locke (University of Canterbury)
Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

Human interactions with non-human animals are of interest to archaeologists & anthropologists. This panel will allow for a discussion of the roles of non-human animals in human societies past & present, & consider the benefits of interdisciplinary dialogue to the emerging subfield of Anthrozoology.

Long Abstract

Interactions between human and non-human animals have been integral to human history. Non-human animals feature in Neolithic cave paintings, in ritual deposits, in burials and other more mundane contexts within the archaeological record. They also play significant roles in the contemporary or near contemporary human societies documented in the ethnographic record in the form of, for example, pets, livestock, totems, sustenance, adversaries and markers of status. Consequently the study of these interactions is an area of considerable interest to both archaeologists and social anthropologists. Moreover, while the disciplinary identities of archaeology and social anthropology are, in many respects, contingent on the recognition of fundamental and immutable differences between humans and other animals, evolutionary anthropology is predicated on some form of continuity, at least between humans and the other higher primates. Such a position is in many ways reminiscent of the beliefs and practices held by many of the peoples studied by archaeologists and social anthropologists. An open and ongoing dialogue between practitioners of all three disciplines therefore is of fundamental import, especially in the growing sub-field of animal studies or Anthrozoology. The proposed panel aims to bring together practitioners from all branches of anthropology and archaeology who are engaged in research involving human relationships with other animals, and who utilise interdisciplinary methodologies or theoretical perspectives.

Discussant: Penny Dransart

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


The multiple understandings between deer, sheep and Central Asian pastoralists

Author: Stephanie Bunn (University of St Andrews)


Pastoralists and hunters in Central Asia have very specific relationships with animals which relate to both their lived experience of working with them, and to their beliefs and understandings of animals as equals and as food. Most particularly, deer and sheep hold an iconic role in terms of people's long practiced knowledge of them, their place within local views about the world, the environment and nature, and also as imagery carved into stone on the steppe, and incorporated into a wide range of historical artefacts from kurgans, or burial mounds, and contemporary art.

In this paper, I explore the different ways that Central Asian pastoralists know, and have known, deer and sheep, through herding them, hunting them, eating them, exploring their social and status relationships through them, creating imagery of them, and negotiating with them for future food and life. This is based on anthropological research into Kyrgyz herding and hunting practices, how to cook meat, the relationship between social space and the animal body, and animal imagery in textiles and other artefacts.

I then discuss how one can bring contemporary lived practice into relation with objects and imagery from the past. I do this within the context of additional research into deer and sheep imagery in 'Animal-style Art' on standing stones from Central Asia and South Siberia and into related imagery on artefacts, along with the ritual role of sheep bone in archaeological material from heritage sites and burials the region.

The language of sound: exploring interaction between people and birds

Author: Andrew Whitehouse (University of Aberdeen)


This paper considers what happens when people and birds interact, particularly through sound. How are the actions of birds in response to people interpreted and explained? What assumptions about birds and their relations to humans do these reveal? Encounters explored include people whistling to or playing music with birds and scientists and birders using playback to elicit responses. The way that such interactions are explained in part reflects ideas about the relative intelligence of birds and their ability to understand what the encounter with a human is about. For example it might be assumed that birds have no ability to appreciate the difference between a wink and a twitch in a human, to borrow from Clifford Geertz. But explanation is also grounded in ideas that people have about the sounds that birds make, for example whether these are analogous to language or music or if they are an expression of an emotional state, such as alarm. Underpinning these explanations are assumptions about framing: that is, how participants communicate what they consider the interaction to be about. Most studies of framing in communication involve interactions between members of the same or very similar species, and within humans the same 'culture'. But what are the possibilities for framing in encounters between humans and birds? This paper speculates on these possibilities and offers a comparative analysis of interpretations of human - bird interactions, taking in a range of ethnographic and ethological material.

Taming and training in the human use of elephants: the case of Nepal - past, present and future

Author: Piers Locke (University of Canterbury)


As an inadequately theorised domain of academic enquiry, this paper conceives captive elephant management as comprising variant practices widely dispersed through space and time, in which humans have deployed elephants as military technology, all-terrain vehicle, and expert labour. In conjunction with their utility for various human projects, elephants have also served as objects of fear and veneration, economic and political commodity, and as political and religious symbols. Within the socio-cultural contexts of these values and practices, the taming and training of elephants has been an integral component of the expertise required for systems of captive elephant management.

This paper uses the evolving history of captive elephant management in Nepal as a case study with which to critically consider key shifts and developments in training practices, from the capture of mature elephants from the wild, to the ritualised initiation of juvenile elephants bred in captivity. This is explored in relation to Nepal's shifting social and cultural context in which legal, demographic and attitudinal changes, both internally and externally derived, have necessitated abandonment and innovation in conventional elephant training practices. Also, subjected to a western gaze that alternately romanticises and condemns aspects of the human-elephant relation, Nepali elephant training practices have been recently subject to foreign interventions whose problematic representations of indigenous practice justify their involvement with disempowered subjects within under-funded management regimes. Such well-intentioned programmes raise profound questions regarding agency in policy-making practice as well as the critical understanding of training in relation to the theorisation of the human-elephant dynamic.

Gifts of war and death: the elephants of Pyrrhus at Capena

Author: Carrie Roth-Murray (University of Wales, Lampeter)


In the ancient world, animals could be utilised to create and maintain powerful statuses. Amassing animals could demonstrate complete control over the landscape and all living things. The gift giving of animals to another person could be enacted as a display of generosity and, in the case of potentially ferocious animals, the ability to empower another person. On the other hand, the person who received animals from afar could then display the animals as exotic, and perhaps dangerous, treasures under his control. In this case, Pyrrhus received elephants as a gift from a Ptolemy (the identity of which Ptolemy is the subject of debate). This was done in aid of Pyrrhus raising an army to answer the cry for help from the Greek peoples of South Italy against the attacks of Rome. In the end, Pyrrhus and his army of men and elephants were unsuccessful against the Romans, but this became a momentous episode in the Roman imagination. A case in point is the Pyrrhus plate from Capena, a Faliscan town north of Rome, which depicts two of Pyrrhus' elephants. The plate is normally seen as commemorating Roman victory over Pyrrhus. On closer inspection, however, the symbolism could be interpreted as expressing something quite different, related to the entrainment of animals into history. The ancient views of Pyrrhus and his elephants will be explored through ancient literary sources and the Pyrrhus plate. This will be considered within a broad framework where both archaeological and the ethnographic perspectives are mutually beneficial for understanding the social consequences of animal gift giving.

Never look a gift horse in the mouth? The trouble with nonhuman animals in human ceremonial exchanges

Author: Samantha Hurn (University of Exeter)


The primacy of gift-giving in human societies past and present is well-documented, with countless examples of nonhuman animals given and received as gifts. However, little attention has been paid to the additional dimensions which the gifting of live ('inedible') animals brings to conventional ceremonial exchanges. When accepting an 'animal gift', the recipient not only becomes indebted to the donor, he/she also becomes liable for the animal's upkeep and engaged in a further reciprocal relationship with a nonhuman individual. Unlike inanimate gifts, animals have minds/personalities of their own which can impact on the relationship between giver and receiver. Therefore animals could be regarded as potentially dangerous gifts, unless the giver is confident 'their' animal will behave as desired. With diplomatic exchanges, the importance of animals displaying certain characteristics cannot be overemphasised, as these 'gifts' become ambassadors for, or symbolic representations of, their former owners. Consequently, one might argue the relationship takes on a form of intersubjectivity. However, can humans and nonhuman animals be involved in intersubjective relationships, if intersubjectivity is based on mutual/shared understanding, in addition to interaction/exchange? Or rather do 'animal gifts' represent convenient symbols for humans to manipulate? In considering the nature of the 'animal gift', this paper will problematise intersubjectivity, engaging in a tentative discussion concerning the nature of this frequently used (and misused) term, and reflecting on the ways in which donors and recipients of 'animal gifts' think about themselves and each other through the perceived and actual characteristics of the nonhuman animals involved.

De-objectifying animal others: considering animals 'as such' in past and traditional communities

Author: Gala Argent (University of Leicester)


There is growing recognition that contemporary anthropological and archaeological paradigms for viewing human-nonhuman animal relationships can and should be expanded. This shift is funded in part by growing awareness that some animals seem to share with humans a set of characteristics—such as intelligence, emotions and sociality—it was previously believed that humans alone possessed.

Despite recent calls for de-objectifying animals, archaeological and anthropological studies continue to spotlight animals as either inert objects with properties to be measured, or as cultural abstractions, relevant only through the meanings humans construct about them. Further, when interspecies "relationships" are examined, the prevailing means of viewing such interaction often focuses upon the human domination and exploitation of nonhuman animals. These approaches miss the importance of intersubjectivity, relationality, cooperation and communication in interspecies interactions, and how significant animals interact with humans to co-create communities, identities and social realities. Further, they disavow the agency that animals can and do assert in human-animal relationships, and leave out of the equation the consideration of an essential element—the animals themselves.

In this presentation, I explore applying a Human-Animal Studies (HAS) approach to archaeological material. Stepping away from the embedded Cartesian ontological dualism separating humans from animal others—beliefs most probably unknown to prehistoric and many traditional societies—I interpret material from the Pazyryk Iron Age human-horse burials in South Siberia by first addressing horses, themselves. I conclude that incorporating animals important to particular societies in archaeological and anthropological studies as participants in joint projects allows for fresh interpretations of their roles in human culture.

Horses and their caretakers in east and central Asia

Authors: Rebecca Cassidy (Goldsmiths)
Mim Bower (University of Cambridge)


Our paper will explore the possibilities of combining ethnographic with ancient and modern DNA data in order to understand the changing role of the horse in central and east Asia. We will compare findings from recent trips to Kyrgyzstan and Georgia, and reflect on the theoretical and methodological practices that enable and challenge our multidisciplinary perspective. Despite the significance of horse human relationships in central and east Asia, the ethnographic record is scattered and the impact of Collectivization and the collapse of the Soviet Union are largely unexplored. In part, our task is to document the region using photographs, video and interview. However, might these data also enable us to refine our understandings of DNA and fossil evidence? Equally, might DNA and fossil data cast new light on the stories we hear about animals in the field? Working on the borders between archaeology, archaeogenetics and anthropology, collaboration requires imagination and creates possibilities for new kinds of knowledge. These possibilities are the focus of our paper.

Finnish horse culture and the changing human-horse relationship

Author: Riitta-Marja Leinonen (University of Oulu)


Before the 1960s the Finnish horse culture was based on the use of a single native horse breed in agriculture, forestry, transportation, trotting races and military. Today the number of horses is down to one sixth of the top figures of the 1950s, and they have new roles in recreation, tourism, sports, and therapy. In particular, the popularity of riding has increased in the last two decades, giving women and children more visibility in the present horse culture. In this paper I discuss how these changes have affected the human-horse relationship and how the cultural meanings given to horses have changed from the 1930's to present.

The material used for this study consists of fieldwork, interviews and written narratives from the Finnish Literature Society's Folklore Archives. The interviews have been conducted between 1995 and 2005 and the narratives written in 1975 and 2003. The interviews and narratives are analysed by using narrative approach and methods of cognitive anthropology.

The preliminary results show a rich variety of cultural meanings given to a horse. The horse has been important economically, but the relationship has not been entirely utilitarian, for there are a lot of feelings attached to these animals. Narrators of all ages call the horse a friend, and giving up the horses for the army during the World War Two was very hard for the farmers and their families. Especially the meaning of the native horse, the Finnhorse, is represented through patriotic narratives related to agricultural work and war experiences.

'Animals are sensible and people are animals': wildlife rehabilitation workers, empathic engagement, and directed and reflexive perception

Author: Stuart Greenfield (Queens University Belfast)


Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork at an RSPCA wildlife rehabilitation centre, this paper explores how a group of people who associate with animals on a regular basis perceive non-human animals and in doing so, how this affects their interaction with, and perception of other humans and humanity. The key theoretical resources used for analysis are the perception and learning theories of Milton (2002) and Ingold (2000). Both emphasise how individuals can perceive and interact with their environments directly, unmediated by cultural conceptions of the environment. Milton argues that such interactions trigger emotions that are key to learning, remembering and communicating. Reflecting upon these experiences in turn influences future interactions, which contribute to a perspectival orientation. Working alongside rehabilitation staff, I report the prevalence of positive evaluations of humans, except in relation to specific contexts, as well as gratitude for concern showed by members of the public. These positive experiences have encouraged some members of staff to learn more about human behaviour and seek employment in this field. By contrast, other centre staff choose to work with non- human animals precisely because of their negative experiences of humans in relation to animals. On the basis of these mechanisms of perception and interaction, I then argue that broader conclusions can be drawn about the problems of human-animal relations in the contemporary western world.

Apes and hominids, humans and shamans: a heuristic journey of humaneness, humanness and humanity

Author: Tony Knight (University of Kent)


This paper explores personhood across species, from the dawn of human time, from the perspective of both humaneness and humanness, and seeks to demonstrate that human survival depends not only on an amelioration of nationalistic tropes of citizenship and ethnicity, but also on the inclusion of non-human animals within conceptions of personhood. Against a backdrop of climate change, both global biodiversity and human survival are under serious threat, largely due to a multitude of disparate beliefs and values led by anthropocentric 'needs' that de-emphasise humane attitudes towards non-human animals. In this paper, I argue that any potential systemic solutions will require a more egalitarian and accepting cultural framework, as well as far greater valorisation of the natural environment, and especially of non-human animals, which the IPCC (2007) envisions will suffer a mass extinction of up to 30% over the course of this century. In order to avoid this potential tragedy for all animal life, we need a different way of thinking, one which challenges prevailing notions of human identity based on citizenship and ethnicity as well as the parameters of personhood.