Putting the Life Back into Livestock in Archaeology

Andrew Reid
2019 Archaeology International  
Archaeology has long congratulated itself on the success it has achieved in exploring the domestication of animals. This work was largely undertaken by examining animal bone remains from archaeological sites, studies that encourage a focus on meat consumption. The emphasis on domestication and on direct exploitation leads to the prioritisation of the earlier occurrences of livestock. Thereafter livestock are not regarded as having been significant to human societies. Such perspectives encourage
more » ... spectives encourage the idea that livestock lack agency. This paper explores three rich examples, each demonstrating the active role that livestock play in creating complex social relationships, in particular emphasising the importance of living animals. Maasai herding systems show that living animals reveal important information about their owners. In nineteenth century London, livestock, for transport as well as consumption, permeated all aspects of life within the city. Finally, the colonisation of Australia was hugely dependent on livestock and they continue to have a great impact on the physical environment and on human social relationships. Collectively, these examples indicate that livestock remain agents into the present day. Archaeology's inability to consider such dynamics is a failing that needs to be rectified and some suggestions are provided on how this might be achieved. In introductory undergraduate lectures archaeology typically celebrates the domestication of livestock as an early achievement of the human career and congratulates itself on having been able to reconstruct the major characteristics of the event, based largely on the analysis of animal bone remains. Core texts do very little to dispel such ideas (e.g. Renfrew and Bahn 2008; Scarre 2005). This construct maintains archaeology's general perception that livestock history essentially begins and ends in these initial phases. Livestock are thereafter under investigated and under theorised in the human past, with the notable exception of secondary product exploitation and those societies in which livestock can be argued to have had great symbolic significance. It is largely assumed that livestock existed in later periods in a normative state, a constant that was bypassed by the ever more complex array of social and political complexity in the human career. This tallies with the general perception of livestock in a country like Britain today; that domesticated animals belong in fenced-off enclosures, far away from our towns and cities where the crucial decisions and cultural transformations are made. Such
doi:10.5334/ai-409 fatcat:rdeiy42s3fedfau6fppwxvvmlq