Guilt, gender play roles in human-animal relations

Jan 17, 2012 By Linda B. Glaser

Until recently, most archaeologists viewed human-animal relationships primarily in terms of their dietary role. But the social and symbolic functions of animals and meat may often be of equal or even greater importance, writes Nerissa Russell in her newly released book "Social Zooarchaeology: Humans and Animals in Prehistory" (Cambridge University Press). Russell, a Cornell associate professor and chair of anthropology, cautions that ignoring the importance of these factors results in interpretations of data "that are just plain wrong."

Animals have always played myriad roles in : as wealth, companions, spirit helpers, sacrificial victims, totems, centerpieces of feasts, objects of taboos and more. But when Russell began writing "Social Zooarchaeology" a decade ago, few people paid attention to more than "protein and calories." While that has changed, Russell's book is the first to provide a systematic overview of social zooarchaeology, the study of past human-animal relations.

The deep feeling of people have with is nearly universal, says Russell. "Animals are never neutral objects. Even in industrialized agriculture, people have very strong reactions about them."

In societies that rely on hunting, it's understood that being a good hunter requires thinking like the prey. But identifying closely with an animal you're going to kill does not lead to an easy conscience, especially when it's clear the animal has some level of sentience. As a result, -- and how to deal with it -- underlies many human-animal relations, says Russell. She notes that sacrifices where the animal takes the place of the human and hunting rituals that put the hunter in the place of the hunted are responses to this guilt.

Gender, too, has played a major role in human-animal relations, according to Russell. Equating hunting with sex seems to be nearly universal ethnographically and historically, she says, adding that guilt and gender are pervasive themes throughout the book. It covers such topics, for example, as the metaphors of women as prey and hunter as lover, the identification of women with animals, and the resurgence of hunting or of art depicting hunting during times of change when gender roles are threatened.

Understanding the long history of human-animal relationships has relevance today, says Russell, who admits to frustration that most western discussions of animal and human relations are narrow in scope. "Either an animal is a pet or it's an object. A lot of the political impasses we get into that involve animals come from being only able to see those two categories."

"Social Zooarchaeology" is intended for reference and college classroom use. It has already been chosen as the text for an archaeology course being taught this spring at New York University.

Explore further: Big data and the science of the Christmas tree

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Using networks to map the social lives of animals

Sep 02, 2008

Dr Dick James from the University's Department of Physics has released a practical guide for biologists explaining how social network analysis, a method used widely in the social sciences to study interactions among people, ...

New hypothesis for human evolution and human nature

Jul 20, 2010

It's no secret to any dog-lover or cat-lover that humans have a special connection with animals. But in a new journal article and forthcoming book, paleoanthropologist Pat Shipman of Penn State University ...

Just how useful are animal studies to human health?

Dec 15, 2006

Animal studies are of limited usefulness to human health because they are of poor quality and their results often conflict with human trials, argue researchers in a study on bmj.com today.

Pet? Companion animal? Ethicists say term matters

May 04, 2011

(AP) -- Are you the "owner" of a dog or cat? Maybe you should consider yourself a "human caregiver" instead. And Fido and Fluffy? Perhaps they should be "companion animals," not just "pets."

Recommended for you

Big data and the science of the Christmas tree

29 minutes ago

Often called the "Cadillac of Christmas trees," the Fraser Fir has everything a good Christmas tree should have: an even triangular shape, a sweet piney fragrance, and soft needles that (mostly) stay attached ...

Study shows starving mantis females attract more males

22 hours ago

A study done by Katherine Barry an evolutionary biologist with Macquarie University in Australia has led to the discovery that a certain species of female mantis attracts more males when starving, then do ...

African swine fever threatens Europe

Dec 17, 2014

African swine fever, or ASF, is a viral disease that kills almost every pig it infects and is likened to Ebola. It gained a foothold in Georgia in 2007, when contaminated pig meat landed from a ship from ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.