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A Brief History
Beasts and Shadows: Early Days Humans have always shared a bond with animals, but imagine how intense that bond must have been for earlier humans, who survived by gathering wild plants and hunting the huge herds of horses, bison, reindeer, and mammoth that roamed tundra and grasslands. These people knew and planned for animal migration routes. They attacked outright with axes and spears or lured animals into snares and pits, ambushing entire herds by stampeding them over cliffs. Their dreams must have been bloody, shimmering with teeth and claws and pounding hooves. Near life-size Paleolithic paintings of Stone Age prey have been discovered all over Europe at sites like Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain. These hunter-gatherers lived in nomadic family groups or clans, ranging from place to place and building temporary camps in concert with the seasons and the flow of game. They would have used every part of a kill, cooking the meat or preserving it, shaping hides into cloth, burning animal fat in lamps, crafting bones and antlers into tools and weapons. These implements they decorated with carvings of their prey, even as they wore the skins and charms of predators they admired. Early humans depended on animals, and they knew it. You might say they repaid the debt by holding animals sacred.
The term animism comes from the Latin word anima, meaning “breath” or “soul,” and is the idea that a soul or spirit resides in every object. Anthropologists say that animism, one of the oldest forms of human belief dating back to the Paleolithic age, originated so primitive people could make sense of certain mysteries: Why do we see pictures when we sleep? How do we distinguish sleep from death? What animates a body, and where does that life force go when the body dies? For early humans, who lived in close contact with nature, a world of spirits made perfect sense. If everything has a soul, then all things are charged and sacred, worthy of respect. In a world where trees and plantsvalued for their usefulness and beautymight also house powerful nymphs or dryads, a pagan woodcutter would do well to beg forgiveness before wielding the ax.
In an animistic world, even inanimate objects such as stones might lodge souls, so it’s no surprise that animalsso vital, dazzling in their diversitycaptured our imagination from the start. World mythology is full of animal spirits, gods, and demons. Honored for their strength, speed, and fertility, animals made handy symbols. We situated them in our creation myths and in the sky, naming constellations after them. We made them tribal totems and formed cults around themespecially the dangerous ones, as the soul of a slain beast might return to exact vengeance on the hunter. Humans must have hoped to placate powerful predators, too, by granting them sacred status.
Sometimes animals help establish a social order, and sometimes, as symbols, they subvert or threaten it. Many cultures have tales of animal tricksters who break the rules of the gods or of nature, often through tricks and thievery. Tricksters can be sly or foolish or both, but they’re almost always amusing, even when they’re up to serious mischief. They do and say the things we’d like to do and say, fight the powers that be and (usually) win, and even when they’re less than kind, we love them for their wit and daring. The Monkey King, Sun Wukong, a beloved figure in classical Chinese literature, wreaked havoc in Heaven. In North American lore, Raven stole light; Coyote stole fire. Anansi the spider is a famous trickster-god of West African lore.
Spirit-Lore and Superstition
Animals have always helped humans explain the inexplicablenot least our fears. In many (though not all) cultures, for instance, owls were deemed bad omens, their hoots mournful, their image tied to death or ill fortune. The Aztecs associated the bird with Techlotl, god of the dead, and the Chinese believed that owls snatched the soul away. The Pimas, a tribe of the southwestern United States, also aligned owls with death and the soul, and gave owl feathers to a dying person to help him into the next world. If a Pima family had none, they procured feathersthose of a freshly caught owl were bestfrom the tribe’s medicine man. It’s no coincidence that owls are nocturnal. Even today, we’re wary of creatures of the night, it seems. For one thing, they’re awake when we’re not, when we can’t keep an eye on them. Even in metal cars and sturdy dwellings built of brick, armed with our locks and our reason, we still flinch at the gaze glowing in the headlights or the flitting of a bat. When we venture out of bed for a glass of water, ourr feet cold and vulnerable on the kitchen tiles, the darting shadow of a house mouse can still evoke an almost primal response. Imagine how our ancessssstors feltexposed to predators and the elements, hemmed in only by a ring of firelight. It’s no wonder our race wove an explanatory web of spirit-lore and superstition around a world of beasts and shadows. Omens and other “irrational” notions about animals have always addressed our deepest fears. Perhaps, too, they help ease them.
Some Pacific Islanders worshiped sharks, erecting stone altars in their honor and holding shark-kissing ceremonies to earn spiritual protection for their swimming areas. In some cultures, meanwhilelike those of the Naskapi caribou hunters in the Canadian arctic or the reindeer hunters in Siberiaa prey animal might be seen as a willing participant in its own death. The hunter gains the animal’s meat, hide, and bones, but its spirit lives on in a cycle of death and rebirth, and the hunter must beware not to offend that spirit since disrespect or ridicule threaten the future supply of game. The idea of atoning for a life taken was common in many hunting cultures and persists even today.
To be a successful hunter (or avoid becoming prey) you have to know the habits of your quarry (or how to outmaneuver a predator). Where will it make its den, and when does it breed? What are its territorial and seasonal movements? What does it eat, and where does it find drinking water? You need to inhabit the animal for a time and see the world from its point of view, inviting empathy. About 10,000 years ago, the global climate began to change, gradually warming. Forest replaced grasslands, and due to this and other factors, such as overhunting, the great herds of grazing animals vanished. As forest spread over the land, men began to hunt with bow and arrow, and by about 12,000 B.C., people were using tame dogs in the chase, though it would be another 2,000 years or so before they fully domesticated them.
By 8000 B.C. or so, people in the Near East were beginning to grow their own food, a feat that would dramatically change the course of human history. Instead of just gathering the seeds of wild grasses, they put some aside, planting them the next year to yield a crop. Humans, nomadic hunters for so long, began to work the land. They settled in one place to tend crops and guard the harvest. What’s more, people began to domesticate wild animals. Wild sheep, goats, pigs, and cattle had been hunted for thousands of years before humans took to rounding them into pens, which made them easier to catch. The first animals to be kept this way were probably sheep and goats around 8500 B.C. in the Near East. Chickens were eventually domesticated for their meat and eggs. The llama was kept for meat and wool in South America, along with the alpaca, ducks, and guinea pigs. In Southeast Asia, pigs were an important resource. Regular contact with people made these creatures tamer.
In due course, herders noticed that larger animals often had larger young, so they let only these animals breed, and over time, domestic animals became bigger and stronger than wild ones. Humans saw that all dogs, for instance, are not the same. Some sport strength and endurance, some run fast, others are fighters. In time, people bred dogs to have select traits, crafting hunting, herding, and guard dogs for themselves. This careful breeding is called animal husbandry. By about 2000 B.C., all of our most important domestic plants and animals were an established fact of human society. As farming caught on, the traditional culture of hunting and gathering faded. There’s no doubt these changes altered daily life forever. But did the shift from hunting to agriculture and husbandry change the way humans thought about animals?
The Last Monsters
Even today we view the big predatorsbleak, magnificent, often solitary hunters like shark, tiger, leopard, and crocodilewith a kind of terrible awe. They impress and humble us, and have had our wrath to show for it. In recent times we’ve pushed many to or over the edge of extinction, perhaps because they recall for us what it must have been like (and still is in some few remote places) for our long-ago ancestors. To be hunter and hunted. To be stalked and savaged, reduced to meat. Our race may take refuge in reason, and in scientific and technological dominance, but these bold predators are in many ways the last “monsters” on earth, challenging our assumption that we reign alone at the top of the food chain
Old Men in Fur Coats
The more like us an animal seemsor the more symbolically linked to our struggles and survivalthe more we seem to respect it. Bears are easy to anthropomorphize. They often walk upright, for one thing, and a hunter I know confirmed that in size and shape, a skinned bear looks eerily human. Many primitive cultures dreaded impending winter, when the flora and fauna around them began to die off or disappear. Winter is a vivid symbol of death, and bearswhich appear to vanish into the earth in winter, magically resurfacing with springembodied the cycle of life and death for many cultures of the Northern Hemisphere. In fact, bear cults are still thought to exist in remote parts of the world. The bear hunter in such cultures might view his prey as spiritual kin, with grave respect, and take pains to avoid offending the bear or calling it by name, relying instead on nicknames like Grandfather, Angry One, or Old Man in a Fur Coat. Killing a bear was a sacred act, and ideally the hunter used a spear, club, or other traditional weapon, cornering the bear in a stand-up fight before apologizing and reporting the reason for the kill. He might even skirt responsibility by finger pointing: “It wasn’t I, Grandfather, it was [insert enemy’s name here] who made use of me to kill you. I am sorry!” In some cultures, such as the Ainu people of mountainous Japan, if hunters found a mother bear with a cub, they killed the adult female and carried the cub home to their village. There it was raised by a childless couple, which nursed it and treated it as an honored guest, perhaps even allowing the cub to claim a bed. It might be released into the forest after three years or kept and raised to adulthood and then ritually sacrificed. For the Ainu, who held their bear celebration in early December, the bear wasn’t an earthly creature at all but a temporary visitor from the spirit world who longed to return there. The Ainu hunted the bear to trigger this metamorphosis, and to sacrifice in their language means “to send away.”
One Kingdom: Our Lives with Animals written and with photographs by Deb Noyes. Copyright © 2006 by Deb Noyes. Reprinted with permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.