Early Cultural Geographies of Animals

In contrast to zoogeographical work, early twentieth century geographies of animals sought to examine how some animal distributions were affected by human groups through animal domestication and introductions of animals into new regions. Studies of animal domestication were rejuvenated by evolutionary theory in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries – viewing animal domestication as one of the main qualities and practices that distinguished ‘man’ from animals. It is, of course, unsurprising that animal and plant domestication have had such a central interest in human geographies. Agriculture, in its many varieties, but particularly, modern capitalist industrial agriculture, has, and continues to exhibit enormous scope for transforming landscapes, the fleshy bodies of animals, and the socioecological relations between people and animals in myriad ways. However, it is the origins of domestication that were dominant in early geographies, pioneered by geographers such as Friedrich Ratzel and Eduard Hahn in the 1880s and 1890s, though before this many other studies of domestication were undertaken focusing on sequences of human development. Much of this early work on the origins of animal domestication can be seen to dovetail with what came to be called cultural ecology.

But it was Carl Sauer, with his work in the 1950s, who became most associated with what became known as cultural geography or cultural ecology approaches to agricultural origins, dispersals, and how humans influ ence animal numbers and distributions. Here the attention was focused on place, region, and, above all, the cultural landscape. Whilst animals were not central to Sauer’s work, he argued for 11 main centers or ‘hearths’ of animal and plant domestication and for religious or ritualistic motivations for animal domestication. Sauerian cultural geography has been dominated by the view that domestication of plants necessarily preceded that of animals, bringing about more leisure and storable abundance than hunter gathering. This, in turn, was seen to give rise to sacrificial religions where animals were kept for ritual reasons as sacrifices to help secure this new abundance and its security. Here, it was argued that only subsequently did ‘man’ begin experimenting with breeding domesticated animals as a food source.

Debate and controversy has long accompanied both cultural ecology and Sauerian cultural geography. According to some, this work failed to adequately address ethnographic work that contradicted the view that plant tending gave rise to more abundance and leisure time than hunter gathering. Within the cultural ecology tradition others have recently re investigated empirical evidence to argue that materialist economic reasons were more powerful motivations for animal domestication across the regions seen as the main hearths of domestication. Still others have argued that the cultural evolutionism of such approaches does not adequately historicize the politics of animal domestication and species alteration, or the variable and changing ways that notions of animality have been construed to inform notions of the human. Instead, for cultural ecology/cultural geography, domestication was viewed as a factor all humans share, helping to make them distinct, through culture, from animals. As such, human–animal distinctions were seen as evolutionary and naturalized, with a tendency to view domestic animals as, somewhat pas sive, human enacted transformers of landscapes through a superorganic notion of culture that appeared to function independently of human individuals. Some cultural-ecological studies went further than this; for example, those on ‘transitional species’ that lie between the wild and domestic, that emphasize qualities of animals that have made them seemingly ‘uncooperative’ to domestication and hence, alluding to a possibility of nonhuman agency. Yet, this latter point remained largely undeveloped in this body of work.