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The Intimate Bond:

How Animals Shaped Human History

by Brian Fagan

Who invented trousers? What data can be gleaned from a 2,000-year-old mule tooth? These are not questions you would normally expect to arise in a history of human-animal relations, but they are typical of Brian Fagan's lively-minded book. Fagan is emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of California and he lives, he says, in a menagerie that includes cats, horses, fish, turtles and rabbits. His argument, ingeniously pursued, is that we owe our civilisation to animals.

The human story, as he reconstructs it, is one of progressive exploitation. Early humans were weaker than most animals, but they learnt to use other animals' strengths to their advantage. The wolf, it seems, was the first to be used. Fagan imagines wolves and early humans hunting together for thousands of years, perhaps sharing each other's prey. But wolves had one enviable advantage - their sense of smell is so acute they can, it is said, locate a nest of mice 4.5 miles away. So, by selective breeding of wolves, perhaps 15,000 years ago, human hunters evolved the first tame animal - the dog - to use its nose for their benefit. Affection between dogs and people developed early, it appears. In an 11,000-year-old grave in Israel a human skeleton rests its hand on the skeleton of a puppy.

As humans turned from hunting to herding and farming they tamed other species - pigs, goats, sheep and cattle, probably in that order. This so-called 'agricultural revolution', between 12,000 and 9,000 years ago, changed human thought, so Fagan speculates. Animal-breeding, unlike hunting, switched the mind to the future, and to planning it. Farming also introduced the concepts of ownership and wealth, and the new idea that humans exist on a higher plane than other animals.

Around 4,500 years ago the pack-animal revolution began, led by the donkey, a tamed version of the wild ass. Donkeys were humble animals and relatively cheap, costing about the same as a female slave, but they initiated long-distance overland travel. Donkey caravans, sometimes 3,000 strong, carried gold, ivory and leopard skins from Nubia to the Egyptian pharaohs, and plodded along the Silk Road linking Europe with China. Ideas as well as commodities spread along the donkey routes, and great cities such as Damascus grew at their intersections. Classical Athens could not have come into existence, Fagan observes, without donkeys to supply the necessities of life.

Roman legions depended on mules (the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse), and their bones and teeth, like donkeys', lie scattered across the ancient world. Isotope analysis has identified a tooth found on an AD160 Bavarian rubbish tip as belonging to a mule, bred in north Italy, that frequented high altitudes from its eighth year onwards — almost certainly a Roman army employee accustomed to crossing the Alps.

Horses were grander than donkeys and were domesticated some 500 years later. Show-off mounts for kings and emperors, they entered history spectacularly by turning the rag-tag nomadic tribes of the Eurasian steppe into the most fearsome cavalry units ever known. Armed with bows and arrows, which they could fire with deadly accuracy at full gallop, and wearing trousers (their invention) to allow them to swivel and manoeuvre on horseback, they would appear like lightning out of nowhere to kill and ravage. These were the Mongol hordes that, led by Ghengis Khan, swept across the Great Wall, built to keep them out, and conquered China. Camels, which we think of as the normal caravan animal, were the last of the eight animals Fagan studies to be tamed. They were originally kept for their milk, not for load-bearing. Their role as ships of the desert, carrying frankincense from Arabia and gold from west Africa across the Sahara to the Nile delta came later.

Fagan's central case is that we have lost touch with animals. For most of human history an intimate bond with animals was vital for survival. Hunters observed their prey unremittingly and came to know their habits. Farming families lived close to their livestock, sometimes sharing living quarters with them. Animals were respected, even worshipped, becoming integral to western and eastern religions. Dogs had powerful mythic associations in ancient Egypt and among the Greeks and Romans. Hindus consider dogs the guardians of heaven and hell. Horses were linked with the sun god in many Eurasian societies. Bulls were revered in Minoan Crete, and in Egypt through the cult of Osiris. In Greek religion they were symbols of power, connected with Zeus and Poseidon.

Perhaps in recognition of their supernatural status, animals were accorded splendid burials. One Scythian grave contained 15 horses adorned with gold and silver ornaments. In another, a team of four caparisoned horses were harnessed to a ceremonial carriage. In an Egyptian tomb near Abydos 10 donkeys were carefully laid to rest on reed mats, their hip and shoulder joints showing signs of arthritis from load-carrying. Rameses II built a vast underground maze of burial chambers at Memphis in lower Egypt, in which great sandstone coffins held black and white bulls, personifications of the god Ptah. Fagan is the editor of the Oxford Companion to Archeology, and the marvels brought to light from graves, at once poignant and intriguing (presumably these animals were sacrificed - how? why?), provide his book with its richest moments. By contrast the later chapters on the degradation of animals in industrial society and the atrocities of modern farming are depressingly familiar.

Cats are, unfairly, allocated only two pages, but they are informative and entirely to cats' credit. As you might expect, they yielded to taming much later than dogs, some 9,500 years ago. The ancient Egyptians kept them as pets and vermin destroyers, calling them miu or miut (he or she who mews). The cat goddess, Bastet, protected pregnant women and was patroness of music and dance. When they expired, cats were preserved with cedar oil and sweet-smelling herbs, and a tomb discovered in central Egypt contained 80,000 cat mummies. To kill a cat carried the death sentence. Quite right, too.

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