Ingold on Domestication

Domestication of Plants and Animals Opens Relational Pathways

In the traditional view, the domestication of plants and animals is a watershed moment for humanity. It’s when humans begin to control nature, to tame animals, to domesticate the world around them, and turn it to their ends. In the traditional view, hunters and gatherers are part of nature, or much more within nature than any other humans. With agriculture, humans leave nature, or begin to control nature, to construct, to engineer.

In a pair of incredibly insightful essays, Tim Ingold interrogates the idea of transition from hunting and gathering to pastoralism and agriculture. The first, “From trust to domination: An alternative history of human-animal relations” concerns pastoralism or herding animals. The second, “Making things, growing plants, raising animals and bringing up children” concerns horticulture or gardening. These essays are essential reading for both understanding what domestication is not as well as what it is.

Ingold first details how we traditionally see hunters as pursuing “wild” animals, animals outside of human control, whereas herders have tamed or domesticated the animals:

Wild animals, therefore, are animals out of control. Hunter-gatherers, it seems are no more able to achieve mastery over their environmental resources than they are to master their own internal dispositions. They are depicted as though engaged, like other animal predators, in the continual pursuit of fugitive prey, locked in a struggle for existence which–on account of the poverty of their technology–is not yet won. (2000:62)

As opposed to the wild animals, domestication is traditionally seen as a human intervention, of how people intervene in natural processes to control them, especially in the realm of breeding and engineering. It is seen as a type of engineering, or as the dim beginnings of engineering.

Ingold then details how hunters do not actually depict the hunt as the pursuit of wild animals:

The animals are not regarded as strange, alien beings from another world, but as participants in the same world to which the people also belong. They are not, moreover, conceived to be bent on escape, brought down only by the hunter’s superior cunning, speed or force. To the contrary, a hunt that is successfully consummated with a kill is taken as proof of amicable relations between the hunter and the animal that has willingly allowed itself to be taken. (2000:69)

For the hunters and gatherers, there is a mutually nurturing role with animals and plants, of full engagement with the ecosystem. That full engagement is one of sharing and trust.

Ingold proceeds to how pastoralists relate to animals, explaining that there is control, but it is not the control imagined as engineering. “The instruments of herding . . . include the whip, spur, harness and hobble, all of them designed to restrict or to induce movement through the infliction of physical force, and sometimes acute pain” (2000:73). Again, this is not control as engineering, but similar to the control of slavery. “In those societies of the ancient world in which slavery was the dominant relation of production, the parallel between the domestic animal and the slave appears to have been self-evident” (2000:73).

Ingold concludes the difference between hunting and herding is a “change in the terms of engagement,” but it is not a change from being inside of nature to outside of nature. It is also not a change from good-to-bad. “The underside of trust . . . is chronic anxiety and suspicion” and we should not assume hunters and gatherers live “in harmony with nature” (2000:75).

So too with gardening or horticulture. In the traditional view, gatherers collect wild plants, berries, roots, and tubers, whereas cultivators have begun the process of selection, of “artificial selection.” Of course with the term artificial, the suggestion is that this is no longer a natural process. Humans begin to control nature, to intervene, to engineer. Agriculture is “the decisive moment at which humanity transcended nature, and was set on the path of history” (2000:78).

Ingold then considers four cases of contemporary horticulturists, noting that none of them see their activities as a human control of nature: “The work that people do, in such activities as field clearance, fencing, planting, weeding and so on, or in tending their livestock, does not literally make plants and animals but rather establishes the environmental conditions for their growth and development” (2000:85-86). It is not about humans controlling, selecting, engineering, or creating, but about caring, tending, and nurturing. Then, Ingold asks and answers the crucial question:

Where does this leave the distinction between gathering and cultivation, and between hunting and animal husbandry? The difference surely lies in no more than this: the relative scope of human involvement in establishing the conditions for growth. This is not only a matter of degree rather than kind, it can also vary over time. Weeds can become cultigens, erstwhile domestic animals can turn feral. Moreover a crucial variable, I would suggest, lies in the temporal interlocking of the life-cycles of humans, animals and plants, and their relative durations. . . . In short, what is represented in the literature, under the rubric of domestication, as a transcendence and transformation of nature may be more a reflection of an increasing reliance on plants and animals that, by comparison with humans, are relatively fast-growing and short-lived. (2000:86)

Domestication and agriculture are not the watershed moments, the time when everything changed. This is not to say they were inconsequential processes–these are certainly crucial periods of change and development for human societies, and it is important to understand their particularities. What we should not do is assume that these changes locked us into particular outcomes, or gave humans control over nature.

In recent years, researchers have increasingly reassessed domestication as human control. It seems clear that humans do not control the process. Domestication is a reciprocal relationship, with lots of unintended consequences. In anthropology, the essays in the edited volume Where the Wild Things Are NowDomestication: Where the Wild Things Are Now (Cassidy and Mullin 2007) explore these issues. The popular food writer Michael Pollan has shown how plants domesticate humans, making humans serve the plants. Pollan’s The Botany of DesireDomestication: The Botany of Desire takes a “plant’s-eye view of the world” (2001).

Domestication opens new pathways of relationship between plants, animals, and humans. The consequences are far from clear, and much lies outside of human control. “Human beings do not so much transform the material world as play their part, along with other creatures, in the world’s transformation of itself. . . . History is the process wherein both people and their environments are continually bringing each other into being” (Ingold 2000:87).


Previous: 2.2 – Many Ways of Gathering and Hunting


To cite: Antrosio, Jason, 2016. Domestication of plants and animals opens relational pathways. Living Anthropologically, http://www.livinganthropologically.com/anthropology/domestication-of-plants-and-animals/. Last updated 24 February 2016.

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  • JuHoansi

    This seems like a postmodern argument, which modern genetic engineers gleefully use to justify their increasing manipulation and control of the biosphere.. “We’re not controlling nature, we’re nurturing nature along”. Or IBM’s “We’re building a smarter planet”.
    Of course horiticulturalists and pastoralists don’t see themselves as controlling nature, that’s the whole point. The control of nature was a gradual unconscious process in which incremental changes occurred to gain more and more control. It’s only looking back we see the pathway of development.

  • Helga Vierich

    I was told for years while living among the Kua San that each adult wild animal was known and some of the older individuals were even named and recognized on sight.. indeed, it appears that some of these animals even recognized individual human beings on sight. They even eventually got to recognize me, and I was sometimes even to remember their individual names. Not that that hartebeest called “Warchief” ever answered to his name.

  • Helga Vierich

    I had some similar thoughts a year or so ago.. We humans, the compassionate predator, entered into a contract with a large

    number of species in the course of the past twenty thousand years (some think

    longer), and species like the wolf (our domestic dogs), Bos Taurus (domestic

    cattle), Tarpans ( domestic horses of all breeds today) and a legion of others

    entered the relatively new ecological niche created within the sphere of the

    world’s first compassionate predator. Many of these species, of both animals

    and plants, would never have been as successful had they not entered into the

    contract.

    Let us not be blinded by the evil results of commercialization of this age old

    contract between us and these other species. Turning everything into money has

    betrayed these plants and animals as much as it has betrayed all of what is

    decent and compassionate about the human spirit.

    When we turn our backs on the factory farms and the horrors they have

    unleashed, do not also be tempted to turn our backs on our long history of trust

    and co-adaptation that created the ecosystem of domestication. It is an

    incredibly rich and rewarding ecosystem to live within, and one we have all but

    lost in our miserably urban wastelands.

    Sure, it is hard on the heart to put an animal down to eat it, but it is

    infinitely better than to let these creatures be abandoned to the “wild”. The

    death and drawnout horror of being eaten alive by parasites or merciless

    predators without any capacity for compassion is one of the reasons many now

    think animals like sheep and goats and pigs sought out the human sphere in the

    first place.

    There are some that came early and were always under-appreciated like the cat

    and the dog, or even reviled, like the mice and the rats. But now we know that

    house mice by colonizing our ecosystem keep other kinds of mice out of it, like

    the deer mice that carry the deadly Hanta virus. But now look at how mice and

    rats have served us in research and still can be delightful housepets… (and

    the story of the bubonic plague is not nearly as simple as some have previously

    thought).

    And what about house sparrows and chickens and starlings and crows? Pigeons?

    Even set “free” they congregate around humans.

    The most ancient vegetarian cultures in the world revere all these animals, and

    certainly do not chase the domestic animals within their local ecosystems out

    into the wilderness or consider it politically incorrect to allow such creatures

    to breed and raise their young.

    Please not be fooled by the vile “animal rights” arguments for vegetarianism.

    Choosing not to eat meat should not immediately mean you must disapprove of

    those who do, nor that keeping our place in nature, within a vast ecosystem of

    symbiosis with numerous other species, must be rejected.

    Animals have chosen to be part of our homes and part of the human ecosystem

    niche on the planet, and we have no more right to turn our back on them than we

    have to turn our back on the plight of the whales or the plight of the tuna.

    The agenda of the present AR movement is an evil and ugly one. No pets to

    snuggle in bed with at night, no glorious mornings to see the new calf just

    born, no milking the cow while the calf takes the other teats, no playing with

    puppies and mornings awakening to the happy crowing of the the rooster as he

    calls his flock of plump hens out to feed. No sense of searing tenderness as

    one is privileged to watch how carefully he attends the hen with the new family

    of downy chicks, blinking in their first view of the morning sunlight world, and

    makes sure these littlest one get the first crack at a tasty nest of ants…

    Everything neutered. One generation and out. gone. No more poodles, and collies,

    labrador retrievers, haughty siamese, cosy angoras, athletic family mousers, no

    more pigs who love their backs scratched. No more omelets, souffles or angel

    cakes, and no more milk or butter or cheese or yogurt or ice cream. No more

    children wide-eyed with wonder to see the nest of baby bunnies for the first

    time, no more horse crazy teenagers or watching your daughter ride her first

    pony, with an expression of such incandescent joy that it almost hurts the heart

    to see it–often through tears. Rescued by the rowdy happiness of the pony

    himself, suddenly so careful to keep the novice safe on board.

    Well, it is a long way from weeds and manure but it is all the same thing. I

    offer it to you all freely. It is not really free, of course. You have to have

    compassion and all the qualities that brought the creatures to offer themselves

    to join our world in the first place. Care. Love. Wonder. Gentleness. Courage.

    All the aspects that hunter-gatherers have, in caring for the animals around

    them, drawing them as close as kinfolk and often keeping them from harm.

    The road that led, in some times and places, to that one further step we have

    come to call domestication.

    There was no point when we conquered nature. We are still in nature.

    • Helga Vierich

      Dear Jason.. I was unable to edit this to erase it. Can you help get rid of it. I don’t know why it made two entries like this.

  • Helga Vierich

    We have become even closer and have developed some heftier role in the selection processes that shaped a number of species in the course of the past twenty thousand years (some think
    longer), and species like the wolf (our domestic dogs), Bos Taurus (domestic
    cattle), Tarpans ( domestic horses of all breeds today) and a legion of others
    entered the relatively new ecological niche created within the sphere of the
    world’s first compassionate predator. Many of these species, of both animals
    and plants, would never have been as successful had they not entered into the
    contract.

    Let us not be blinded by the evil results of commercialization of this age old
    contract between us and these other species. Turning everything into money has
    betrayed these plants and animals as much as it has betrayed all of what is
    decent and compassionate about the human spirit.

    When we turn our backs on the factory farms and the horrors they have
    unleashed, do not also be tempted to turn our backs on our long history of trust
    and co-adaptation that created the ecosystem of domestication. It is an
    incredibly rich and rewarding ecosystem to live within, and one we have all but
    lost in our miserably urban wastelands.

    Sure, it is hard on the heart to put an animal down to eat it, but it is
    infinitely better than to let these creatures be abandoned to the “wild”. The
    death and drawnout horror of being eaten alive by parasites or merciless
    predators without any capacity for compassion is one of the reasons many now
    think animals like sheep and goats and pigs sought out the human sphere in the
    first place.

    There are some that came early and were always under-appreciated like the cat
    and the dog, or even reviled, like the mice and the rats. But now we know that
    house mice by colonizing our ecosystem keep other kinds of mice out of it, like
    the deer mice that carry the deadly Hanta virus. But now look at how mice and
    rats have served us in research and still can be delightful housepets… (and
    the story of the bubonic plague is not nearly as simple as some have previously
    thought).

    And what about house sparrows and chickens and starlings and crows? Pigeons?
    Even set “free” they congregate around humans.

    The most ancient vegetarian cultures in the world revere all these animals, and
    certainly do not chase the domestic animals within their local ecosystems out
    into the wilderness or consider it politically incorrect to allow such creatures
    to breed and raise their young.

    Please not be fooled by the vile “animal rights” arguments for vegetarianism.
    Choosing not to eat meat should not immediately mean you must disapprove of
    those who do, nor that keeping our place in nature, within a vast ecosystem of
    symbiosis with numerous other species, must be rejected.

    Animals have chosen to be part of our homes and part of the human ecosystem
    niche on the planet, and we have no more right to turn our back on them than we
    have to turn our back on the plight of the whales or the plight of the tuna.

    The agenda of the present AR movement is an evil and ugly one. No pets to
    snuggle in bed with at night, no glorious mornings to see the new calf just
    born, no milking the cow while the calf takes the other teats, no playing with
    puppies and mornings awakening to the happy crowing of the the rooster as he
    calls his flock of plump hens out to feed. No sense of searing tenderness as
    one is privileged to watch how carefully he attends the hen with the new family
    of downy chicks, blinking in their first view of the morning sunlight world, and
    makes sure these littlest one get the first crack at a tasty nest of ants…

    Everything neutered. One generation and out. gone. No more poodles, and collies,
    labrador retrievers, haughty siamese, cosy angoras, athletic family mousers, no
    more pigs who love their backs scratched. No more omelets, souffles or angel
    cakes, and no more milk or butter or cheese or yogurt or ice cream. No more
    children wide-eyed with wonder to see the nest of baby bunnies for the first
    time, no more horse crazy teenagers or watching your daughter ride her first
    pony, with an expression of such incandescent joy that it almost hurts the heart
    to see it–often through tears. Rescued by the rowdy happiness of the pony
    himself, suddenly so careful to keep the novice safe on board.

    Well, it is a long way from weeds and manure but it is all the same thing. I
    offer it to you all freely. It is not really free, of course. You have to have
    compassion and all the qualities that brought the creatures to offer themselves
    to join our world in the first place. Care. Love. Wonder. Gentleness. Courage.
    All the aspects that hunter-gatherers have, in caring for the animals around
    them, drawing them as close as kinfolk and often keeping them from harm.

    The road that led, in some times and places, to that one further step we have
    come to call domestication.

    There was no point when we conquered nature. We are still in nature.

    • Hi Helga, thank you so much for the comment. I really do need to return and revise this page!

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