Horticulture and the idea of domestication

For Cultural Ecology 2020 we read Tim Ingold, “Making things, growing plants, raising animals, and bringing up children” in The Perception of the Environment. Ingold’s chapter is about horticulture and the myths of domestication.

These readings took off from the previous class on Herding and link to the next class which finishes Brody. There is parallel material in Cultural Ecology 2017 in a class on Gardening and Growing Plants.

I revisited this material on horticulture for a 2022 course on the History of Anthropological Thought:

For an Intro-to-Anthropology version from 2022, see “Domestication Stories.”

Horticulture & Domestication

In the last chapter we finally got some non-hunter gatherers from Ingold. We got some herders, or pastoralists. In this chapter we even get some gardeners, or some people who grow plants, practicing horticulture. Some non-hunter-gatherers, or people who might still hunt and gather, but are farmers. Even Colombian farmers. I want to focus (obviously we’re going to still compare-contrast with hunting and gathering) on this horticulture idea. Now, like with herding this idea that people went from gathering or simply collecting to growing is part of our mythology that horticulture and agriculture is the same thing as culture. There’s that root word there, and the culture and the cultivation of plants then leads to being civilized–having a history and all those things. So, Ingold here talks about this idea that there is a transition between collecting to producing. This is basically when people start making things or making stuff or intervene in the natural world as a way of deliberately controlling it. Ingold is drawing on some people who were very concerned with the idea of labor, Friedrich Engels, who’s of course Karl Marx’s buddy. Engels was also a reader of anthropology. He read mostly . . . Lewis Henry Morgan . . . the counterpart you might say to Franz Boas in the Americas. Morgan was working in the Rochester region, someone who is more an amateur anthropologist pre-Boas, but had this idea of the stages of humanity or stages of civilization. Morgan is often tagged as being the person who gave us the idea of a uni-linear cultural development from the savage to the barbaric to the civilized. Lewis Henry Morgan always comes in at various points, but in any case, Friedrich Engels was reading Lewis Henry Morgan and others, and thinking about labor and what it meant to become a human society. He wanted to locate that in this idea of production.

I would say Ingold’s view on this is that he’s trying to get us away from these dichotomies, but the Marx and Engels view of things is that “yes, non-human animals do a bunch of stuff to transform the world, but they don’t have a plan for it in their heads first.” That’s what was most important. Here it’s on the top of page 78, which is again according to Engels: “Animals, through their activities, might exert lasting and quite radical effects on their environments” (78). In fact, they would have known this from reading Lewis Henry Morgan on the American beaver and all the ways in which the beaver had transformed the environment, “but these effects are by and large unintended” (78). This is Engels’s view. “The non-human animal, Engels thought, did not labor in its surroundings _in order_ to change them; it had no conception of its task. The human, by contrast, always has an end in mind” (78). The crucial part is _the idea_, that they have an end in mind.

We’re going to be talking about this again with the classic example from Marx, when he says the difference between . . . the beehive and the human architect. . . I think he calls it the difference between the best bee and the worst human architect, because in fact many bees can make much better stuff than the worst human architect. I would put myself in there [as a bad architect]. But Marx says that the human architect has an image for what they want to make before they put it into the world, whereas the bee is just out there, it’s just emanating from the body. The idea is of having deliberate control, a mental image, which is then being realized in nature or in a product or some thing that you have made. That’s why when it comes to animals and plants, people are always talking about this process of breeding, because it’s the most like what we want to think about as engineering or producing, if you can breed different plants together and make new creatures. The idea is, as Ingold put it, that’s why everybody’s always talking about “artificial selection,” that they’re making things by art.

There’s that rather amazing piece at the beginning, which I often just skip over because it seems so fanciful, from Francis Bacon, this idea of a utopia out there where they make all this stuff: “We have . . . large and various orchards and gardens . . . And we make (by art) in the same orchards and gardens trees and flowers to come earlier or later than their seasons” (in Ingold, 77). They do all this stuff, they make all these things by art. “By art likewise we make them greater or taller than their kind is, and contrariwise dwarf them, and stay their growth; we make them more fruitful and bearing than their kind is, and contrariwise barren and not generative. Also we make them differ in colour, shape, activity, many ways” (in Ingold, 77).

This was from 1624. The idea that you could make things through art. I’ve underlined the word _art_ because sometimes in our world, when we hear the word “artificial” we get all down on it. We don’t want the artificial. But they really liked the idea that you were making things by art. Artificial was emphasized because that was something good. This moment of domestication, of bringing all these plants under human control as Ingold put it, is seen as “the decisive moment at which humanity _transcended_ nature, and was set on the path of history” (78). [The typical idea is] until this point you have people who are basically biological creatures living in nature, living with the wild plants and animals, but as they bring themselves up, domesticate those plants [and] animals, they’ve pulled themselves up and are now above the natural world, and able to do all these neat cool things. The next thing you have Engels and Marx talking about overthrowing capitalism and setting up a utopian place where we make even more stuff, and better. Marx and Engels weren’t trying to get back to nature. They were trying to harness the productive capacities of the world.

We’ve talked in previous classes about how when it came to stereotypes about hunters and gatherers–that they were savages and without culture–anthropology has been in general questioning those. We’ve tried to extend the idea of culture to all human beings. We’ve tried to question those ideas of someone like Darwin, that they don’t have culture, they don’t have government they don’t have language. We’ve basically tried to talk back to that mythology, or that Western stereotype, but on the issue of domestication anthropology, I would say, has been a little bit equivocal. On the one hand a lot of anthropologists have celebrated the idea of the domesticators because they basically believe in this version of human history. So, Friedrich Engels was not an anthropologist of course, but he laid the groundwork for an anthropology that would celebrate this notion. Then Ingold quotes V. Gordon Childe, who is a very famous archaeologist, a Marxist archaeologist, which would make sense if you think about his relationship to Engels. His book, _Man Makes Himself: The Classic Study of the Origin and Progress of Man from Earliest Recorded History to the Rise of Modern Civilization_. This would have been required reading back in the old days, especially for archaeologists. In 1951, this idea that man had made himself, domesticated himself, and domesticated the world. Scary, but there it was.

Then there’s Godelier who has this five-part distinction here. We won’t go through all the funny things that the French think, but what Ingold says, the key line for Godelier is between the wild and the domesticated. The argument gets a little more complicated when he talks about the mental representations, and how in some ways the hunter-gatherers are more mental, more cultural even than the others. . . . “Godelier reaches the rather paradoxical conclusion that it is in [the hunter and gathering] societies that the boundary between the mental and the material, between culture and nature is most clear-cut” (79). Again, odd, but he basically does retain this idea that there’s a line between the wild and the domesticated.

A lot of anthropologists have basically believed that when it comes to domesticating plants and animals, horticulture was a key transitional moment in the rise of the modern world. There’s another reason, and as I was trained as an anthropologist when I was taking a class with Sidney Mintz, he got really into the horticulture and domestication idea because of how much it showed had been contributed to the West from people who were not celebrated at all. This was a human achievement. What Mintz would do is talk about all the stuff that people in other parts of the world have domesticated like wheat, rice, potatoes, and corn or the cow, the sheep, the goat, the pig. Then he said: “And what did Europe give us? The Brussels sprout.” Nobody likes Brussels sprouts. . . . His point is that there’s hardly anything that was domesticated in Europe. There’s hardly anything that is a new domesticate. You never go down to the grocery store and they’re like, “hey we got this new thing that science has given you.” I mean you get some stuff, but it’s not good. Everything we eat was domesticated by people who were smarter than us thousands of years ago. That’s one of the ways in which we have responded.

The other thing that anthropologists have done is questioned, in contrast to Engels or Childe, we’ve questioned this idea that everything is getting better and better and better with the domestication of plants and animals. As I mentioned in that volume _Man the Hunter_, edited by Richard Lee. Richard Lee has been huge in questioning the idea that hunters and gatherers had it so bad. He’s probably the one who’s most responsible for the idea that they only needed to do 10 to 15 hours of work every week to survive. The most responsible for helping people understand how much gathering rather than hunting was crucial for their subsistence. I don’t know if you’ve been ever assigned to read his most enduring article that gets read in anthropology classes called “Eating Christmas in the Kalahari” where he figures out that they tease each other to keep them all at the same level, because they have reciprocity between them. It’s a fun article. Richard Lee has been hugely important in questioning the idea that . . . we’re better off if we transition to agriculture.

Then we talked about Marshall Sahlins, who appeared in that _Man the Hunter_ volume. Then in _Stone Age Economics_, the idea that there’s the “Original Affluent Society.” Then there’s an article that I still–it’s a rip-off of Richard Lee, it really is, he plagiarizes from Richard Lee–but it’s Jared Diamond’s “Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race” in which he basically claims that agriculture was the source of everything going downhill and has led to so many problems. Anthropology has spent a decent amount of time questioning the idea there’s this progressive relationship between domestication and hunting and gathering, but probably we haven’t intensely questioned the very notion of domestication, which is of course what Ingold will do here. Ingold goes into four ethnographic examples of horticulture, nice little summaries from four different societies where they grow things.

It starts off in the “Achuar of the Upper Amazon” (82). Basically, in each of these societies you’re going to see something that looks like our line between the wild and the domestic, but turns out not to be. For the Achuar in this Amazonian region, they do have these gardens. . . . Then you get to the edge of a forest, and they don’t see the garden as opposed to the forest, but as a scaled-down version of it. You have the big forest. Then you have this little garden. It’s a matter of scale and the forest is a an “untidy” garden (82). “Human society is a scaled-down version of the society of nature, the garden plot ‘temporarily realizes the virtualities of a homely wilderness'” (Descola in Ingold, 82). They are certainly not corresponding to our usual ideas of the wild and the domestic.

Marilyn Strathern’s work in Papua New Guinea, in Mount Hagen. Again, they have this differentiation between things that are . . . _mbo_ and _rømi_, which initially looks like . . . our distinction between domesticated and wild. But if you look a little more closely, it is whether something is under human care or not. There can be for example a pig that is under human care and would be _mbo_, but the same pig if it’s out running around in the forest becomes _rømi_. Then the other example, that the children are always _mbo_. “The child does not begin as _rømi_ and become _mbo_. It is _mbo_ from the outset, by virtue of its planting within the field of human relationships” (83). Again, not equivalent to our understanding.

Then into Mali, into the Dogon, where you have this distinction between the garden and the bush, but for the Dogon the bush is where all the power comes from. You need it. When they plant things in the garden, it gets used up or evaporates. Again, it’s as Ingold “an almost exact inversion of the modern Western notion of food production as the manifestation of human knowledge and power over nature, here it is nature–in the form of the bush–that holds ultimate power over human life” (84). That’s where you get your power, “while the cultivated fields and gardens are sites of consumption rather than production, where vital force is _used up_” (84). Very different.

Finally, the peasant farmers of Boyacá Colombia, who have very similar ideas to some of the peasant farmers that I worked with in a place not too far away from Gudeman and Rivera’s field experience. I would hear people talking about this. It didn’t always make sense to me for a while. They draw out the ideas of, in this case it is that the earth is where people get their power. It’s not people imposing their will upon the earth, the earth and in some ways before that God is our strength and our energy and force, our _fuerza_. The farmers are assisting or helping to draw out that force. Again, almost the opposite of our idea that when we are producing, the people are the key factor in making things out of nature and making nature produce.

We have examples from Africa, Papua New Guinea, a couple different places in South America, peasant farmers and what we might consider to be a more indigenous community.

What Ingold is saying is that in all these examples what we never see is this idea that there are social superior beings, the people, who are acting upon nature, and we also never see the idea of humans controlling nature. They have different ideas about what’s going on. The relationship between the garden and the bush, or between the earth and the humans, but never the idea that humans are somehow the ones dominating and controlling this process or engineering something from it. We do see in all the examples the idea that what people do is grow things, or that they set up the conditions for growth. In many of these cases there’s a parallel to . . . raising children. They often parallel this to bringing up children, setting up conditions for growth.

In fact, in the example from . . . the Amazonian region there was a a competition of motherhood between the plants that might compete with the mother’s attention for the kids. I never understood that until our children started to be outside the home more, and our house started filling up with all these plants, and suddenly there’s all these plants to take care of.

We often think of children as these savage animals that we must train into civilization and stamp them with all the rules and regulations of society. I would really recommend . . . reading Ingold really helped me out. It’s a lot different to think about just letting your child grow into sociality. As much as I want to stamp and train. No, you need to set up the conditions for growth. You can’t do that much, that’s my feeling.

Again, in these societies practicing horticulture the idea is not that we take a savage child or an animal child or a blank-slate child and then train them or make a mold for them or civilize them. They grow like plants or animals into maturity.

What Ingold is saying here is that when it comes to the distinction between the domesticated and the wild: “Where does this leave the distinctions 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_” (86). The relative scope. “This is not only a matter of degree rather than kind” (86). This is a crucial social-science sentence, that you should always keep in mind a matter of degree rather than kind, meaning that there are various gradations along perhaps a continuum rather than some split on one side or the other. It’s a matter of degree rather than kind. “It can also vary over time. Weeds can become cultigens” (86). So, stuff that looks like a weed, all of a sudden you’re eating it. “Erstwhile domestic animals can turn feral” (86). For those of you who’ve been trying to fight off the wild hog population, they’re everywhere they’re going crazy ruining everything. . . . So, yes domestic animals can turn feral, can go wild. Then he makes an interesting point about the “temporal interlocking.” What seems to have happened is that humans started relying on faster reproducing plants and faster reproducing animals. That’s in some ways what may be more an explanation for what we call domestication.

Ingold also goes into the idea of how, in many places, trees are hugely important for humans, and the stuff that humans get from trees, but they don’t really fit these ideas of wild and domesticated. It’s interesting because it is true when you look in the literature they never want to talk about trees, because it’s hard to imagine selectively breeding a tree. . . . Ingold returns to what then is the place of humans and makes the declaration that “we can no longer think of humans as inhabiting a social world of their own, over and above the world of nature in which the lives of all other living things are contained” (87). Not the idea that there’s a social world up above and a natural world below. Instead, we need to look at ourselves as “fellow participants in the _same_ world” (87).

“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” (87).

This is an interesting and different way to look at things, especially from our own society. We’ve seen this a little bit before, if you think about chapter 2 where he’s talking about the “people who call themselves scientists and the people whom scientists call hunter gathers are fellow passengers in this world of ours” (38-39) in a long history of engagement. Or, when we were talking about the hunters and the herders, that . . . we can’t “use _our_ disengagement as the standard against which to judge _their_ engagement” (76). That’s when he talks about the ecological crisis. It’s a very different, I hope a very provocative way, of thinking about human-natural or human-environment interactions.

Pairing these chapters together, the last chapter on hunting and herding, together with this chapter on domestication and horticulture, I hope serves to gel things together and crystallize a number of the things that Ingold’s been talking about.


For Cultural Ecology 2020 we read Tim Ingold, “Making things, growing plants, raising animals, and bringing up children” in The Perception of the Environment. Ingold’s chapter is about horticulture and the myths of domestication. Student comments below may also draw on the paired reading of Hugh Brody, Maps and Dreams.

These readings took off from the previous class on Herding and link to the next class which finishes Brody. There is parallel material in Cultural Ecology 2017 in a class on Gardening and Growing Plants.

I revisited this material on horticulture for a 2022 course on the History of Anthropological Thought:


Living Anthropologically means documenting history, interconnection, and power during a time of global transformation. We need to care for others as we attempt to build a world together. This blog is a personal project of Jason Antrosio, author of Fast, Easy, and In Cash: Artisan Hardship and Hope in the Global Economy. For updates, subscribe to the YouTube channel or follow on Twitter.

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