Online Review: Book

Social Zooarchaeology: Humans and Animals in Prehistory

Deborah Ruscillo


By Nerissa Russell. Pp. xii + 548, tables 2. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2011. $49. ISBN 978-0-521-14311-0 (paper).

Zooarchaeology has come a long way in the past 60 years. The birth of processualist archaeology in the late 1950s and the 1960s made the greatest impact in the field of faunal analysis when artifacts and ecofacts began to be examined within their historical and cultural contexts. Willey and Phillips (Method and Theory in American Archaeology [Chicago 1958] 80) made a case for the use of native informants and plant and animal remains to provide insight into the unrecorded past. Animal bones in processualism were not seen as just miscellaneous inclusions in the soil matrix as in previous eras, but began to be considered a vital source of cultural and ecological information. Several important works thereafter, especially by Colin Renfrew, applied processual archaeological interpretive methods to classical archaeology, taking the understanding of Old World civilizations beyond the traditional art historical approach. Even so, animal bones were not consistently collected from excavations until the 1970s and 1980s (and even later at some sites), unless from contexts considered important.

Social Zooarchaeology represents the new era of postprocessual anthropological inquiry in the relationship between humans and animals. As the first chapter (“Beyond Protein and Calories”) suggests, zooarchaeology is no longer just about reconstructing diets and economic strategies; it is also about understanding the symbiotic relationships within human societies, of which animals are and have been an integral part. Indeed, “the overwhelming focus on animals as a meat source to the exclusion of all other roles” is cited as the motivation for writing this book (155). Russell has organized numerous themes of human-animal relationships into 10 broad categories that serve as sections in this volume. Each chapter is written as a separate review of the ethnographic and archaeological evidence. It is perfectly organized as a textbook or handbook for zooarchaeological studies but also for landscape archaeology and human ecological readings. In the 141 pages of bibliography, there are 2,100 works listed, cited throughout the 400 pages of organized and well-written text. The volume is devoid of images and maps, though for an endeavor of this size and breadth, images would be costly and would contribute little to its message and purpose of studying animals and humans properly in their social contexts.

Contemporary volumes reflect this trend (e.g., A. Marciniak, Placing Animals in the Neolithic: Social Zooarchaeology [London 2005]; U. Albarella and A. Trentacoste, eds., Ethnozooarchaeology: The Present and Past of Human-Animal Relationships [Oxford 2011]). These volumes integrate the study of archaeological remains with ethnographic parallels to allow a better understanding of how animals contributed to the development of human rituals, economy, and social hierarchies. In fact, the multidisciplinary study of human-animal relations is a culmination of past trends of inquiry in the zooarchaeological record, including the origins of domestication, the secondary products revolution (SPR), sacrifice, gender division of labor, social complexity, and, more recently, feasting.

Russell has managed to present a holistic view of animal roles in human communities, including symbolism, rituals, hunting, extinctions, domestication, pets, diet, and wealth. She successfully draws on both ethnographic and archaeological examples to illustrate theories presented by others and to interpret human-animal interactive phenomena. Her material spans six continents, including island fauna from five different areas of the world, and most chronological periods from the Pleistocene to the present. There is a slightly greater focus on Europe and western Asia simply because there is more literature, evidence, and information on vast faunal issues of domestication, sacrifice, secondary products, and hunting, for example. References to the important discoveries at Neolithic Çatalhöyük reflect Russell’s own fieldwork.

Russell’s concise reviews of past theories on specific issues in the development of human subsistence strategies (e.g., food taboos, origins of domestication, origins of sacrifice, “Man the Hunter,” blitzkrieg, SPR, animal wealth) are very useful and make this book a resource for case studies. Each chapter ends with a review of the material covered, an assessment of research problems, sound resolutions based on the information available in the current literature, and a positive message about how zooarchaeology can contribute to a greater understanding of human societies past and present. All in all, she has made it abundantly clear that it is no longer acceptable to produce faunal reports containing only bone frequency statistics and correlated meat weights. It is the responsibility of the faunal analyst to regard the animals found in archaeocultural contexts as members of the community, part of the social fabric of the ancient society. Zooarchaeology has thus become “zooanthropology” to a greater extent.

Russell demonstrates during her extensive review of the ethnographic material that even hunted wild animals play a vital social role in a human community, transcending the need for meat and continuing even in the wake of animal domestication instead as a source of male prestige, initiation rites, and a perpetuation of a connection with nature (ch. 4). She has made a compelling case for hunting being more than just killing animals for food. However, I am not convinced that males engage in hunting rituals more than females in all cultures because of the association of predation with sex (160); it may be more of a practical matter of hunting being a hazardous task, females usually considered the caretakers of the family and home and are perhaps less expendable in this regard. “Polluting” the hunting mission with menses (161) is both a practical and ideological consideration as well.

Russell cleverly draws a parallel for the evolution of early human societies with crows (whereas in the past primates or wolves have been compared with humans) to illustrate how the opportunistic “Broad Spectrum Revolution” of exploiting different niches of nature for food is associated with complex social structures. “Crows also are among the most intelligent birds; are social; recognize individual crows and humans; and have a strong family structure built around extended families in which members cooperate in subsistence, reproduction, and defense. The form of crow sociality is not unlike the classic hunter-gatherer pattern” (153). She argues that big game hunting could only have arisen among hominins with language, stating that language encouraged big game hunting, rather than big game hunting giving rise to language.

One of the finest points in the book is her evaluation of the “Man the Hunter” hypothesis in human evolution of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. She counters this notion with the feminist response of the 1980s: “Woman the Gatherer.” Russell then considers the ramifications of the hypothesis “Man the Scavenger,” but resolves that scavenging can be just as dangerous as hunting. Furthermore, apes and other species also engage in hunting but have not evolved to the extent of humans. Recognizing that there is a generalized diet by learned food acquisition techniques as opposed to one instinctive strategy by humans, she proposes a new model for human evolution: “Humans the Improvisors” (155).

Almost one-quarter of the text is spent in an extensive review of animals in ritual. Russell is to be commended for this important and cross-cultural synthetic work, which could very well have stood on its own as a monograph. This chapter (ch. 3) is a must-read for anyone performing zooarchaeological studies at any site. She mentions the age-old witticism of finding unexplained objects in archaeology and immediately assuming they are ritual objects. Russell has successfully demonstrated that in many cases animal bones are indeed ritual objects. She provides clues about how to recognize sacrificed animals in archaeology, how to identify scapulae and astragaloi used in divination, and even characteristics for distinguishing food offerings for the afterlife vs. remains of funeral feasting and sacrifices (64–9). Rituals that she explores include hunting shrines and trophies, funeral rituals, special deposits, animals in architecture, amulets, sacrifice and ritual killing, divination, and costumes. In her discussions, she raises two important warnings: the first is against dichotomizing sacred and secular activities, because many societies do not draw strong distinctions between the two (79); the second is not to interpret local economy from ritual samples, because selections for ritual may not reflect the daily dietary habits of the site occupants (121). She proposes two areas that need more work: there is a paucity of ritual information from African Holocene archaeological sites, and at classical sites there is a need to study ritual assemblages to confirm that appropriate sacrifices were indeed selected for each deity as stated in ancient testimonia. The Thesaurus Cultus et Rituum Antiquorum (2004–) is a useful resource for this line of inquiry.

Her conclusion after her survey of the origins and nature of sacrifices across all cultures is that sacrifice is linked to feasting and the careful distribution of meat (126). She recommends a “contextual approach” to identify ritual remains, which requires that excavators need to be sensitized to possible ritual deposits; even differential weathering may indicate bones that have been hung from trees, deposited in water, and presented in hunting shrines (142). When discussing structured deposits, she stresses the importance of trained zooarchaeologists excavating pits or middens of bones to recognize how animals or animal parts may have been purposefully and carefully deposited.

Russell provides numerous prescriptions for better interpretations of zooarchaeological material. Some of these are contained in chapter 6, “Domestication as a Human-Animal Relationship.” Here she examines the transformation of animals from shared resource to (private) property: “There is a real difference between managing wild animals by practicing conservation measures and appropriating domestic animals as property” (215). She tackles the weighty question of how and why animals were domesticated initially. The work of Jacques Cauvin (1994–2000) links the genesis of domestication to the creation of a supreme deity, namely the Mother Goddess—a “symbolic revolution” that allowed people to spiritually control environmental phenomena. After an extensive critique of Cauvin’s theories, Russell arrives at the conclusion that the domestication of plants and animals has more to do with the new emphasis on lineages and ancestors and on ties to the house and land than to the creation of a supreme being (245). But with caution—not all circumstances of domestication worldwide must adhere to these ideological constraints. “We need to consider the role that domination plays, the form that it takes in particular instances, and why it may sometimes lead to killing animals, other times caring for them as virtual family members, and yet other times to treating them as commodities” (247).

Russell also provides useful tables of up-to-date approximations of dates and regions of domestication of major domestic animals (table 6.1) and animals introduced to Mediterranean islands (table 7.1). For those examining the social history and domestication of the dog, Russell provides a useful textual and contextual review of the role of canids in human history and prehistory. Dogs have “filled virtually every role in the human-animal relationship spectrum,” as companions, guards, hunting and military aids, herders, laborers, racers, status symbols, animal combatants, spiritual guides, sacrificial offerings, feral introductions, sources of fur, objects of worship, pariahs, sources of medicine and witchcraft, and daily and ritual foods (280). Zooarchaeologists should therefore be mindful of the vast array of possibilities when attempting to interpret the social significance of canid remains from archaeological sites.

Cattle and their valorization in communities receives considerable attention throughout this volume for several reasons: they must have played a significant role in the development of early belief systems, judging from Paleolithic and Neolithic artistic representations; they are symbolically important in ideological issues of domination because of their sheer size; they are able to sustain populations of people through their capacity as labor animals, sources of primary and secondary resources, and their value as wealth; and cattle have received considerable attention in the anthropological literature.

In chapter 8, Russell explores the “cattle complex” of east Africa as presented by Herskovits (“The Cattle Complex of East Africa,” AmeriAnt 28[2] [1926] 361–88). To early European settlers, the keeping of cattle seemed irrational because the cattle were not exploited for their protein and caloric potential; instead, they allowed the cattle to overgraze pastures and formed emotional bonds with them. When viewed as wealth and investments, however, the maintaining of cattle herds seems completely rational (301). She makes a compelling case for the origin of bride wealth in mixed farming communities, not pastoralist—it is not about the cattle as a commodity, but rather about the value of the female role in agricultural communities (318–19). When did the valorization of cattle occur? Russell believes it to have occurred probably in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B period, with social transformation, male bull deity introductions, and migrant women marrying into populations that probably had cattle wealth, drawing others into this socio­economic system (347). The animal wealth system intensified with the SPR because it enabled people to live off their herds while slaughtering fewer of the individual animals (354), contrary to Sherrat’s views that the SPR was a response to population growth and the need for greater food production. If there is any doubt that cattle wealth was a source of social hierarchical and economic differences in antiquity, Russell presents how the words for “cattle” and “capital” have the same etymological origin.

The final chapters (chs. 9, 10) are perfect closers for this extensive study of social zooarchaeology. In the former, Russell examines the social aspects of meat, including a review of the importance of meat sharing and feasting in human social associations and rituals and healing. In the latter concluding chapter, she shrewdly chooses not to regurgitate the information provided in the previous 394 pages in a summary, but rather she presents practical zooarchaeological methodologies for addressing the research questions encountered in her cultural and archaeological review of human-animal relations.

There are many significant contributions that Russell has made to the field of zooarchaeology and anthropology through this laudable piece of work. Her considerations of the social aspects of human-animal relations are presented in logical groups within overarching themes, while her reviews of current theories with up-to-date bibliographical citations are thorough, useful, and thought-provoking. Not only has she succeeded in identifying research problems in zooarchaeology, she takes her analysis one step beyond and offers applications and resolutions to interpretive problems. Russell’s endeavor “to stimulate richer, more complete accounts of local prehistories” (10) to build a fuller understanding of the history of human-animal relations has been achieved, and I am thus a better zooarchaeologist and educator for having read this volume.

Deborah Ruscillo
Department of Anthropology
Washington University
St. Louis, Missouri 63130-4899

Book Review of Social Zooarchaeology: Humans and Animals in Prehistory, by Nerissa Russell
Reviewed by Deborah Ruscillo
American Journal of Archaeology Volume 118, Number 2  (April 2014), published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1182.Ruscillo

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