Fagan (Emeritus, Anthropology/Univ. of Calif., Santa Barbara; The Attacking Ocean: The Past, Present, and Future of Rising Sea Levels, 2013, etc.) brings consummate skill to this frequently horrifying study of humanity's interaction with animals.
The author considers his book a purely historical inquiry, not simply an account of how our relationships to Earth's other inhabitants have changed over 2.5 million years, but how our interdependent relationships with eight mammals—dogs, goats, sheep, donkeys, pigs, cattle, camels and horses—have profoundly shaped human history. Fagan notes that the very word “animal” has roots in the Latin term anima, or “soul.” He then reveals how early humans defined their world in terms of the animals that were potent ritual partners and discusses how animals went from being respected as individuals to the modern commodification of select species as work animals and food. Eventually, traditional hunting, subsistence farming and husbandry yielded to systematic agriculture, large-scale herding, permanent settlements, cities and the Industrial Revolution. But the story is subtler and more involved than a partnership-to-exploitation narrative, involving not only Western concepts of animals as human possessions, but also a fundamental, distancing shift in humankind's relationship to the natural environment. Fagan ably explains the various mentalities and contradictions inherent in that story, and he studies a priceless archive of memory, embodied in legend and folklore, regarding associations between animals and people before wholesale domestication became subjugation. Still, our understanding of the factors that transformed wild creatures into domestic beasts owes much to conjecture and interpretation, something Fagan is keen to point out. His analysis, however, is sound, the product of an accomplished archaeological and anthropological background.
Though reminding us of the cruelties still visited upon animals and insisting that we respect them anew—not merely as pets or idealized creatures of the wild—Fagan offers no resolutions to our conflicting attitudes toward them, but his compelling, cohesive book calls for further enlightenment.