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Book Review: The Intimate Bond

By (April 23, 2015) No Comment

The Intimate Bond:the intimate bond cover

How Animals Shaped Human History

by Brian Fagan

Bloomsbury Press, 2015

“The hunters treated beasts with respect, as individuals, as creatures with personalities, as living beings in both a material and ritual partnership with people,” Brian Fagan writes in his new book The Intimate Bond: How Animals Shaped Human History, “ … This close kinship and partnership between humans and animals survives to this day among Australian Aborigines and some Arctic subsistence hunters.”

But quailing readers should buck up; yes, there’s an unbroken silt-layer of such unmitigated hooey running through Fagan’s book, but it’s just one thin layer among many – the overwhelming majority of the book is actually excellent. It’s a thoughtful and high-spirited study of the gigantic effects that have been worked upon human civilization by eight key animals: dogs, goats, pigs, sheep, cattle, donkeys, horses, and camels, and although it gives pride of place – as indeed, how could it not? – to mankind’s 17,000-year partnership with canines, it’s equally evocative about all of its subject creatures. The thought-resetting observations about the humble donkey are a perfect case in point:

Donkeys were the first caravan animals, which transformed overland travel in arid lands long before camels, at a time when most previous long-distance communication was by water. They were catalysts for the growth of the Egyptian state, linked broad areas of Southwest Asia for many centuries, provisioned armies, and carried rulers long before horses pulled chariots. The prolific donkey carried loads and people and was exploited and worked hard, sometimes even to death, in a relationship that treated pack animals as a form of mass transit rather than as individual beasts.

“It’s hard for us to imagine living in a world where oars, sails, human hands, and, above all, animals powered daily life,” Fagan writes, perhaps a touch too complacently. “In this now largely vanished, animal-driven universe, millions of subsistence farmers still lived on intimate terms with their animals.” (in the regions covered by his book’s maps – Egypt, the Middle East, India, sub-Saharan Africa, almost all of northern Asia – this kind of universe is hardly “largely vanished,” but we can take his larger point about expanded mechanical options) In tracing the enormous impact domesticated animals have had on the development of human society, Fagan neatly shifts the emphasis of standard social histories, and it’s very pleasantly disorienting to be reminded just how much of human history would have been impossible without the infrastructure provided by one animal ally and seven entire populations of animal slave labor.

True, the riveting long passages of straightforward history in these pages are still shot through with that silt-layer of just the kind of ‘they are us, we are them’ nonsense puckish village elders so happily spoon-fed to credulous tape-recording anthropologists back in the 1970s, so we get hilarious declarations like “Hunters spent large amounts of time observing animals, getting to know them in the same way as one gets to know a friend and his or her mood and idiosyncrasies” and outright errors like “There’s not a hunting society on earth that does not treat its prey with respect.” It’s hard to escape the suspicion that this kind of stuff is stressed so often partly to stimulate the post-Industrial Revolution sense of disconnected malaise Fagan thinks many of his readers will be feeling as they try out their new Apple smart watches, although even one day spent in the company of an aboriginal hunting party will dispel any notions that the bored, brutish, stoned-off-their-asses men of those parties care a brass farthing about the moods of their prey. If Fagan thinks such hunting parties genuinely represent the dwindling end of man’s daily symbiosis with the animal kingdom, he really needs to spend some time in the areas represented by his book’s maps. The lives of a huge swath of 21st century humanity are still intimately intertwined with the lives of their livestock.

But the glory of The Intimate Bond is in the many ways it illustrates how far back that entwinement goes, and how much of our modern world arose because of it. As a picture of humans exploiting but also working alongside nonhumans in order to build, expand, cultivate, irrigate, and explore, the book can hardly be beat.

Needless to add, there’s scarcely any mention of cats.