Under what circumstances would you eat your pet? For Jean de Léry, a 16th-century French missionary, this wasn’t a hypothetical question. During a treacherous Atlantic crossing from Brazil to Europe, with supplies running low, some of his fellow passengers killed and ate their monkeys and parrots when hunger struck. Others waited until they had almost starved before putting their pets ‘into the cabinet of their memory’. Léry himself kept his beloved parrot through ‘inexpressible suffering and famine’, but eventually he too yielded to hunger and ate the bird, which kept him and some friends alive for a few days. When they ‘soon after saw land’, he felt great regret.
Parrots are a recurring feature of early European voyages to the Americas. When Christopher Columbus landed in the Caribbean, he didn’t spot any livestock – ‘neither sheep nor goats nor any other beast’ – but he did see wild parrots and was given some tame ones as a gift. Shortly afterwards, during his first journey along coastal Cuba and Hispaniola, he managed to acquire ‘as many parrots’ as he could possibly want – at least forty. Later Spanish colonists sent tamed exotic birds back to Europe as precious gifts. In 1518, Alonso de Zuazo sent Emperor Charles V parrots, turkeys, hawks and falcons. In 1525, Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo sent the emperor ‘thirty or more parrots’, most of which ‘could speak very well’. They didn’t just send birds: in 1528, Hernán Cortés arranged the delivery of a jaguar who ‘is very tame and moves freely about the house and eats at the table what he is given’. Cortés thought it ‘the most beautiful animal which ever has been seen’.
Parrots and other formerly wild animals were available to Columbus and his successors because Indigenous communities had tamed them, fed them and, in the case of parrots, taught them to speak. Indigenous people captured and tamed wild animals across the Caribbean, Mesoamerica and South America: monkeys, deer, sloths, capybara, manatees and tapirs. But parrots were particularly popular. As the French Franciscan missionary André Thevet later wrote, the Tupinamba of present-day Rio de Janeiro held them ‘very dear’. Women fed them and called them ‘their friends’. European visitors were surprised to see that parrots were at liberty to come and go. They were plucked for their feathers, but treated with respect. Tended to yet free, these animals had become part of the family.
Relationships – between animals and humans, and between humans and other humans – are at the heart of Marcy Norton’s original and ambitious The Tame and the Wild. Norton coins the term ‘familiarisation’ to describe the Indigenous process of taming and befriending wild animals – in contrast to the European practice of animal domestication. The Kalinago for ‘familiarisation’ is iegue, defined by one 17th-century missionary as ‘an animal whom one feeds’. The essence of iegue was that an animal a person had fed could itself not be eaten. In Indigenous Mesoamerica and Greater Amazonia (the Caribbean and the Amazonian lowlands), feeding someone – whether human or animal – expressed a duty of care. Once tamed, animals lived alongside humans in companionable relationships. The purpose of taming was not exploitation, but the giving and receiving of affection.
European observers frequently marvelled at Indigenous peoples’ relationships with tamed animals. Yet they largely failed to grasp that familiarisation was a coherent cultural practice underpinned by a belief system that emphasised ‘the permeability and interconnectedness of all beings’. This lack of understanding sometimes had unfortunate consequences. Norton tells of a man on the island of Hispaniola who referred to three pigs as ‘my friends and good company’. He hunted with them and slept alongside them, ‘petting for hours one and then the other’. One day in 1543, Spanish soldiers mistook the pigs for wild animals and killed them. The man showed so ‘much pain and suffering’ that the soldiers felt ‘very bad for having slaughtered the companionable pigs’. Despite this, however, the Spanish often cited the absence of European-style livestock husbandry, domestication and breeding to yield food to justify their invasion of Mexico and the Caribbean. It seemed to indicate that Indigenous people lacked reason, and helped rationalise their subjugation.
Modern scholars have similarly seen the absence of animal husbandry as a shortcoming of Indigenous societies. In 1972, the historian Alfred Crosby described the bidirectional flow of plants, animals and microbiota across the Atlantic after 1492 as ‘the Columbian exchange’. In Crosby’s view, the lack of animal domestication in the Americas made Indigenous people less advanced than Europeans. More recently, Jared Diamond has speculated about the ‘cultural obstacles’ that prevented Indigenous peoples from domesticating animals and developing livestock farming. For Norton, however, animal domestication isn’t a stage of human development so much as a culturally specific set of practices. The expectation that domestication might be found everywhere doesn’t only make us judge one society by the standards of another, but also makes it harder to see what actually exists – in the case of Mesoamerica and the Greater Amazon, a rich tradition of animal familiarisation.
In The Tame and the Wild animal husbandry is presented as the original sin of European human-animal relationships. It accounts for Europeans’ investment in the human-animal distinction, and their objectification of non-human animals. Cattle and sheep were bred purely to serve humans, and such animals became a ‘breathing … carcass ready to be transformed into useful things for people’s consumption’. The Indigenous people of Mesoamerica and Greater Amazonia, by contrast, organised beings not into human and animal, but into the tame and the wild. Wild animals could be caught and consumed, but the tame, as kin, could never become food: the idea of keeping livestock was abhorrent. Mesoamericans did kill captive animals, alongside humans. But even among the Aztecs, Norton argues, the practice of sacrificing captive animals didn’t indicate a distinction between humans and animals; in carrying out these killings, Aztec rulers were aligning themselves with apex predators. Eating meat connected humans of high rank with jaguars and birds of prey, whereas commoners subsisted on mostly vegetarian diets.
Europeans and Indigenous Americans found it easier to understand each other’s hunting practices. Both sets of hunters possessed ‘intimate knowledge’ of their prey and regarded the animals they killed as subjects, not objects. The writer Juan Mateos celebrated the skill of a ‘singularly savvy sow’ (in Norton’s words) that was able to elude his hunting party for a time. He still killed it, of course – but, Norton writes, not all killing ‘is predicated on objectification’. Even in the case of hunting, she finds the differences more telling than the similarities. In Europe, unlike the Americas, hunting was (at least in principle) restricted to the noble elite. In contrast to their Indigenous counterparts, Europeans hunted with a wide variety of animals: ‘horses, hawks and hounds’. These were privileged creatures, endowed with subjectivity and treated as individuals; captive birds of prey had more nutritious and expensive diets than peasants. According to Norton, European hunters were distanced from their prey, which diminished their capacity for cross-species identification. Indigenous hunting and familiarisation, meanwhile, sat on a spectrum: the wild could become the tame. While the prey of Indigenous hunters sometimes became iegue, for Europeans prey never became kin.
It was the importing of iegue to Europe, Norton argues, that resulted in ‘the emergence of the modern pet’. Iegue were quickly absorbed into the European culture of elite non-human animals: in Jean Clouet’s c.1527 portrait, the future Marguerite of Navarre has a green parrot perched on her finger. According to Norton, iegue even became ‘transmitters of Indigenous modes of interaction, sharing with European humans some of the care lavished on them by Native humans’. This is of course difficult to confirm. Norton is unwilling to grant that, before this, European elites could feel genuine affection for their animals, since they treated them as objects of prestige and symbols of power, or as tools of herding and hunting.
But there is evidence that some elite Europeans bonded closely with their animals before the introduction of iegue. Isabella d’Este held funerals for her cat Martino and dog Aura; her grandfather-in-law buried his hunting dog Rubino in a casket (Rubino – or one of his peers – still looks out from a wall of Mantua’s ducal palace, in a fresco by Andrea Mantegna). It isn’t necessary to deny that the elites in pre-modern Europe could love their animals to argue that Indigenous relations with the animal world were less rigid, less patronising and less instrumental – that, in Indigenous America, ‘the joy of nonhuman companionship could be an end in itself.’ As more and more tamed animals were imported to Europe, however, they soon became neither iegue nor precious gifts, but merely tradeable commodities. Some were even sold alongside humans, such as the three green parrots that Sebastiano Caboto purchased in São Vicente in 1530 together with a 13-year-old enslaved boy known as Andrés.
Unlike the taming of wild animals, livestock husbandry has always depended on selective breeding. In pre-modern Spain, for example, nearly half of all newborn lambs were considered defective and killed. In Mackenzie Cooley’s erudite new history, The Perfection of Nature, the story of animal breeding provides the basis for a different sort of reconsideration of human-animal relations in 16th-century Europe and America. If Norton writes about relationships, Cooley traces metaphors: when and how did animal breeding inform the images used to describe human reproduction, and with what consequences? In Othello, Iago taunts Desdemona’s father: ‘You’ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse.’ And it was Renaissance breeders, according to Cooley, who ‘helped popularise the language of race’. The origins of the word ‘race’, from the Spanish raça and Italian razza, are obscure and probably various. One strand points to haraz, Middle French for a ‘stud’. By the late Middle Ages, ‘some variation of race spread through European languages like wildfire.’ The word may have emerged to describe breeds of animal, but it was soon used to describe people: in Italy, Cooley writes, ‘everything that was bred had a race, and everything had been bred.’
In pre-modern Europe, certain species were vested with symbolic importance; the ability to raise them demonstrated mastery of nature. In the words of the 16th-century trainer Federico Grisone, the horse was ‘a thing of worth beyond any might and a mark of honour above all other marks’. Not only was it the most expensive domesticated animal kept at court, it was also essential to warfare. The designations cavaliere, chevalier and caballero in Italian, French and Spanish respectively identified nobility or gentlemanliness with horsemanship. (A modern legacy of these associations is the word ‘management’, from the 15th-century French mesnager, ‘to handle a horse’.) Breeding horses was a political endeavour and, in the Renaissance, a matter of state concern. Italy’s many rulers ‘all wanted their own designated’ equine breeds – a ‘house breed’ or razza that would signal their power, both economic and technical, to engineer nature, and would embody the values of their noble house. Elite breeders collected varieties across the Old World. Not content with Iberian and southern Italian horses (those of Naples were especially prized), the Gonzaga of Mantua also acquired horses from Anatolia and North Africa. The names of equine varieties made reference to these far-flung origins – barbs, for instance, came from the Barbary Coast. Certain varieties were considered to be best for particular uses: jennets from Andalusia for riding, virgiliana horses from Mantua for transportation and coursers from Naples for tournaments.
Breeding horses required not just space and pasture, but the ability to run a major logistical operation. A manuscript recording the breeding programme of the duke of Urbino between 1614 and 1618 is essentially a spreadsheet of equine copulation, tracking which mares were covered in which year by a courser named Belladonna. In Naples, Haniballo Musulino, breeder of the Kingdom of Naples, which was then under Spanish rule, kept meticulous records, down to the bushels of barley each of his horses consumed. Breeders left little to chance. In his treatise De equo animante, the humanist architect Leon Battista Alberti recommended: ‘The place where the body explodes with pleasure must be touched with rings, nettles, chopped pepper and stimulants of this kind; it is also necessary to massage with the hand and smear it with … aphrodisiacs, as well as applying them to the nostrils of the subjects who are preparing to mate.’ Breeders manipulated animal imaginations as well as b0dies. Giovanni della Porta wrote that ‘they fill up and decorate the stables where the mating takes place with tapestries and clothes in various colours’. Painting a white mare black in order to produce a black foal – the idea being that what a stallion saw at the moment of conception could produce such an outcome – wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility.
For all these efforts, the separate house breeds were hard to distinguish. Horses aren’t like dogs, which, with breeding, take different forms relatively quickly. To make their investment more legible, breeders resorted to branding: burning marks on the horses’ skin. These brands were often derived from the noble families’ coats of arms; horses were endowed with the prestige of the elite family that had bred them, whose splendour they were supposed to enhance in turn. The placement of the brands could also provide information: among the emperor’s jennets, those branded on the left flank were from Calabria, those on the right from Apulia. Illustrated books, both in manuscript and print, helped buyers decode the increasingly bewildering marks for different breeds. The system was complicated by houses like the Gonzaga, who bred many different razze, and by those, like the Prince of Ruoti, who decided to change the design of their brand, forcing everyone to update their manuals.
Did razza beget race? The contribution of Renaissance breeders is ambiguous at best. More concerned with practicalities, European breeders weren’t great theorists. Breeders and trainers disagreed about whether nature or nurture played the more significant role in producing desirable animals. The riding master Grisone, for instance, stressed the importance of training over breeding: as long as a horse was willing to learn, it was perfectible. But as a trainer, he had a professional interest in emphasising the role of nurture: breeders were more likely to prize pedigree.
Philosophers have been alive to the analogies between human and non-human animal reproduction at least since Socrates argued in Plato’s Republic that, just as breeders seek to cross the best animals with each other, ‘the best men must have sex with the best women as frequently as possible, while the opposite is true of the most inferior men and women.’ These themes were taken up in the Republic’s early modern descendants, the utopias of Thomas More and Tommaso Campanella. In Utopia, a naked bride and groom are inspected for flaws before their wedding, on the explicit model of buying a horse. In Campanella’s City of the Sun, the Solarians laugh at ordinary humans ‘who exhibit a studious care for the breeding of horses and dogs, but neglect the breeding of human beings’. Like Socrates, More and Campanella suggested that human reproduction should follow the model of animal breeding. Cooley calls these attitudes eugenicist, but she also explains that, in practice, ‘breeders working directly with animals were more concerned about the practical impediments to their craft than creating a unified system through which to understand inheritance.’ In any case, animal breeders didn’t apply their insights to humans. European nobles continued to marry for political advantage; they weren’t interested in selecting advantageous heritable traits.
In the end, even breeders saw heredity as manipulable. Lineage was partly a question of deliberate mixing, and the varied origins of a house breed like the Gonzaga’s testified to its quality: speed from barbs, beauty from Neapolitan coursers. Cross-breeding was supposed to strengthen the line. There is a human equivalent in the family tree of Emperor Maximilian, which recorded his illustrious ancestors, from Saturn and Osiris to Clovis and Charlemagne. Quality inhered in variety, not yet in purity.
The importing of animals had a great impact on both sides of the Atlantic. Even so, both Norton and Cooley stress that the idea of a Columbian exchange obscures the fact that the exchange wasn’t equal. The European conquest of Central and South America depended on non-human animals: the use of animals in war by the Spanish and Portuguese is usually given as one reason they prevailed so quickly despite their numerical disadvantage. Starting with Columbus’s attack on the Taino of Hispaniola in March 1495, European warriors deployed horses and dogs. Columbus himself recorded that the animals afforded him victory and allowed him to control Hispaniola with only three hundred men. One conquistador of coastal South America later remarked: ‘Without horses, it would not ever have been possible to conquer this land.’ Fierce dogs, meanwhile, were used in fighting by the Spanish in a way that they hadn’t been in Europe – this was, as Bartolomé de las Casas wrote, ‘a diabolical invention’ of New World conquest. The Spanish also controlled civilian Indigenous populations with the threat of aperreamiento – being thrown to the dogs.
In the long term, though, it was livestock husbandry that transformed both Indigenous America and power relations on the continent. What the historian Elinor Melville called ‘ungulate irruption’ – the introduction of livestock to the Americas – helped reshape the environment and spread diseases that devastated the Indigenous population. In the Caribbean and on the mainland, goats, pigs, cows and sheep thrived, growing bigger than they did in Europe and reproducing at unprecedented speed. In 1518, a Spanish official described Hispaniola as ‘a land where livestock abounds in marvellous multiplication’. Europeans had hoped to mine precious metals in the Caribbean, but commercial husbandry, initially developed to feed miners, soon became the main event, its profits invested in enslaved Indigenous people and bullion. Livestock farming had existed for centuries in Europe, but here it was transformed into a large-scale commercial enterprise. Hispaniola serves as a microcosm of these changes. Cattle ranching proved so successful there that, without even dismounting, cowboys could slaughter cows in the field. They then removed the profitable hides, leaving the flesh to rot. This wastefulness, occasioned by the sheer abundance of livestock, was a departure from the frugal European habit of using all the parts of an animal. Eventually, the profits from ranching funded the establishment of the first sugar plantations in Hispaniola, thus beginning a new era of exploitation.
In the Andean highlands, the Spanish invasion of the 1530s severely disrupted a centuries-old pastoral economy based on camelids, in particular tame alpacas and llamas. The number of Andean livestock fell by as much as 90 per cent in the century after conquest, a result of the arrival of new diseases and a ‘loss of traditional management practices’. Andean camelids had better survival rates at higher altitudes, where European livestock fared less well. Zooarchaeological findings – evidence of stress and joint disease – show that Andean llamas were forced to carry silver ore down the mountains into old age. Like the Indigenous people who worked in the silver mines, they were the victims of the shift to large-scale production.
Yet in spite of all this change – demographic, economic, political and environmental – animal familiarisation endured. Indigenous people familiarised the animals introduced by Europeans, especially chickens, who turned out to be ‘perfect iegue candidates’. The Tupinamba of Brazil kept Portuguese chickens and, although they used their feathers, they ate neither the animals nor their eggs, telling a European observer: ‘You are too gluttonous; when you eat an egg, you are eating a hen.’ Some Europeans who lived in the Americas came to practise familiarisation: the chronicler Oviedo cohabited with a sloth, while the Austrian Jesuit Martin Dobrizhoffer had a tamed deer that followed him around like a dog. When out of sorts, the deer was fed sheets of paper, which were ‘sweeter than honey to his taste’.
In another example of cultural hybridity, early Mesoamerican celebrations of the Feast of Corpus Christi incorporated familiarised animals such as snakes held ‘as if they were birds’. In one celebration, an actor playing Saint Francis preached to the birds and then tamed a ‘wild beast’ in order to remind viewers that ‘if that wild animal can obey the word of God’ they could too. An Easter re-enactment of the expulsion of Adam and Eve, staged in Tlaxcala in 1539, enhanced the serpent’s role, probably because of the resonance of snakes with the god Quetzalcoatl, whose name means ‘feathered serpent’. Indigenous converts didn’t so much undermine Christianity in such performances as (so to speak) familiarise it.
Unlike Norton, Cooley sees parallels between European and Indigenous American interactions with nature. She reveals not just incompatibility and tragic misunderstanding, but similar approaches to selective breeding and to metaphor. Pre-contact Americans may not have kept ungulates or practised large-scale animal husbandry, but they did breed animals – turkeys, dogs, honeybees and cochineal insects – as well as plants. Maize, for example, was developed from an ancestral crop, and crops as varied as beans, cocoa, chilli and vanilla were adapted by artificial selection to serve human needs. The written record of Indigenous animal breeding is patchy, but the genome points to a history of artificial selection: as Cooley puts it, ‘the animals themselves provide evidence for the work that went into breeding them.’ Among the Aztecs, breeding dogs was a mark of elite status; archaeological finds show that there were at least three distinct Mesoamerican dog breeds. In the Andes, there is evidence of selective breeding by humans in the preference for llamas with yellow or brown wool. But American and European cultures of selective breeding were by no means identical: plant grafting, for instance, didn’t occur in Mesoamerica before the conquest.
By contrast, Europeans could make sense of the role of animals at the Aztec court. The menagerie of Montezuma, the Aztec ruler, included an impressive variety of wild animals as well as different kinds of human being, including albinos, dwarfs and hunchbacks. (The historian Matthew Restall has argued that one of Montezuma’s motivations for welcoming the Spanish was in order to ‘collect’ them alongside his other specimens.) And there was common ground, too, in the way people on both sides of the Atlantic made use of metaphors relating to generation. In Nahuatl, the word for ‘seed’ is xinachtli, while the seed of a man or a woman is tlacaxinachtli. The imagery of seeding parallels the European use of plant metaphors – most influentially the family tree – to describe noble descent. By examining successive editions of early Spanish-Nahuatl dictionaries, Cooley shows that words related to seed were used to translate the European idea of lineage. A nobleman was a tlaxinachchotl, ‘a man of seed line’.
These parallel histories diverged radically with the development of a European ‘taxonomic hierarchy’ that eventually led from razza to race. Notions of purity emerged not just in animal breeding but in the domain of religious conflict. In late medieval Iberia, the concept of limpieza de sangre (purity of blood) redefined what it meant to be a true Christian: no longer a matter of faith alone, it was now a question of lineage. These new European concepts were soon grafted onto Mesoamerican verbal roots. In the 17th century, the Indigenous historian Chimalpahin used the word xinachtli to associate purity with well-born Spanish women, and ‘blackness’ of lineage with men of African descent. Thus Nahuatl came to express the racial notions of colonial Mexico.
Norton’s emphasis on the contrasts between European and American cultures and Cooley’s on the similarities result in two very different histories. In part, the differences reflect different objects of analysis: while both scholars study Mesoamerica, Cooley focuses on the Andean highlands and Norton on the Amazonian lowlands, two regions with different forms of social and political organisation. Selective breeding was especially common in the imperial centres of Mesoamerica and the high Andes, where relationships between humans and animals were more hierarchical. But even in her treatment of Mesoamerica, Cooley devotes more attention to the way the Aztecs bred and ate dogs and turkeys, in apparent contradiction of the Indigenous prohibition on eating animals that had been fed. Turkeys tended to be raised by women, and were paid as tribute to Mesoamerican elites. Both turkeys and dogs were likened to human captives: an Aztec codex defines servitude as being ‘someone else’s dogs, someone else’s turkeys’. These animals straddled the iegue-food divide. Even so, Norton argues that their subjectivity was still acknowledged, since Mesoamericans considered their captivity to be temporary. The Mesoamerican understanding of nature emphasised transformation: all ontological conditions were transitory, and anyone could become food. This belief in transformation, Norton suggests, meant that Mesoamerican captivity could never turn into European-style, large-scale objectification. While Cooley is careful to distinguish between Renaissance razza and modern ideas about race, Norton’s emphasis on long-term continuity sometimes seems to hold the people of the past accountable for our own sins. Brutish as pre-modern animal husbandry was, abattoirs now slaughter billions of animals a year. Each era is cruel to non-human animals in its own way.
Taken together, these books show that in the Americas the distinction between humans and animals was fluid. Europeans, by contrast, held that the difference was fixed: only humans were ensouled and capable of salvation. In practice, however, matters were far blurrier, and the boundary between subject and object didn’t always track the human-animal divide. Rank, for instance, affected the degree of subjectivity a being was granted; medieval elites rated their hunting animals above the peasants who toiled on their land. European inconsistency about the boundaries of the human affected Indigenous Americans the most. Their humanity was cast into doubt not only by conquistadors but also by scholars such as Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda; by the 17th century, European natural history books depicted them alongside plants and non-human animals. The other humans who were affected by this inconsistency were the victims of the emerging Atlantic slave trade. In Cape Verde in 1594, the Florentine merchant Francesco Carletti felt pangs of conscience when buying enslaved humans, ‘all mixed together … in a herd such as that from which, in our country, we buy a bunch of swine’. He noted that ‘each owner makes a mark on each slave’, the practice of animal branding having been extended to human beings. In the slave trade, branding did not seek to affix razza or race, but the brute fact of ownership.
Like her contemporary Montezuma, Isabella d’Este collected exotic human varieties at her court in Mantua. These included people affected by dwarfism as well as Black children trafficked via the Mediterranean slave trade whom she valued for their darkness of skin. Isabella even sought to encourage the dwarfs in her court to procreate. In a chilling passage, she refers to her ‘raza delli mei nanini’ – her ‘breed of dwarfs’. As Cooley writes, Isabella’s ‘sense of entitlement to human bodies came from the animal culture that distinguished court life’. These attitudes weren’t restricted to the Mantuan court. The humanist scholar Nicolas Clenardus had three enslaved Black servants whom he called Carbo, Dento and Nigrinus and taught to play tricks. A late 17th-century painting by Philippe Vignon of two of Louis XIV’s daughters draws an unsubtle analogy between the Black servant attending the women and their lapdog: painted in the same shades of brown, mouths agape and eyes wide open, both companions also wear collars. Pets could be human, too.
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