How Did We Get Here? The Rise of The Dominator/Herding Culture
by Will Tuttle
The following is an excerpt from the World Peace Diet by Will Tuttle.
Most of us don’t think of our culture as being a herding culture. Looking around, we see mainly cars, roads, suburbs, cities, and factories, and while there are enormous fields of grain, and cattle grazing in the countryside, we may not realize that almost all of the grain is grown as livestock feed, and that most of the untold billions of birds, mammals, and fish we consume are confined out of sight in enormous concentration camps called factory farms. Though it is not as obvious to us today as it was to our forebears a few thousand years ago, our culture is, like theirs, essentially a herding culture, organized around owning and commodifying animals and eating them.
It was roughly ten thousand years ago that wandering tribes in the Kurdish hill country of northeastern Iraq began domesticating sheep and initiated a revolution with enormous consequences. Anthropologists believe it was an outgrowth of the hunting practices of these tribes, who began attaching themselves to particular herds of wild sheep, culling them and increasingly controlling their mobility, food and reproductive lives. They eventually learned to castrate and kill off male sheep so that the herd consisted primarily of females with a few rams; from this they learned selective breeding to create animals with more desirable characteristics. Goats were apparently domesticated soon after sheep, followed by cattle two thousand years later to the west and north, and subsequently by horses and camels another two to four thousand years after that. Highly charged concepts of property ownership and of male bloodlines and bloodline purity gradually emerged, of which there is ample evidence by the time the historical period began about four thousand years ago.
Our Western culture can be seen as having two main roots: ancient Greece and the ancient Levant (the eastern Mediterranean basin and Middle East). Reading the earliest extant writings from these cultures from about three thousand years ago, like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and the Old Testament accounts of the ancient kinds and their wars, we find that these cultures were oriented around meat eating, herding, slavery, violent conquest, male supremacy, and offering animal sacrifices to their mostly male gods.
For the old herding cultures, confined animals were not just food; they were also wealth, security, and power. The first money and form of capital were sheep, goats, and cattle, for only they were consumable property with tangible worth. In fact, our word “capital” derives from capita, Latin for “head,” as in head of cattle and sheep. The first capitalists were the herders who fought each other for land and capital and created the first kingdoms, complete with slavery, regular warfare, and power concentrated in the hands of a wealthy cattle-owning elite. our word pecuniary comes from the Latin word pecus, meaning cattle, and the ancient Roman coin, the denarius, was so named because it was worth ten asses. Livestock in the ancient herding cultures thus defined the value of gold and silver – food animals were the fundamental standard of wealth and power. This fact gives us insight into the political might of the ranching and dairy industries that continues to this day.
By commodifying and enslaving large, powerful animals, the ancient progenitors of Western culture established a basic mythos and worldview that still lives today at the heart of our culture. Riane Eisler’s The Chalice and the Blade and Jim Mason’s An Unnatural Order summarize and digest the work of historians and anthropologists, providing some interesting perspectives on the fundamental value shifts that occurred when humans began dominating large animals for food, and how these changes affect us in the present day.
It’s important to note here that the study and interpretation of history is notoriously subjective. We can notice in our own individual lives that our experience and understanding of our past changes as we change. This is obviously also true of the vast and complex collective pasts generated by millions of people. When we move into trying to understand prehistory – cultural pasts before written records – it becomes even more subjective. As historian Cynthia Eller writes, “[P]rehistory is still a huge and largely blank canvas. Thus incredibly diverse scenarios can be painted upon it, depending on the predilections of individual thinkers.”
Riane Eisler draws on the work of many anthropologists and writers, particularly Marija Gimbutas, Jacquetta Hawkes, and Merlin Stone, to argue that there have been basically two types of societies, which she refers to as partnership and dominator. In partnership societies, men and women are essentially equal and work together cooperatively, and Eisler attempts to demonstrate that this was the norm for many tens of thousands of years of human life, prior to the expansion of patriarchal dominator cultures that were based on herding animals. This relatively recent occurrence, five to seven thousand years ago, was due to what Gimbutas calls the Kurgan invasions by warlike herders from central Asia into eastern Europe and the Mediterranean basin.
Bringing a culture in which men viewed women as chattel, they apparently came in three waves over roughly two thousand years, violently attacking, destroying, and fundamentally changing the older, more peaceful partnership societies. According to Eisler, Gimbutas, and others, these older cultures tended to eat foraged and gardened foods, worship fertility goddesses, make communities in fertile valleys, use metal to make bowls rather than weapons, and did not engage in war. The invading dominator cultures herded animals and ate mainly animal flesh and milk, worshiped fierce male sky gods like Enlil, Zeus, and Yahweh, settled on hilltops and fortified them, used metals to make weapons and were constantly competing and warring. Violent conflict, competition, oppression of women, and c lass strife, according to Eisler, need not characterize human nature but are relatively recent products of social pressure and conditioning brought by the invading herding cultures whose dominator values we have inherited.
Where did these invading patriarchal cultures come from and what made them that way? In a later book, Sacred Pleasure, Eisler cites the research of geographer James DeMeo, who ascribes the expansionist migrations of the Kurgan invaders and other herders to harsh climatic changes that “set off a complex sequence of events – famine, social chaos, land abandonment, and mass migration – that eventually led to a fundamental shift” in human cultural evolution. Herding livestock, Eisler points out, “tends to lead to aridity,” and to “produce a vicious cycle of environmental depletion and increasing economic competition for ever more scarce grazing grounds – and thus a tendency for violent contests over territorial boundaries.” She adds that the practice of herding animals produces the psychological hardening characteristic of dominator cultures:
…pastoralism relies on what is basically the enslavement of living beings, beings that will be exploited for the products they produce…and that will eventually be killed…This would also help to explain the psychological armoring (or deadening of “soft” emotions) that DeMeo believes characterized the origins of patrist or dominator societies…Moreover, once one is habituated to living off enslaved animals (for meat, cheese, milk, hides, and so forth) as practically the sole source of survival, one can more easily become habituated to the view of the enslavement of other human beings as acceptable.”
Whether there actually were earlier cultures that were more peaceful, partnership-oriented, and egalitarian, as Eisler and many others assert, or whether violent conflict, males, and competition have always dominated human socioeconomic cultural structures is still a hotly contested issue among academics. What seems undeniable, though, is the effect on human consciousness of commodifying and enslaving large animals for food. Jim Mason takes Eisler’s work farther in this regard, developing some more historical and psychological connections between domination of animals and domination of other people. He points out that the agricultural revolution introduced profound changes into the ancient forager cultures, transforming their relationship with nature from one of immersion to one of separating from and attempting to control her. Out of this separation, two types of agriculture emerged – plant and animal – and the distinction between them is significant. Growing plants and gardening is more feminine work; plants are tended and nurtured, and as we work with the cycles of nature, we are part of a process that enhances and amplifies life. It is life-affirming and humble (from humus, earth) work that supports our place in the web of life. On the other hand, large animal agriculture or husbandry was always men’s work and required violent force from the beginning, to contain powerful animals, control them, guard them, castrate them, and in the end, kill them.
Mason also emphasizes the important influence that animals seem to have in human psychological development and health, as well as the violent psychosocial characteristics researchers find in observing cultures around the world that herd large animals. Citing anthropologists Paul Shepard and Anthony Leeds, he notes that Shepard
…ticks off the mainstays of herder cultures the world over: ‘Aggressive hostility to outsiders, the armed family, feuding and raiding in a male-centered hierarchical organization, the substitution of war for hunting, elaborate arts of sacrifice, monomaniacal pride and suspicion.’
Mason points out the similarities in these respects among desert tribes of the Middle East, Chukchi reindeer herders of eastern Siberia who “love to boast of ‘feats of strength, acts of prowess, violent and heroic behavior, excessive endurance and expenditure of energy,’ and our American cowboy/rodeo culture.
Building on the work of Eisler, Mason, and others, we can see that the culture we live in today is a modern continuation of the herding culture that arose in the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean basin, and that the central defining belief of this culture is still the same: animals are commodities to be owned, used, and eaten. By extension, nature, land, resources, and people are also seen as commodities to be owned, used, and exploited. While this seems logical to us today as modern inhabitants of a herding and animal-consuming capitalist culture, this is a view with enormous consequences: the commodification of animals marked the last real revolution in our culture, completely redefining human relations with animals, nature, the divine, and each other.
In the old herding cultures animals were gradually transformed from mysterious and fascinating cohabitants of a shared world to mere property objects to be used, sold, traded, confined, and killed. No longer wild and free, they were treated with increasing disrespect and violence, and eventually became contemptible and inferior in the eyes of the merging culture’s herders. Wild animals began to be seen merely as potential threats to the livestock capital; likewise, other human beings too began to be seen as threats to livestock, or as potential targets for raiding if they owned animals. Battling others to acquire their cattle and sheep was the primary capital acquisition strategy; the ancient Aryan Sanskrit word for war, gavyaa, means literally “the desire for more cattle.” It appears that war, herding animals, oppression of the feminine, capitalism, and the desire for more capital/livestock have been linked since their ancient birth in the commodification of large animals.
The larger and more powerful the animals were that were herded, the more fierce, cruel, and violent the cultures had to be to successfully dominate them and protect them from marauding wild animals and people. The largest animals were cattle and horses, and the cattle-herding cultures that established themselves in the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean engaged in unimaginably vicious warfare with each other and against weaker people for millennia, gradually and forcibly spreading their culture and herding values throughout Europe and most of Asia. From Europe, this same cattle culture eventually spread to the Americas. It continues to spread to this day through transnational corporations like ConAgra, Cargill, Smithfield, and McDonald’s as well as through projects sponsored by the World Bank and the U.N., religious missionaries, and charities that propagate animal slavery like the Heifer Project.
As the living core of this ancient culture that became what we call today Western civilization was the absolute supremacy of humans over animals, reinforced through daily meals. Wealth and prestige for men began to be measured in terms of how many livestock animals were owned and how large an area of land was controlled for grazing. The role model of young boys became that of the successful protocapitalist, the macho herder and warrior: tough, cool, emotionally distant, and capable of unflinching violence. Women, livestock, and captured or conquered people were property objects contributing to the total amount of capital; wars, though horrific to combatants and the general population, were potent methods used by the wealthy aristocracy to increase its accumulation of cattle/capital, land, power, and prestige.
It’s helpful to realize that the mentality of domination characterizing the culture into which we were born thrives on seeing and emphasizing differences and ignoring similarities, because this is what enslaving and killing animals requires us all to practice. As herders and dominators of animals, we must continually practice seeing ourselves as separate and different from them, as superior and special. Our natural human compassion can be repressed by learning to exclude others and to see them as essentially unlike us. This exclusivism is necessary to racism, elitism, and war, because in order to harm and dominate other people we must break the bonds that our hearts naturally feel with them. The mentality of domination is necessarily a mentality of exclusion.
It’s obvious if we look closely that many of the root assumptions and activities of the ancient herding cultures still define our culture today. The single most defining activity of these ancient cultures was, as it is today, feasting regularly on foods provided by the bodies of dominated and excluded animals. Wars still enrich a wealthy elite class while millions bear the burden of them, and the world’s rich feed on animals fattened on grain and fish while the poor go hungry. Our capitalistic economic system and its supporting political, legal, and educational institutions still legitimize our commodification and exploitation of animals, nature, and people; our domination of the underprivileged and foreign; and an unequal and unjust distribution of goods based on predation (often euphemized as “competition” and “free trade”), oppression, and war. As we have evolved socially, we have made some undeniable gains in reducing certain excesses, and in providing some protection to the weak and vulnerable. On the whole, however, we have to wonder why our progress has been so slow and difficult. The answer to this is on our plates and extends from there to feedlots, slaughterhouses, research laboratories, rodeos, circuses, racetracks, and zoos, to hunting, fishing, and trapping activities, and to prisons, ghettos, wars, and the military-industrial complex and our ongoing rape and destruction of the living world.