- Animals and Human Society in Asia: Historical, Cultural and Ethical Perspectives ed. by Rotem Kowner et al.
Animals have always played central roles in human societies, but most aspects of their histories remain poorly explored. There is a substantial body of English-language scholarship on the history of animals in Western Europe, but the same cannot be said for the rest of Eurasia, so this book is a valuable addition to the literature. Because "animals" is a broad category, "Asia" is a big place, and the book includes work by scholars of archaeology, history, and religion, the book's contents are quite varied. In terms of geography, it is mostly focused on East Asia, the Eastern Mediterranean, and the Mongol Empire, the only political entity that ever stretched between the two regions. The work extends even further in time than it does in space, with topics ranging from Stone Age hand axes to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The geographical and temporal spread is so great that few people will read all the chapters, but it seems that the press intended the volume primarily as an ebook from which readers can download specific chapters. This review therefore focuses more on individual chapters than on the volume as a whole.
The animals under discussion are mostly large ones of clear importance in human societies. There are three chapters on horses, two on elephants and others on donkeys, cattle, and tuna. Apart from the chapter on the symbolic role of lion and tigers in Buddhism, all of the animals serve humans as beasts of burden or as food. It is currently popular in animal studies to analyse other types of human-animal relations, but this volume breaks little ground in terms of the animals chosen as research topics. It has no pets or pests, nor does it discuss the many other types of animals that live in and around human societies (compare this to the chapters on cats and bees in Sterckx et al. 2018, and to the hundred-odd titles of Reaktion Books' Animals series, which includes peacocks, pigeons, frogs, mice, spiders, and cockroaches.) However, this in no way diminishes the value of this work. All of its chapters present new and engaging interpretations of the histories of animals and make clear that there is plenty of work to be done even on the histories of horses.
The introductory chapter provides a succinct but thoughtful overview of the volume's main themes: domestication, animals as food, animals in war, and animals in culture and religion. Although I consider Asia a perfectly appropriate focus for a book, I was nonetheless surprised that the authors seem to uncritically accept the idea that Asia is a continent, since the division of the Eurasian continent into Europe and Asia is a Eurocentric fantasy. But that is a minor point. Let me now discuss the chapters.
In the fascinating second chapter, Ran Barkai discusses the role of proboscideans [End Page 444] (elephants and their relatives), especially young ones, in the diets of Palaeolithic peoples across Eurasia. This chapter emphasizes new evidence from China but makes clear that most of what archaeologists know about Eurasia's Palaeolithic peoples comes from the western end of the continent. The chapter demonstrates that people hunted these animals over a very large area for a long time. However, the breadth of coverage leaves the author little space to include anything more about each site than the state of its proboscideans remains. This left me wondering what else these people ate and what role these particular animals played in their diets.
In the third chapter, Stephen Rosen examines the changing relationships between humans and ungulates in the...