Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers

The Past and Future of Human-Animal Relationships

| January / February 2006

Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers: The Past and Future of Human-Animal Relationships (Columbia University Press)
By Richard W. Bulliet
Anyone who wonders why society is so fascinated with explicit porn and gory movies should listen to a novel explanation from Richard W. Bulliet: We've gotten off the farm and away from animals.

So begins Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers, with enticing sex and gore, as it charts the history and future of human-animal relationships. Bulliet, a history professor at Columbia University, says we are in an era of 'postdomesticity,' in which we rely on products of animals but have little contact with them. We no longer see animals having sex or being slaughtered, he explains, so we replace those sensations with film fantasies. Likewise, we harbor ideas about vegetarianism and animal rights that animal-raising cultures wouldn't understand, and we embrace postdomestic ideals of environmentalism, even as our society drives 'less useful' animals to extinction.

Bulliet's writing is irreverent, seasoned with humor, and sprinkled with pop references that draw in nonscholarly readers. For instance, he refers to Jodie Foster's horrific memory of the slaughter of the lambs in The Silence of the Lambs. Postdomestic audiences squirmed at the scene, he writes, but the screenwriters forgot that children from cultures that frequently work with animals would see slaughter as commonplace.

'A remnant of what this bygone life was like survives in the annual Miss Navajo Nation competition,' he writes, 'where every lovely and well-educated contestant must demonstrate an ability to slaughter and skin a sheep.'



Bulliet illuminates a facet of our modern disconnection most would miss. In prehistoric times, he writes, animals were objects of worship. But our spiritual connections eroded until animals became mere machines for products like leather and meat.

Some people are rediscovering an environmentally mindful, spiritual connection with animals. Someday, he says, we may overthrow Paris Hilton and Freddy Krueger for a long-lost era 'when animals communed with gods, half-animal beings commanded respect, and killing inspired awe and incurred guilt.'