From Predators and Farmers to Farmers of Predators

I remember it was late at night and my wife was downstairs talking animatedly on the phone in Oromo. I figured she must be talking to family in Ethiopia. After she hung up, she came upstairs and explained to me that one of her brothers had been jailed. He’s a glass-half-full sort of guy so he wasn’t too upset about his situation and in fact he was pretty happy with the food and getting a free bottle of water each day. But what irked him was the reason he was jailed. He was on a bus from Addis Ababa, heading home to the family farm for a visit when security forces stopped the bus. They ordered everyone off and jailed all of the men on suspicion of being in transit to join one of the protests that were springing up across the country. It spoke of a paranoid government and lot of tension in the Oromo region. Protests were springing up like spot fires, and among the farming communities everyone was expected to participate. As I mentioned in my previous posts I was intending to re-visit Ethiopia and spend a year doing research on animal domestication – how the presence of hyenas influenced the choices of livestock animals. But the security situation had me postponing my visit month after month. By June 2016, an estimated 400 protesters had been killed by security forces and many more injured. Westerners in Addis Ababa were being advised not to venture outside of the capital. There was no way I would take myself, let alone my family into that war zone.

I needed to save my research project but with limited data from my fieldwork in Australia and next to no hope of going back to Ethiopia my original idea had hit a brick wall. I’d accepted that it was beginning to look pretty dead in the water but what of an alternative? Romania was an option. That country has an abundance of bears and wolves as well as a lot of small-scale livestock herding. I could see how those predators were influencing relations between herders and herded. But with only 18 months of my contract remaining it would be a tall order to plan and execute some meaningful fieldwork in a country to which I’d never been. At around this time my old pal, coincidence, decided to step in and guide me. A neighbour who knew that I was doing dingo research suggested I talk to a friend of hers. This friend had three dingoes who she kept as pets. At the same time I met someone who works for the forestry department and he told me about a seminar that he was organising featuring a man who kept native Australian bees. And it occurred to me that domestication might be something that was happening in real time in my own back yard. My mind started racing. I knew that crocodiles were being farmed in northern Australia and I’d seen emus on a farm just a few kilometres from my home. I knew also that barramundi and other fish species were being farmed in Australia because it said so on the supermarket labeling. I wondered if kangaroos were being farmed as well. And there before me was the next phase of my research: I would investigate the process of domestication as it unfolded with native species in Australia. It all made so much sense. Rather than applying an Ethiopian model to try and reconstruct domestication during the Neolithic, I would instead study domestication as a contemporary process. I’d see what sorts of human capacities farmers brought to the process and how domestication feeds back into society. I felt good about it. I’d be doing research in my home country, speaking my native tongue and without the presumptuous, world-is-my-oyster attitude that saw me go to Ethiopia to do hyena research 5 years previous. Whereas I felt like Ethiopia was a place that I’d exploited for research purposes, I didn’t have the same misgivings about Australia. And flushing toilets – how good are they! So I ran the idea past the principals of the research project, Agustín Fuentes and Celia Deane-Drummond. At the time we were at a conference in Durham. We took a break and got together in the corner of a pub where I laid out my idea. Celia was disappointed that I wouldn’t be revisiting Ethiopia but trusted my judgement. Agustín, as always, was enthusiastic about the new direction of the research. So I made the requisite adjustments to my ethics guidelines, checked up on what permissions I’d be needing, and before long I was on the road north to visit unconventional farms and homes where native Australian animals were being enfolded into the social and economic worlds of humans. I was about to bear witness to the new wave of domestication.


Thinking cattle

While I was in the middle of my field research on anti-predator behaviours in Australian cattle I was also doing surveys and interviews. With the help of Local Land Services in Grafton, NSW, I sent out about 150 surveys to farmers who had registered to use poison baits to control dingoes. The surveys were a little unusual compared to the usual wildlife-conflict, farmer surveys which ask things like ‘How many animals have you lost?’ and ‘What is the total value of livestock losses for the past year?’ After eliciting some general demographic and geographic information, the questions set about uncovering what farmers thought about what animals were thinking. I’d been reading a lot about Theory of Mind – the ability that most humans have to imagine what others are thinking – and I wondered how it played into farmers’ relations with livestock and predators. During my time in Ethiopia I found that people constantly deployed theory of mind in terms of the way they imagined the worlds of other animals. Not only did they construct ideas about what predators such as hyenas were thinking but they did likewise with the livestock animals with whom they shared their houses. This stood as a marked contrast to the predominant Western view of animals as mindless grass munchers or implacable predators. Considering that rural people in Ethiopia share their lives intimately with other animals, I wondered whether the western view was a consequence of living at a distance from animals. After all, most farmers in Australia do not share their houses with their livestock and certainly don’t know every animal by name, as do Ethiopian farmers. But then maybe the Western view of animals was widespread only in academic circles. Maybe Australian farmers saw the world differently. So the surveys I sent out included questions aimed at testing this. Such questions as ‘Do your animals know when dingoes are present?’ tested whether farmers ascribed thoughts to their livestock animals. The surveys also included an option to have a face-to-face, follow-up interview and over a dozen farmers took me up on that. So I made some trips around the New South Wales tablelands to do interviews with farmers where I asked some pretty odd-ball questions about what they thought that cows, sheep, and dingoes were thinking. What I found was surprising. The Australian farmers I spoke to were little different to Ethiopian farmers in thinking and talking about what animals were thinking. Even a cattle farmer from the New England Tablelands with hundreds of acres, and thousands of animals – who had a farm manager to do the hands-on work with the animals, talked about the mental lives of his cattle.

I ended up writing a book chapter about this. After discussing the ways in which Oromo farmers deployed theory of mind as a practical means to control their livestock animals I suggested that, because of fencing as a means of control in animals, Australian farmers didn’t really need to. But my findings that Australian farmers did deploy theory of mind suggest that humans can’t help but ascribe mindedness to other animals. In fact humans compulsively ascribe mental states to all manner of things, from cars to weather phenomena. And this is borne out by the results of experiments in which subjects are asked to describe sequences of animated shapes. What these experiments show is that with the exception of some people on the autism spectrum, humans readily attribute mental states to animated objects even if those objects are basic shapes such as triangles and circles. But while theory of mind may have contributed to the initial processes of domestication, I argue that it wasn’t crucial. Proof of this comes from individuals with autism who struggle to deploy theory of mind but are very adept at understanding and managing livestock animals. Temple Grandin being a case in point.

Meanwhile the data came in from the camera traps. It wasn’t promising. There were thousands of images of cattle, a handful of birds, a cat, a wallaby and only three images of a wild canid. Worse still was that one of the dates on which the canid was photographed happened to be one where I wasn’t on-site collecting data on livestock. So my spatial analysis fell apart due to lack of data on predator movements. But I consoled myself with the results from my surveys and interviews. I figured these would give me something on which to base comparisons when I got to Ethiopia. It was around this time that an Ethiopian shit-storm blew up on the horizon.

Camera Trap

Staring at Cows

In my last post I talked about how I arrived at a theoretical model for how animals became domesticated during the Neolithic. What was unique about this model was that it allowed space for the agency of livestock animals in early domestication. Based on what I saw in West Shawa, Ethiopia, I theorised that early animal domestication involved goats and sheep deliberately hanging around human encampments because these afforded protection from predators. No fencing needed. At the same time, the animals would be unaware that humans were predators themselves.  In West Shawa, people are careful to slaughter animals out of sight of the others. The animals have no idea where their herd mates disappear to and all they see in the evening is humans with plates full of unidentifiable meat. So for a livestock animal of the Neolithic, human encampments may have seemed like a pretty good deal. The absence of predators would have been pretty obvious and the quantities of grains and vegetables would have been irresistible. Ignorance is bliss.

Still, the model I proposed didn’t explain dog domestication – that model would come later (Spoiler alert: kidnapping wolf pups!) – but it did go some way towards integrating predators and the agency of livestock animals into the process by which humans came to live with sheep, goats and cows. The question then became: What in the contemporary world could I look at that would inform that model? The obvious answer was the relationships that I’d encountered between people, livestock, and hyenas in Ethiopia. There, the cows, sheep, goats and others have a lot of freedom in terms of feeding and movements and yet something keeps them coming back to their human masters and mistresses, day after day. On the one hand that something could be supplemental food. On the other in could be protection, or shelter from rain, or the smell of roasting coffee. Or it could be a combination of those. So I set about planning a research project that would go some way towards answering that question.

I would spend a year doing fieldwork, literally in a field, monitoring the movements of livestock animals and making observations of the variables that might have some correlation with those movements. Whether they were being fed, whether they were being coerced, if they were doing things out of habit from infancy. I’d also collect data on the presence of hyenas and see if there was a correlation between hyena presence and livestock associations with humans. I sought out two places where it would be ideal to do the research. One was where my in-laws lived and farmed and the other was southwest of there, where farmers lived in close proximity to a national park where presumably hyenas were more abundant. Out of all this I figured I’d have a pretty good idea of why it was that livestock animals were voluntarily lining up at the doors of human households to be let in for the night. And from this I could speculate with a little more authority on the early days of animal domestication. As usual, the universe had other ideas.

While I was still in the planning stages, news started coming through of protests in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. According to the news, land was being taken from farmers on the outskirts of Addis and handed over to property developers. To add fuel to the fire the farmers were of the majority Oromo ethnic group and these people already had a problem with Ethiopia’s minority-led ruling party. There were large scale protests in the capital and security forces responded violently. The protests spread and before long much of the Oromia region was in a state of unrest. What’s more is that the district in which I was planning to do my fieldwork is traditionally the centre of Oromo resistance to the government. There was a protest at the local university and students were killed by police. In short it wasn’t safe to go there at that time. Yet I didn’t want to let go of my research idea.

It was also around this time that I met Paul Meek from the Department of Primary Industries where I live in northern New South Wales. He was involved with monitoring dingoes with camera traps specifically to aid Australian farmers in their efforts to control predators. It was he who gave me the idea of doing a comparative study in Australia. While I was waiting for the situation in Ethiopia to stabilise, I could make observations on a cattle farm, mapping the movements of livestock in relation to farmers and dingoes. I could see if a fenced environment with little interaction between farmers and cattle would affect the ways in which the livestock animals responded to the presence of predators and in the long term compare these with data from Ethiopia. So after securing the relevant permissions, I found a willing farmer, and with the help of Paul, set up a series of camera traps around the farm. He wasn’t confident that we’d get solid results because there had been some widespread dingo poisoning carried out in the area but the farmer claimed he’d seen dingoes boldly crossing the property recently, and this gave me hope. So while the camera traps did their passive monitoring I drove to the farm each morning at sunrise and using GIS software, plotted the positions of the livestock animals every thirty minutes. The cattle tended to get edgy when I went around on foot so I instead drove around the farm and made observations which I plotted directly on a laptop, while I listened to the car radio. Compared to my time 5 years previous, trudging after hyenas in drainage lanes lined with garbage and excrement, it was pretty cushy fieldwork. Though it was pretty mind-numbing staring at cows. I wasn’t familiar with the individual cows so I couldn’t pick up any nuance in their relationships. Who hung out with whom; who decided when to move on; who was given access to the best grass. My main takeaway was that cows do in fact eat grass.

From the data I’d collected I was beginning to see some patterns though. The stand out was the positioning of the calves: always towards the centre of the herd. But until I could see the data from the camera traps I wouldn’t know if these positionings were a response to the presence of predators or just stuff that cows did. And I hadn’t seen a single dingo during my time making observations. I would have to wait until the data came in from the camera traps.


Herding without fences in Ethiopia. Photo courtesy of Wendy Tanner

The Evolution of Ideas 2. Still hyenas

One lasting memory I have from my time spent in a farming hamlet in West Shawa, Ethiopia is sitting down to dinner inside a round, mud hut beneath a thatched roof. In front of me was a cooking fire; beside me my Ethiopian family; some kids, Mum, brother-in-law. I remember it was dark inside except for the dim light of the coals. I was eating a plate of stir-fired meat with some crumbly cheese and moist bread called kotcho, feeling the warmth of the fire on my shins. It would have been like a family camping trip if not for the sound of a donkey urinating on the floor directly behind me. The donkey was one among a host of livestock animals in the house at the time. It was all part of the culture-shock that was hitting me like a hammer; eating and sleeping in a house that was divided by a pole and a hitching post, with family on one side of the post and animals on the other. Goats, sheep, donkeys, horses, cows. There was no interaction between people and animals in that hut, it was like a house of two families who spoke different languages and ate different food. The animals simply stood in silence, watching us as we ate our dinner, drank our barley-liquor, and talked and talked and talked until one by one we dropped off to sleep.

The presence of the animals in the house was not a response to anything out of the ordinary. It wasn’t windy or hailing outside. But neither was it something that the locals did because they wanted to be close to their livestock. After all nobody appreciated donkey pee on the living room floor. The reason that the animals were inside the house that night, and every night, was what lurked outside: hyenas. In this part of Ethiopia, hyenas are not as fondly abided as they are in Harar. In West Shawa hyenas are considered a sort of sinister society; a population of creatures of both physical and supernatural power who hold sway over the land whenever it is dark. People here are very afraid of hyenas. Nobody goes out alone after dark and stories abound of hyenas breaking into huts and attacking people foolish enough to try and defend their livestock. More than that though is the effect that the presence of hyenas seems to have on livestock animals. Rather than needing to be rounded up and corralled at the end of the day’s grazing, the animals dutifully line up at the end of the day, waiting to be let into the house. Of course I don’t have access to these animals’ minds so I can’t be certain whether it’s fear of hyenas or habit (or a combination of both) that leads them to behave in such a way and so there was the makings of a research project.

It was the dynamic between humans, livestock and hyenas that got me to thinking outside of my Western-constrained mindset – opening up for me a bunch of possibilities for the Neolithic when humans began keeping – or living in closer proximity to – goats, sheep and cattle. For someone like me who, if not for the whim of my parents and a program called assisted passage, would have been born in the UK, the idea of having your livelihood dictated by the presence of predators is outlandish. Lions and hyenas are long gone from the British Isles and bears and wolves were eradicated by the 11th and 17th Centuries respectively. In Britain, sharing a landscape with large carnivores is as foreign a concept as a classless society. The English take it as a given that humans have dominion over the landscape and over the domestic animals who graze over it. So not surprisingly, contemporary theories about animal domestication, which emerged out of and circulate among the English-speaking world, are as ecologically barren as the English countryside. They see domestication as something that humans did to animals through some means of control. They propose an evolution of hunting strategies that led to animals being corralled or fenced within steep ravines (which as anyone familiar with goats knows would be futile). What is missing in these accounts of livestock domestication is a third element: predators.

The places where goats, sheep and cattle were first domesticated were far more like West Shawa than West Sussex. In fact, in the middle east of the Neolithic, where goats and sheep were first domesticated, there were lions, leopards, bears, wolves, and striped hyenas and in fact only lions have since disappeared from that region and that was only a couple of thousand years ago. And given the impact that predators have on contemporary farming societies, it stands to reason that any theorising about early animal domestication must take into account the presence of predators. So there emerged a research question that still included hyenas but which had a lot of potential in terms of understanding early animal domestication: How did the dynamics between humans, livestock, and predators affect domestication processes? In the next post I’ll explain how this question and a political event involving a land-grab would circle me back around to my homeland: Australia.

West Shawa


Photos courtesy of Wendy Tanner


The Evolution of Ideas 1. Hyenas to hyenas

I haven’t cross-posted like this before but I want to get this out to a broad audience and my hyenas blog has a larger following. Besides, the subject matter is somewhat hyena related because it was my hyena research that kicked it off in the first place.
Over the next few posts, I want to talk about my new (and reasonably priced) book Crocodile Undone, due out in May of this year. I’m not going to preview the content of the book here, although there will be a lot of clues as to what it’s about. Rather, I’m going to write about how the book came to be. After Among the Bone Eaters was published, the question I was most often asked was ‘How did you arrive at that subject?’ In terms of this latest book this is a worthwhile question because answering it lets me reflect on the flow of events, coincidences, and choices, the outcome of which is 240 pages of non-fiction, three beehives in my back yard, and back pain for the remainder of my life.
Crocodile Undone is the product of a research project that I undertook under the guidance of Agustín Fuentes at the University of Notre Dame. From the outset, and to his credit, Agustín gave me almost free-reign in terms of what I could study. His only condition was that it be something to do with domestication, broadly construed. Looking back on my previous research I could easily see how Harar’s hyenas might have something to say about domestication, or in narrower terms, the original domestication of dogs during the Palaeolithic some 15,000 years ago. This is because on face value the situation in Harar has parallels to one of the scenarios that has been proposed for how dogs became domesticated. This scenario depicts pre-domestic dogs (or wolves) as camp followers; as hangers on who found that the closer they got to human camps, the better the chances that had of getting some food scraps. It suggests a selection for tamer individuals and not long thereafter, dogs making themselves at home within human communities.
In Harar, the hyenas are indeed dependent on the human population for food, and the less fearful, less aggressive hyenas probably have a much better chance of getting food than their wilder clan mates. But it’s not so much the similarities that have a bearing on our understanding of dog domestication as it is the differences. The city of Harar produces an awful lot of food scraps for not very many hyenas and it’s a pretty safe bet that a band of human hunter/gatherers in Palaeolithic Eurasia did not produce any where nearly as much edible food waste – if any. What’s more hyenas and wolves are distinctly different creatures with different evolutionary histories. Hyenas evolved alongside humans over millions of years while wolves first encountered humans in the Pleistocene. And there’s not as much archaeological evidence of wolf/human competition as there is hyena/human competition. So the individuals of each species bring a very different package to a relationship with humans and disentangling these differences would be a very difficult task. In fact it was this potential quagmire of false equivalences that swayed me. While I’d hoped I could revisit my beloved Harar hyenas for a second research project, I realised that I would have to look elsewhere for some meaningful subject matter to enlighten us about domestication processes of the past. In the next post I’ll talk about where that realisation led me.