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


Hyena censorship

So far I haven’t written much about the relationship between people and hyenas in the region around Harar, but there is a lot worth writing about. During my time over there I did some surveys and interviews with the Oromo farmers in the Hararge region and some investigation in the town of Kombolcha where there was a series of hyena attacks. What I found was interesting. The rural folks there largely said that they thought hyenas were a benefit to the area. Hyenas controlled pest species, deterred thieves from lurking about in the night, cleaned up animals who had died of disease, and as with Harar, kept the area free of dangerous, unseen spirits. I wrote about this in an article that’s just been published in Anthrozoös. Despite suffering occasional hyena attacks on their children and livestock, the people I surveyed were largely positive in their attitudes towards hyenas with a huge majority saying that they were a benefit to the area and half saying they would support an increase in hyena numbers. An increase!

Now, whenever I’m dwelling on interesting hyena material, I end up discussing it at length with my dear wife who is from Shewa, about 900kms from Harar in the west of Ethiopia. These talks are really fascinating for me because I’m given a perspective on hyenas from someone of the same ethnic group as those in the Hararge region, but with a different religion and different set of ideas about hyenas. But one thing that she raised has the potential to turn upside-down pretty much everything I’ve concluded about the Hararge rural peoples’ relations with hyenas. When I mentioned to my wife that so many Hararge Oromo people thought hyenas a benefit in the area, and so many supported an increase in hyena numbers, she said, ‘Oh, you’ll find the same thing with the Shewa Oromo.’

I said, ‘I thought you told me the Shewa Oromo didn’t like hyenas at all and would prefer there were none in the region.’

She said, ‘yes that’s right but if you ask them the same questions as you asked the Hararge Oromo, you’ll get the same answers because they’re afraid of offending the hyenas.’

The Shewa Oromo apparently believe if they say anything against the hyenas, then the hyenas will overhear (they do have amazing hearing) and come and trash their farms and attack their animals, their children and themselves.

Now, I wish we’d had this discussion before I wrote my article because it casts a very dark shadow over what I found. But it’s also very meaningful. If the Shewa people are afraid to give forthright answers about hyenas because they fear repercussions, then who’s to say the Hararge people are any different? Perhaps all of those amazing results I found were in fact answers that people were giving under duress; the threat of violence from eavesdropping hyenas. Of course this would render the surveys invalid but it would open up some amazing possibilities regarding the ways that human/wildlife conflict is so often culturally mediated and really difficult to get to the bottom of. On the one hand, we have an unusual reason for the persistence of hyenas in the region. Imagine a people who’s approach to coexistence with hyenas is entirely overshadowed by their fear of hyena retribution for misplaced words and actions; a people coming up with superficial reasons for a pretend appreciation of hyenas. On the other we have a conundrum: If it was the case that the Hararge Oromo gave deliberately false answers out of fear of reprisals (though I’m not yet saying that they did), then how on earth could you find out what they secretly felt about hyenas?

Translator and friend, Tariku, conducting not so confidential surveys in the Hararge region

Translator and friend, Tariku, conducting not-so-confidential surveys in the Hararge region