Egypt, Europe, Mesopotamia, India; various species small wild cats



Europe; wild European rabbit

Guinea Pig


Peru; South American cavy



India (chicken and peacock), Asia (pheasant), Africa (guinea fowl),

Central America (turkey), Mesopotamia (pigeon, goose, and duck)

Central America (turkey), Mesopotamia (pigeon, goose, and duck)

Palaeozoological evidence from archaeological sites indicates that only a few species were kept for domestication purposes, although other species were present. Untamable species were eventually killed for food or released, while those that did not present difficulties were maintained over time and eventually domesticated. Regardless of how many species were kept, only a few were successfully domesticated and an unknown number remained wild. It is possible that the still-wild species, rather than being killed for food or released, were retained and kept as protocollections. Since changes occur in incremental steps, this kind of experience may possibly have been a precursor to later collecting activities.

Domestication enabled human population growth and affected the social structure of societies. Societies, previously dependent upon nature, became producing societies, some maintaining simple social structures, others developing more complex structures. Both simple and complex producing societies kept domesticated livestock; however, other factors existed that propelled the societies leaning toward complexity into an era of urbanized and literate civilizations. Regardless of whether protocollections of native wild species existed previously, it was at the newer urbanized level of socioeconomic development that humankind entered into the collecting of wild species for aesthetic, nonutilitarian reasons.23

1.2.3 Beyond Domestication — Collecting Wild Animals

Complex producing societies evolved into urbanized, literate civilizations between 3000 and 1500 b.c. The transition from society to civilization was both a physical and a philosophical phenomenon. Physical aspects of urbanization accommodated increasingly large populations, providing social order, civil administration, common defense, cooperative and specialized labor, and foreign trade to obtain needed materials not available locally. Although the bulk of the population had little money or time for leisure activities, royalty and a wealthy class of individuals — which included government officials, priests, merchants, and landowners — prospered and took advantage of cultural luxuries that became available.

For these privileged classes, the urbanized lifestyle provided a relatively stable social environment conducive to long-term endeavors such as collecting. These wealthy individuals were able to accumulate large tracts of land, not all of which had to be developed for economic reasons and could, therefore, be set aside as animal parks for their pleasure. Expansion of foreign trade increased exposure of these wealthy individuals to exotic lands and the wildlife from these lands. Wealth to buy what they wanted, leisure time to do what they wanted, the availability of luxury items, and heightened aesthetic sensibilities provided the newly emerging upper class with the opportunity to plant gardens, build reserves and parks, and collect animals.

Philosophical aspects of urbanization involved attitudes that focused on the distinction between the city and the country, as well as intellectual issues associated with the dichotomy. For the first time, urbanized human environments differed substantially from the rural and wilderness environments. As urban areas increased in number and size, and urban citizens were more removed from the country, these individuals began to feel the loss of their natural environments. The need for a connection with nature became stronger as urbanized populations continued to grow and their lifestyles became increasingly complex. This need contributed to the upper-class desire to re-create natural settings and to collect animals, a desire that existed in tandem with their newfound ability to pursue these activities.

Ancient civilizations first emerged in Mesopotamia along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers of western Asia in what is now Iraq; in Egypt along the Nile River in northeastern Africa; among the Indus society of India along the Indus River in what is now Pakistan; and in China, along the Yellow River (the Huang Ho). There were other, less complex societies throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa; however, they probably did not develop the social structures that were favorable to collecting. Over time, a complex evolution of animal collections occurred as the epicenter of power shifted throughout these regions and finally settled in Europe. Animal collections in Mesopotamia and Egypt became less prominent but nevertheless continued, while those in India disappeared with the Indus society and reemerged with India's Indo-Aryan societies. Collections in China and the Americas developed in isolation, and newer collections appeared in Greece, Rome, Persia, the Arab regions, and eventually Medieval Europe.

1.3 Ancient Collections 1.3.1 Mesopotamian Collections

Mesopotamian societies developed as riverine city-states along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Sumer was the first, flourishing from ca. 3000 to 2800 b.c. in the lower and middle portions of the Mesopotamian region. Akkad society superseded the Sumer society between 2800 and 2200 b.c. The Akkad, located in the middle and upper portions of the Mesopotamian region, eventually ca. 2200-330 b.c. split into Babylonia (the middle region) and Assyria (the upper region). Eventually, these societies were conquered by the Persians in 539 b.c., and later by Alexander the Great of Greece in 330 b.c.15, 24-27

Mesopotamian city-states had to protect themselves from the ravages of a harsh environment with unpredictable rivers (floods and periodic changes in the courses of these rivers). This region's environment was perceived as a place of uncontrollable forces, fierce animals, and wicked demons. Mesopotamian gods and religion were centered on the forces of nature, the heavens and its planets, the visible earth, and the invisible interior earth. Every natural animate and inanimate object, as well as everything manufactured, was assigned to the sphere of a particular god. Divination, magic, medicine, and the sciences were often indistinguishable.

Knowledge consisted of the ability to produce quoted phrases of established information appropriate to a given situation, requiring memorization rather than original thought. This information was written on clay tablets and stored in libraries, which most Mesopotamian kings maintained.

The natural sciences, less important than mathematics and astronomy, were of practical importance and consisted of observing and classifying animals, plants, and minerals. The practice of medicine was first recorded by the Sumerians, but was more fully developed during the Babylonian and Assyrian period. Physicians practiced human medicine, whereas veterinarians known as "ox and ass doctors" practiced animal medicine. Knowledge about animals and plants consisted of being aware of, but not necessarily understanding, their occurrence, properties, and habits. Based on this knowledge, animals and plants were listed in groupings that were rudimentary classification schemes. Boundaries between animals, plants, and minerals, as well as the groupings within each, were recognized. These natural resources were all given names and some thought was given to their interrelationships. By ca. 2500 b.c. the natural world around Mesopotamia was categorized into domestic animals, wild animals, wild birds, fishes, insects, plants, trees, vegetables, and minerals.

Mesopotamians believed that nothing existed without a name, and that once named, the namer held power over the named. They also thought that putting something in writing gave it, and the knowledge about it, permanence. This had the unfortunate effect that texts, once established, were used uncritically, stifling original thinking on a given subject. Thus, efforts to develop knowledge from practical observations of nature and wildlife had begun, but did not progress very far. Nevertheless, the natural world was beginning to be controlled and understood, albeit slowly.

At the same time, the natural world and its wildlife were also increasingly utilized. Much of the area around the rivers was suitable for agriculture but lacked resources necessary to sustain other advancing technologies. This situation encouraged the establishment of trade, which became well developed over time. Mesopotamian merchants traded with other civil societies, as well as with the "barbarians" and their nomadic caravans. Of primary concern was the acquisition of essential raw materials lacking in the Tigris-Euphrates region; however, as commercial ventures progressed and the wealthy prospered, trade in luxury items increased. Included in this trade in luxury items were animals, which were also obtained through confiscations in conquered lands and as tribute from other societies. Early trade in wild exotic animals was undoubtedly negligible since it only fed the passion of a small class of wealthy individuals; however, over time the trade grew as royalty and an increasing number of wealthy individuals attempted to surpass the collections of one another and their predecessors.

Although all classes of society had kitchen gardens and fishponds, royalty and the wealthy landowning class had shade gardens, ornamental gardens, and parks. Sumerian shade and ornamental gardens were often small and combined with vegetable plots and orchards. Purely ornamental gardens developed later during the Babylonian and Assyrian period when the wealthy class became more prosperous. For the most part, these gardens and the smaller parks were strictly botanical; the larger parks contained the animal collections.

One of the earliest references to gardens is in the Gilgamesh epic, a story about the adventures of Gilgamesh, King of Uruk (Sumeria) ca. 2750 B.C.; one city he encountered in his adventures was proud that one third of its territory consisted of garden-orchards. Although references to gardens or garden-orchards between 3000 and 2000 b.c. are scarce, later references between 2000 and 1000 b.c. to house, temple, and royal gardens are more numerous. By the later Babylonian and Assyrian period, between 1000 and 330 b.c., references to gardens and the larger royal parks become even more common. Likewise, land records during this later period indicate the extent to which gardens had become common features of the wealthy citizen's property holdings.

Property holdings included both domesticated and wild animals. Animals kept included household pets, fish in ponds, birds in flight cages, falcons for sport, lions in cages, and wild game in parks. Individuals used blunt arrows to stun wild animals, and traps (usually concealed pits) were used to catch these wild animals alive for pets, collections, and trade. Some animals, particularly those species rarely seen, were valuable luxury items. Royalty frequently kept tame lions as pets, and other lions were used for hunting or fighting. Lions and other animals were kept for exhibit purposes to impress and entertain local guests and foreign dignitaries. Royal lions were kept in cages and pits during the Ur III period (beginning ca. 2100 B.C.). It is conceivable, therefore, that cages were constructed to hold other dangerous or rare species as well.

Bas-reliefs from Assyrian royal palaces show monkeys, antelopes, camels, elephants, and other species brought to the Assyrian kings as tribute. Although they usually viewed nature from a practical perspective, the kings of Sumeria, Babylonia, and Assyria were proud of their animal collections, which were symbols of power, wealth, and authority. The kings were especially proud of rare specimens their subjects and foreign dignitaries sent after diligent searches and difficult transport. Animals came from Asia via trade with the Indus society and from Africa via trade with the Egyptians.

Royalty and wealthy individuals constructed fishponds that also served the economic purpose of keeping fish fresh for the table. They kept wild birds such as ibis, cranes, herons, peacocks, and pelicans as pets and in flight cages. Initially, these bird collections also served the economic purposes of being handy food sources and commodities for sale. Falconry and wild beast (primarily lion) hunts were royal sports conducted in the wild and in the royal parks. Royal park collections of elephants, wild bulls, lions, apes, ostrich, deer, gazelle, ibex, and other species were combination protomenageries, hunting reserves, and garden-parks. The royal families also used the parks for entertaining guests and for personal pleasure.

Eventually, the ability to maintain animals and plants in large park areas was taken to a new level of sophistication with the re-creation of entire habitats. Sennacherib (Assyria, 704-681 b.c.) simulated a marsh environment of southern Babylonia to exhibit rarely seen marsh species

Lion released from its transport crate into the animal park of Ashurbanipal, King of Assyria (668-627 B.C.) at Nineveh, Mesopotamia. This scene is part of a relief that was on one of the palace walls. © The British Museum.
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