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 livestock in Ethiopia. Photo courtesy of Wendy Tanner

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