Animal Husbandry

views updated May 23 2018


Animal husbandry was well established by the European Iron Age. Two major cultural influences in the barbarian world merged with classical Mediterranean tradition in the Carpathian basin. Areas west of the Danube had close ties with the rest of Europe, most directly with the Hallstatt culture (type site: Austria), extending to Britain between the ninth and fifth centuries b.c. Celtic tribes expanded from their homeland in northern France and southern Germany toward southern Europe and Asia Minor as well as the British Isles between the eighth and third centuries b.c. Meanwhile, the Great Hungarian Plain east of the Danube fell under the influence of pre-Scythian and Scythian cultures from the northern Pontic (Black Sea) region during the Early Iron Age (late seventh century b.c.). From the first century a.d. waves of additional migrations lashed the eastern frontiers of Europe.

Celtic influences met Scythian tradition in the barbarian world of central Europe. Classicism, represented by ancient Greek, Hellenistic, and Roman cultures, flanked these geopolitical developments from the south. Records on animal husbandry originate from the latter, Mediterranean/Pontic, region. Beginning with the description by the Greek historian Herodotus (in the fifth century b.c.) of ferocious "Scythian nomads" of the steppe, classical stereotypes of mobile pastoralists were recycled and homogenized throughout antiquity. Meanwhile, advanced Roman animal breeding is reflected in seminal works by Marcus Terentius Varro, Pliny the Elder, and Columella (first century b.c. to the first century a.d.)

Most differences between the Celtic, Mediterranean, and steppe types of animal husbandry were rooted in their respective geographical environments. Prehistoric agriculture had reached north-central and western Europe millennia earlier across the Balkans. Natural habitats in Mediterranean Europe favored the early establishment of cereal cultivation, viticulture, and the keeping of cattle as well as sheep and goats. People in the Celtic homeland (similarly to northern Germanic tribes inhabiting neighboring areas) had long relied on hunting and pigs, ubiquitous in cool and humid forest regions. Steppe peoples adapted to vast, continental plains by developing mobile pastoralism, with little reliance on cultivation and an emphasis on sheep and goat keeping. Their horses also were used for a great variety of purposes.

Animal keeping, however, should not be viewed with rigid environmental determinism. As empires expanded and reached various areas and people moved around, their traditions blended and interacted, so that by the Iron Age all the important domestic animals were kept in these three cultural regions.

celts, germans, and classical tradition

Owing to the Celts' sedentary, often urbanized way of life, their animal keeping did not differ markedly from that of the Greeks and Romans. One of the few distinguishing features are the many pig bones at such sites as the Celtic oppidum (fortified urban settlement) of Manching in Bavaria and many smaller sites across Europe. Although beef and mutton also were eaten, pork and boar were of special importance. Pig bones commonly occur in Celtic burials. Pork also played a mythical role in divine feasting in the hall of dead warriors (Bruiden in Irish Celtic and Valhalla in Norse mythology). Wild boar, one of the most dangerous game animals in Europe, accompanies Arduinna, continental Celtic goddess of the moon and hunting, often equated with Diana in Roman mythology. Boars are depicted frequently both as decorative motifs and symbols (fig. 1). In such provinces as Pannonia, boars are shown on the tombstones of Romanized Celts.

The small, unimproved Celtic domesticates that have been reconstructed from bone finds (such as those kept by Germans and other peoples in the Barbaricum) often are contrasted with advanced Roman "breeds." This term should be used cautiously when evidence for conscious selection is absent, but the large size and great variation of animal bones from Roman sites illustrate advanced animal husbandry, as described by classical authors. Representations such as Trajan's Column, from a.d. 113, show livestock whose body conformations appear modern, even by today's standards.

Size differences between the bones from barbarian and classical domesticates are stark. Another sign of developed animal husbandry, a greater diversity in size and shape, is especially striking in dog remains from Roman provincial settlements in present-day Germany and Hungary—lapdogs, greyhounds, and giant forms, exceeding the size of modern-day Alsatians, are represented equally. Such extremes are rare among coeval Celtic dogs in these areas.

"nomadic" tradition

Peoples from the steppe usually are referred to with the catchall term "nomadic," disregarding the complexity of pastoral societies. While pasturing is central to such communities, their seasonal patterns of herding and degrees of sendentariness vary broadly. Theoretically, the entire community of "pure" nomads covered long distances meridionally in a never-ending search for seasonal graze, with no land cultivation. Pastoralism in this extreme form is a highly specialized, precarious way of life. Its stability depends on mobility between different natural habitats, determined by the quality and size of pastures in combination with the speed of movements. Sarmatians, Kalmyks, and some groups of Kazakhs lived this way. The majority of steppe communities, however, included contingents of sedentary agriculturalists as well as major power centers. They could be called, at best, seminomadic. Mobile pastoralism, central to their economy, is a common denominator for past communities. Its technical homogeneity has led to functional similarities between the material and spiritual cultures of many peoples in the vast Eurasian steppe, where perpetual motion greatly intensified contacts and exchange between various groups at all levels.

mobile pastoralism and classical tradition

Scythian tribes included both equestrian nomads and sedentary agriculturalists who inhabited the Eurasian steppe north of the Black Sea. Characteristic of their culture were kurgans (burial mounds), many of them in the Dnieper River region, in which Scythian leaders were interred with grave goods of legendary richness, including dozens of horses. Treasures recovered from these graves are decorated with animal motifs showing Greek and Persian influences. Mythical creatures and hunting scenes dominate this artwork, although the evidence for hunting is scarce among the mundane archaeozoological finds.

Scythian settlements between the Dnieper and the Volga region had an overwhelming dominance of domesticates. Sometimes animal husbandry also is represented on precious metal objects. Most famous are the horse-catching scenes on the fourth century b.c. gilded silver amphora from Chertomlyk (near the Dnieper River in the Ukraine) and animals on the gold pectoral from Tolstaya Mogila (some 10 kilometers from Chertomlyk). The latter piece weighs more than a kilogram and has a diameter of more than 30 centimeters. Composed of three excentric circles (joined with the clasp in the back), the outer band of the pectoral is decorated with mythical and wild creatures from griffins to locusts. Separated by a band of floral ornaments, the third, inner band documents the domestic sphere of life. Two Scythians in the center sew a piece of sheepskin, while another milks a ewe (fig. 2). Stylistically, it is likely that a Greek goldsmith in a colonial town in the northern Pontic region made this piece sometime in the fourth century b.c. The figures look Scythian, but it is difficult to tell whether the wild/domestic dichotomy reflects western or eastern traditions.

In a less spectacular form, artifacts decorated in animal style also are known from areas occupied by Scythians in eastern Hungary. Their animal husbandry in the Carpathian Basin can be reconstructed from bone finds at a few rural settlements. In addition to remains of small-bodied cattle, a relatively large number of horse bones (including those of very young foals) occur among the food refuse. The bony cores of large goat horns also point to the eastern pastoral tradition of these communities. A chariot grave with two horses, found at Szentes-Vekerzug on the Great Hungarian Plain, reflects the importance of these animals in all spheres of life.

Having defeated the Scythians in the Pontic region, Iranian-speaking Sarmatian pastoralists reached the Carpathian Basin during the first century a.d., approximately at the time the Romans conquered Celtic areas in its western half, establishing the province of Pannonia. With their westward expansion blocked, Sarmatians and other barbarian tribes spent four centuries in the shadow of the Roman Empire, often in shifting, short-term alliances. This probably strengthened their ethnocultural identity, preserving their eastern pastoral tradition. Small relative frequencies of bones from pig and poultry illustrate this conservative tendency. Although in environmental terms the Great Hungarian Plain represents the westernmost section of the Eurasian steppe, it is far too small for long-distance, nomadic herding. To many steppe peoples who ended up there, it represented a dead end in terms of long-range, annual migrations. Mobility of livestock became less of a priority.

Various written references to the importance of Sarmatian cavalry are in agreement with the high ratio of horse remains in the food refuse at Sarmatian rural sites. (Among these references are those to the mastering by Germanic Quadi of Sarmatian cavalry tactics, a notation of eight thousand Sarmatian horsemen demanded by the Roman Empire following a defeat in a.d. 175, and the delivery of two thousand mounted warriors to the Romans by the defeated alliance of Sarmatians and Germanic Vandals/Suebians in a.d. 270.) Steppe rituals associated with horses are evidenced by intact horse skulls found at various settlements.

It seems that in peacetime Sarmatians traded livestock and animal products with Roman provinces, in exchange for high-quality Roman craft products (e.g., stamped ware and glass). Sarmatian cattle bones look small and nondistinct. Giant horn cores of rams, however, are indicative of impressive individuals in the sheep flocks. It is difficult to tell whether these animals originated from steppe stocks or represent improved Roman "breeds," adopted by these skillful pastoralists.

post-roman developments

As hordes of Germanic and Asiatic barbarians brought down the Roman Empire in the fifth century a.d., warhorses again best represented barbarian animal husbandry. Mounted warriors literally spearheaded these migrations, in keeping with the tactical necessities of migration through hostile areas. Flavius Vegetius Renatus, in his veterinary handbook on horses, wrote that Hun horses "have large heads . . . with no fat at all on the rump. . . . The leanness of the horses is striking. . . . Their ugly appearance . . . is set off by their fine qualities: sober nature, cleverness and their ability to endure any injury." Note the striking difference between this description, and the coeval, idealized picture of a royal mount from the steppe region.

Between a.d. 567 and 804 Asiatic Avars occupied the Carpathian Basin, creating an ethnically heterogeneous empire, including the ruins of Roman Pannonia. The custom of burying warriors with their horses has preserved hundreds of complete horse skeletons for study. Most were stallions or geldings, more lightly built than modern ponies, on average 135 centimeters tall at the withers. They probably represent animals selected by the practical necessities of light cavalry. Avar warriors introduced stirrups to Europe, which, together with saddles with high pommels, helped mounted archers rise and fire their short reflex bows in almost any direction.

The composition of food refuse from early Avar settlements often resembles that of the Sarmatians, but the growing contribution of pig and poultry over time in grave goods may indicate an increasingly sedentary lifestyle. In comparison with Slavic settlements, Avar period animal bone assemblages look definitely more nomadic. A summary of animal bone percentages from numerous sites of the seventh to ninth centuries, representing various cultures, shows that the significance of horsemeat decreased in an eastward direction across the steppe. Pork was hardly eaten in the east but was important in sedentary Slavic cultures. Beef and mutton show a less consistent pattern.

The next migrants from the steppe, the Magyars, conquered the Carpathian Basin in about a.d. 895. They waged ruthless equestrian raids, rooted in their mobile pastoralist tradition, into much of civilized Europe for more than fifty years. The horse heads and feet buried in some of their graves probably come from skinned animals. Magyar horses therefore are more difficult to reconstruct than their Avar counterparts, to which they are similar in appearance. This does not mean that the two stocks were related, but they probably were shaped by similar military needs.

Early Magyar meat consumption focused on beef and mutton, with an unusually high average proportion of horsemeat. Pope Gregory III banned hippophagy (horse-eating) in Europe in the eighth century, as Germanic tribes were converted to Christianity. As Magyars established a Christian kingdom in Hungary (a.d. 1000), horse eating gradually declined. Pork also started contributing more to the diet, as it had with the Sarmatians and Avars.

Because Magyars (i.e., Hungarians) survived in the Carpathian Basin, there is much speculation about the genetic continuity of their modern domesticates. A mythical animal of the conquering Magyars was, supposedly, a breed of longhorn cattle, which is today called the Hungarian gray. It is reminiscent of the Marreman breed in Italy, which is said to have been introduced by the Huns. This historical confusion is exacerbated by skull finds showing that all peoples of steppe origin (Sarmatians, Avars, and Magyars) kept small, short-horned cattle. Archaeological evidence for long-horned animals comes centuries later in the wake of the Middle Ages. Many pastoral communities kept large guard dogs. The striking similarity between a skull from the period of the Magyar conquest (ninth century) and a modern Hungarian Kuvasz, however, is rooted more in function than genetic continuity. Owing to their high reproductive rates, dog breeds can change especially rapidly.

See alsoHallstatt (vol. 2, part 6); Oppida (vol. 2, part 6); Huns (vol. 2, part 7); Hungary (vol. 2, part 7).


Bartosiewicz, László. "A Millennium of Migrations: Proto-historic Mobile Pastoralism in Hungary." In Zooarchaeology: Papers to Honor Elizabeth S. Wing. Edited by F. Wayne King and Charlotte M. Porter. Bulletin of the Florida Museum of Natural History 44, no. 1 (2003): 101–130.

——. "The Hungarian Grey Cattle: A Traditional European Breed." Animal Genetic Resources Information 21 (1997): 49–60.

——. "Early Medieval Archaeozoology in Eastern Europe." In Bioarchäologie und Frühgeschichtsforschung. Edited by H. Friesinger, F. Daim, E. Kanelutti, and O. Cichocki, pp. 123–132. Vienna: Institut für Urund Frühgeschichte der Universität Wien, 1993.

Bökönyi, Sándor. "Über die Entwicklung der Sekundärnutzung." In Beiträge zur Archäozoologie und Prähistorischen Anthropologie. Edited by M. Kokabi and J. Wahl. Stuttgart, Germany: Landesdenkmalamt Baden-Württemberg, Konrad Theiss Verlag, 1994.

——. Animal Husbandry and Hunting in Tác-Gorsium:The Vertebrate Fauna of a Roman Town in Pannonia. Budapest, Hungary: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1984.

——. History of Domestic Mammals in Central and Eastern Europe. Budapest, Hungary: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1974.

Khazanov, Anatoly M. Nomads and the Outside World. 2d ed. Translated by Julia Crookenden. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994.

Laszlovszky, József, ed. Tender Meat under the Saddle: Customs of Eating, Drinking, and Hospitality among Conquering Hungarians and Nomadic Peoples. Krems, Austria: Medium Aevum Quotidianum, 1998.

Matolcsi, János. Állattartás ˝oseink korában [Animal keeping in the time of our ancestors]. Budapest, Hungary: Gondolat Kiadó, 1982.

LÁszlÓ Bartosiewicz

Animal Husbandry

views updated May 29 2018

Animal Husbandry


Wild and Domestic Animals. Along with agriculture, animals and animal products played a role in most households, as well as in larger, institutionally supported commercial enterprises, such as textile production and long-distance trade. Throughout Mesopotamian prehistory and history, wild animals such as fish, birds, and gazelles were hunted for food; their oils, plumage, hides, and horns were also put to use. Such animals seem also to have served as emblems for clans or tribes in southern Mesopotamia during the fourth and early third millennia b.c.e. Some exotic species, notably lions, which at one time inhabited the Syrian Desert, were symbols or emblems of gods and kings: Ishtar, goddess of love and war, was associated with the lion, and Neo-Assyrian palaces were decorated with monumental relief sculptures featuring the king engaged in a ritualized lion hunt. Evidence for early domestication of animals—especially sheep, goats, and dogs—dates to approximately 10,000 b.c.e., around the same time as the domestication of plants; the domestication of donkeys, chickens, horses, and camels came later. Domesticated animals represented an investment of resources that helped to shape the Mesopotamian economy, while the requirements of animal husbandry exerted influence on the development of the Mesopotamian social structure. Domesticated plants and animals were the basis of the economy, and the Meso-potamians were well aware of their foundational role in the evolution of Mesopotamian civilization. In a literary composition known as the Disputation between Ewe and Wheat, after the origin of the world is related, the two title characters debate which of them is the more important—a conflict reminiscent of the dispute between Cain and Abel in the biblical Book of Genesis. Whereas in the Bible, Abel’s offering from his flocks is preferred to Cain’s offering from his fields, the message of the Mesopotamian text is that Ewe and Wheat complement one another, and each is indispensable. Nevertheless, with intervention from the gods, Wheat is judged to “win” the dispute.

Domesticated Animals and Animal Products. Sheep, goats, and cattle provided milk, which was used to make cheeses, ghee (a kind of butter), and yogurt. Dairy products, legumes, and fish provided most of the protein in the Mesopotamian diet; meat was consumed only rarely and presumably was connected with celebratory or ceremonial occasions. Sheep and goats provided wool, which was woven into the textiles that were for all periods of Mesopotamian history the single most important good exported from southern Mesopotamia throughout the ancient Near East. Donkeys and oxen were used for plowing and seeding fields and for transporting goods. After about 1500 b.c.e., horses played an integral role in warfare. The Mesopota-mians’ horse-drawn chariots and the compound bows wielded by the charioteers were important technological advances. Horses (as well as chariots) became important prestige possessions sought after by Near Eastern kings, and the need to acquire more and more horses played a role particularly in the economic expansion of the first millennium b.c.e. Neo-Assyrian Empire. While deceased animals were an important source of hides for leather, bone for needles and other small fine tools, and—on occasion—meat, the greatest economic value of domesticated animals lay in the products and services they provided while alive rather than


Disputations were a Sumerian literary genre in which two comparable entities were imagined to present arguments for the superiority of one over the other. The debate is typically set at a banquet after the participants have eaten and drunk. The final two lines of the Disputation between Ewe and Wheat are also known as an independent proverb in Sumerian.

When upon the Hill of Heaven and Earth

An had spawned the divine Godlings,—

Since godly Wheat had not yet been spawned or created with them,

Nor had the yarn of the godly Weaver been fashioned in the Land,

Not had the loom of the godly Weaver even been pegged out,

For Ewe had not yet appeared, nor were there numerous lambs….

The people of those distant days

Knew not bread to eat,

They knew not cloth to wear;

They went about the Land with naked limbs

Eating grass with their mouths like sheep,

And drinking water from the ditches.

At that time, at the birthplace of the Gods,

In their home, the Holy Hill, they (the gods) fashioned Ewe and Wheat….

Thus both Ewe and Wheat were radiant in appearance And among the gathered people they caused abundance, And in the Land they brought well-being…. The storerooms of the Land they fill with abundance, So that the barns of the Land are bulging with them. Even in the home of the needy, who are crouching in the dust,

When they enter there, they bring about wealth. Both of them, wherever they direct their steps, Add to the riches of the household….

They drank sweet wine,

They drank tasty beer;

And when they had drunk sweet wine

And sated themselves on tasty beer

They started a quarrel in the midst of the watered fields;

They held a wrangle in the Dining Hall.

Wheat calls out to Ewe:

“Sister, I am your better; I take precedence!

I am the most splendid of the jewels of the Land!

I give strength to the Chief Warrior

So that he fills the palace with awe,

And people spread his fame to the confines of the Land!

I am the gift of the Gods;

I am the strength of princes!…

I, I am wheat, the Holy Blade; I am Enlil’s daughter (everywhere),

In the shacks, in the shepherds’ huts,

Scattered over the plain,

What can you put against this? What can you reply? Answer me that!”

Thereupon Ewe replied to Wheat:

“Sister, what are you saying?

An, king of the Gods,

Made me descend from the holy and most precious place!

All the yarns of the divine Weaver, the splendor of Royalty, are mine!....

Also the watch over the elite troops is mine, as is the sustenance of the workers in the field,

And the water-skin of the refreshing drink and the sandals—all that is mine!… And you are put in the oven, and taken out of the oven again

When you are finally put on the table,

I come before you and you are behind!

Wheat, watch yourself!

You, just as I, are meant to be eaten….”

Wheat replied to Ewe:…

“When your innards are taken away by the buyers in the market,

And your neck is wrapped with your very own loin-cloth,

One man says to another: ‘Fill the measure with grain for my sheep!’”

Thereupon the god Enki spoke to the god Enlil:

“Father Enlil, Ewe and Wheat, both of them,

Should walk together! Of their combined metal, [the alloy] should never cease;

Yet of these two Wheat should be the greater!…

For whoever has gold, or silver, or cattle, or sheep,

Shall ever wait at the door of him who has grain, and so pass his days!”

Source: Hermann L. J. Vanstiphout, “Disputations,” in The Context of Scripture, volume 1, edited by William W. Hallo, with K. Lawson Younger Jr. (New York&Leiden: Brill, 1996), pp. 575–578. after their slaughter, and the owner of animals invested significant resources in keeping his animals healthy and in increasing the size of his flocks.

Semi-Nomadic Lifestyle. The domesticated animals most important to the ancient Mesopotamian economy were sheep and goats, which required green pasturage to survive and reproduce. Reproducing females provided milk for dairy products, and these mothers require steady supplies of food and water. In ancient times as now, lambing and calving took place in the spring, after which the flocks needed to be led north and west to higher and wetter lands that remain green throughout the summer. The requirement for mobility, the ability to pick up and take the animals for months at a time to locales where water and

pasturage were found, was contrary to the settled nature of an urban lifestyle. To meet this need, a pattern of settlement evolved in Mesopotamia whereby some members of a community, who were linked with settled members of the community by family ties or other association, spent the winter months of the year living in a settlement, village or city, and the summer months on the move with the flocks. Neither fully nomadic nor fully settled, these people led what is known as a semi-nomadic lifestyle, and although they appear in written sources less frequently than their settled urban counterparts, they were an integral part of the Mesopotamian economy and social structure.

Specialized Uses of Animals. Animals played a vital role in the Mesopotamian cult, which itself played a large part in the economy and social-class system. Within the framework of basic Mesopotamian religious belief, in which mankind was created to serve the gods and provide them with food and drink, animals were at the top of the hierarchy of sacrifices offered to the gods. The choicest animals of the flock were reserved for the gods’ tables. The value of such offerings is demonstrated in the detailed descriptions of cuts of meat stipulated in written lists of cultic contributions. While in principle an animal was offered for the gods’ table, in practice only a small portion was used for the sacrifice; for instance, blood was poured onto the ground before the image of the deity, or a piece of meat was “consumed” by fire. The remainder of the animal was carefully butchered and allocated to the temple staff and temple offices. Shares in such socially prestigious offices (“prebends“) became economically valuable. Prebends could be apportioned over the year; that is, one could serve as prebend for as little as one day. Prebends were handed down as part of an inheritance or, like movable property, might be bought and sold. The following passage is from a tenth century b.c.e. entitlement monument discovered in the temple to the sun god Shamash in the city of Sippar:

(The king of Babylon established as follows):
Allowance of the sangu-priest from the rams, the annual
royal sacrificial offering:
flesh of the loins, the hides,
flesh of the back, the sinews,
half the flesh of the viscera,
half of the lungs,
two knucklebones,
one vessel of meat broth… . (Slanski)

A specialized cultic use of animals in Mesopotamia was in the art/science of extispicy, according to which a highly trained diviner examined the entrails of a sheep or goat sacrificed for this purpose. Such animals had to be of the highest quality and were extremely expensive; as might be expected, the remains of the animal went to the temple staff. Extispicy was a practice likely restricted to royalty and wealthy members of society.


Mario Liverani, “Half Nomads on the Middle Euphrates and the Concept of Dimorphic Society,” Altorientalische Forschungen, 24 (1995): 44–48.

Susan Pollock, Ancient Mesopotamia: The Eden that Never Was, Case Studies in Early Societies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

J. N. Postgate, Early Mesopotamia: Society and Economy at the Dawn of History (London&New York: Routledge, 1992).

Michael Roaf, Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia and the Ancient Near East (New York: Facts on File, 1966).

Kathryn E. Slanski, The Babylonian Entitlement narûs (kudurrus): A Study in Form and Function, ASOR Books, volume 9 (Boston: American Schools of Oriental Research, 2003).

Hermann L. J. Vanstiphout, “Disputations,” in The Context of Scripture, volume 1, edited by William W. Hallo, with K. Lawson Younger Jr. (New York&Leiden: Brill, 1996), pp. 575–578.

Animal Husbandry

views updated May 21 2018

Animal Husbandry

The adaptability of the slaveholding, Southern United States—in terms of geography and climate—to cultivation of crops of various kinds, meant that plantation owners placed much more emphasis on crop production as a market commodity than on animal husbandry. In some places cattle were raised as a profit-making enterprise but generally animal products did not provide the high profit margins as crops such as corn, tobacco, and cotton.

Solomon Northrup, referencing his experiences as a slave on a Louisiana plantation, gave some insight into the low market value of cows in Louisiana around the 1840s. He claimed that the best cows were worth only about five dollars each. In terms of milk as a by-product with possible market potential, he argued that it was "unusual" for a cow to yield as much as two quarts of milk at any one time. Additionally, he said that the small amount of tallow (fat used to make candles, soap, and lubricants) harvested from cows was of a "soft, inferior quality" (Bracey and Sinha 2004, vol. 1, p. 138). Northrup, well known as a writer of a narrative that told about his twelve-year experience as a slave, had been captured into slavery in 1841 after having lived as a free man for all of his life. Northrup contended that the planters in his area chose to purchase cheese and butter shipped to the New Orleans market form the Northern United States, as opposed to commercializing the cow and its by-products. Animal husbandry, in any case, not as labor intensive as crop cultivation, engaged less of the labor of enslaved people than crop production. Northrup measured the labor input expended on corn and cotton production on the plantation where he was enslaved, as opposed to other activities, including caring of hogs. He stated, "Ploughing [sic], planting, picking cotton, gathering the corn, and pulling and burning stalks, occupies the whole of the four seasons of the year. Drawing and cutting wood, pressing cotton, fattening and killing hogs, are but incidental labors" (Bracey and Sinha 2004, vol. 1, p. 138).


The information cited from ex-slaves in this essay was compiled through interviews conducted during the late 1930s, in order to record the memories of the ex-slaves who were then of advanced ages. The interviewers were sponsored by the Federal Writers' Project, which was established during the Great Depression in order to provide jobs for writers, editors, and researchers. The Federal Writers' Project was part of the United States Works Project Administration. The slave narratives were later collected in George Rawick's The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography.

SOURCE: Rawick, George, ed. American Slave: A Composite Autobiography. 41 vols. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1972–1979.

Among the animals minded by slaves on Southern plantations were hogs, cattle, horses, sheep, goats, chickens, turkeys, and guinea fowls; however, the hog was decidedly the most popular animal on the plantation. Lizzie Farmer, who had been enslaved on a Texas plantation, remembered that her "Massa" had hundreds of beautiful hogs. Hogs were bred primarily to provide food for the inhabitants of the plantations, and became the staple meat in the diet of enslaved people. On plantations, hogs were generally penned, and slaves carried out the routine task of feeding them, sometimes referred to by ex-slaves as "fattening" or "slopping." Bert Mayfield, who had been enslaved in Garrard County, Kansas remembered pulling "pusley"—probably a plant or grass of some kind—from a garden to feed pigs. According to him, the "pigs loved it mighty well" (Born in Slavery, Kentucky Narratives, vol. 11, pt. 1).

Bull dogs were put into service to chase down hogs and drive them back into pens when they escaped as communicated by George Henderson from Versailles, Kentucky. Henderson said that his owner had a "very bad male hog" which sometimes broke out of a ten-foot high pen in which it was kept. Henderson quipped humorously, "it would take all the bulldogs in the country to get him back" (Born in Slavery, Kentucky Narratives, vol. 13, pt. 1).

It was "hog killin' time" when hogs were slaughtered on the plantations sometime during the fall to winter seasons. The meat was then preserved to be rationed among the occupants of the plantation during the following year. According to Northrup, the slaves began the preservation process by cutting each hog into six pieces, then slating and laying the pieces "one above the other" on tables in a smoke-house. After two weeks, they hung up and smoked the pieces of meat. They continued the smoking process periodically during the year to prevent infestation of the meat by worms (Bracey and Sinha 2004, vol. 1, p. 138).

Cattle, including cows, steers and oxen, were also bred in plentiful quantities on plantations. Sam Polite from a plantation on St. Helena Island in South Carolina (Gullah country) explained that slaves had to roll cords of mud into the pens where the cows were kept. Women, especially, raked leaves from wood into the cow pens. The mud and leaves, very likely, served as receptacles for the dung of the cows which was used as plant fertilizer.

Care of cattle by slaves also involved driving them to pastures for feeding. Sometimes cattle stampedes would occur as the cattle got out of control, and a "roping" process was used in order to restrain the cattle. Slaves also had to be versed in the technique of "yoking" oxen that were used to pull plows in the fields.

In many places, plantation owners used an unsophisticated method of allowing pigs and cattle to literally raise themselves by roaming around—"free range"—in nearby swamps and woods. Hogs fed on "mast"—the fruit of beech, oak, chestnut, and other forest trees.

As previously indicated, bulldogs played an essential role in hog raising. Northrup explained that around September or October of each year, probably in anticipation of the approaching winter, slaves on the plantation where he was held used the dogs to chase hogs out of the swamps and confine them to pens on the plantation.

With regard to the "free range" cattle, Northrup commented that plantation owners in his area simply marked the ears or branded their initials on the sides of their cattle—a Spanish breed, small and spiked horned—and let them loose into the swamps, "to roam unrestricted within their almost limitless confines" (Bracey and Sinha 2004, vol. 1, p. 138). Northrup speculated that the name Bayou Boeuf, meaning, "the creek or river of the wild ox" most likely originated among the Louisiana French because of the large number of tame and untamed cattle that "swarm [ed] the woods and swamps of Bayou Boeuf" (p. 138). Bayou Boeuf was very likely located close to the plantation where Northrup was enslaved.

Horses were crucial to plantation management because they served as the major mode of transportation, pulling carts, carriages, wagons, and buggies. Evoking a feminist sentiment, Harriett Robinson of Bastrop, Texas boasted that women, perhaps including herself, broke in mules: "thrower 'em down and roped 'em. They'd do it better'n men (Baker and Baker 1997, p. 83).

Horses, sheep, and goats were driven by slaves in herds for "watering" and grazing. Especially in Texas, sheep were raised in large quantities. Andy J. Anderson (formerly Andy Haley), indicated that there were about a thousand sheep on the plantation where he had been enslaved in Williamson County, Texas. Sheep minding was assigned to specific slaves, as were all other jobs on that plantation. Wool was sheared off the sheep twice per year by the slave assigned to that job (Waters 2003, p. 117). Lu Lee, born on a plantation somewhere along the Louisiana/Texas state line, remembered that she and her sister herded sheep in the prairies, and took large shepherd dogs along for protection for wolves, panther and wild cattle (p. 11). Carey Davenport, also a Texas ex-slave, commented jestfully that as a sheep minder, the wolves never "tackled" him because, "They like sheep meat better'n man meat" (Rawick 1972–1979, vol. 4, p. 282). Slaves also provided themselves with additional food supplies by hunting wild chickens and turkeys; and wild game including rabbits, opossums, deer, and cows.

Additionally, slaves were involved in processing byproducts from various animals. Alfred Farrell, enslaved in Monticello, Florida, said that the fat of oxen and sheep was melted to make candles, and the leftover grease was put into a large box to be used later for soap-making. The feathers from geese and chickens were used to make mattresses (Rawick 1972–1979, vol. 17, pp. 48-49). Willis Williams from Jacksonville, Florida (born in Tallahassee), remembered that on one occasion he skinned a cow and sold the hide to a man named Pierce who used to buy hides and cure them (p. 5).

In their text The Sounds of Slavery (2005), Shane and Graham White emphasize the attention paid by enslaved people to various sounds on the plantation—sounds made by animals, sound coming from spinning rooms, sounds of plantation bells, and the sound made by slave children as they beat clothes with batten sticks on wash-day, for example. White and White also underscore the fact that the enslaved people themselves contributed their own sounds to the cacophony of plantation noises. Indeed, their duties relating to tending animals elicited from the slaves sounds that heralded the traditions of orality of their African heritage. John Davenport told his interviewer that he and other slaves on the plantation yelled, "co-winch, co-winch" to call cows; "co, co" to call mules; and "pig-oo, pig-oo" to call hogs and pigs (White and White 2005, p. 2).


Baker, Lindsay T., and Julie P. Baker, eds. Till Freedom Cried Out: Memories of Texas Slave Life. College Station, TX: A & M University Press, 1997.

Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936–1938. Online collection of the Manuscript and Prints and Photographs Divisions of the Library of Congress. Available from

Bracey, John H., Jr., and Manisha Sinha, eds. African American Mosaic: A Documentary History from the Slave Trade to the Twenty-First Century, Vol. 1: To 1877. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2004.

Hine, Darlene Clarke, William C. Hine, and Stanley Harrold. African Americans: A Concise History. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2004.

Rawick, George P., ed. The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography. Vols. 1-19. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1972–1979.

Waters, Andrew, ed. I Was Born in Slavery. Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, 2003.

White, Shane, and Graham White. The Sounds of Slavery: Discovering African American History through Songs, Sermons and Speech. Boston: Beacon Press, 2005.

                                 Marguerite P. Garvey


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hus·band·ry / ˈhəzbəndrē/ • n. 1. the care, cultivation, and breeding of crops and animals: crop husbandry.2. management and conservation of resources.