Why do some people not eat certain animals?
Whilst the consumption of meat is a commonality in many societies, the avoidance of consuming particular meats is too. The varied reasons for why some people choose not to eat certain animals will be discussed. These reasons will be analysed through the Kluane People of Northern Yukon, the domestication of animals in Karam culture and ancient Israelites. It will become apparent that the variant reasons for meat avoidance always stem back to at least one or more of three essential factors; geography, culturally instilled ritual procedures and religion. The differing human-animal relationships will also be discussed in light of these factors to underpin the way that humans interact with the non-human world and how this predominantly shapes the cultures of eating rituals.
The Kluane are a community that have a reciprocal relationship with animals and display two of the three factors in meat avoidance; geographical convenience and ritual. This reciprocal relationship means that Kluane believe animals give themselves to the hunters, and in turn hunters accept them as gifts insuring “spiritual debt” (Nadasy 2007, 27) that must be paid back. Rituals are therefore set in place prescribing certain behaviour towards animals demonstrating the ways this debt can be paid back.
These 'giving back’ rituals include “food taboos, ritual feasts, and prescribed methods for disposing animal remains, as well as injunctions against overhunting and talking badly about or playing with animals” (Nadasy 2003, 88-89 cited in Nadasy 2007, 25). Sheep and moose are considered as food taboos and are expressed through Kluane concern for the population of these animals (Nadasy 2005, 307). Whilst the hunting of sheep and moose was not illegal, Kluane cultural rituals condemned the consumption of these meats. Ritual as a reason for not eating certain animals is therefore seen in the Kluane repaying spiritual debt to animals and the way they choose not eat certain animals. Food taboo rituals specifically explain why certain animals are not eaten as it would break the rules of respect and not sustain full reciprocity.
The Kluane also highlight geographical convenience as a factor in meat avoidance. The community uphold an aspect of ‘utility over love’, where the hunter always puts themselves first even if it means a lack of respectful killing to save themselves from danger (Nadasy 2005). However, it is of vital importance that Kluane people respect the geographical hunting space available to them and the areas their culture informs them to avoid. The Kluane agreed to “urge its members to comply with the establishment of a two-kilometre no-hunting corridor along the Alaska Highway in its territory” (Nadasy 2005, 307). A Kluane hunter however had shot a cow moose in this area and was subjected to major societal condemnation. Kluane advocate a respectful compliance toward designated geographical areas where hunting and meat consumption are culturally forbidden. Geography is therefore also seen to play a part in the consequential rejection of certain meats.
In light of this relationship the Kluane have with animals, it must also be noted how animals in some way have transcended being a mere ‘animal’. “The way animals behave in their regular reactions with humans causes northern hunters to regard them as intelligent social beings” (Nadasy 2007, 32), examining how animals are actually part of a wider social web. In Kluane culture, animals need hunters to fulfil cultural rituals that pay respect towards them and hunters in turn need animals for food survival. The reciprocity cycle only works if both hunters and animals play they part. As a result, the hierarchy with humans at the top is removed as they are culturally dependent on each other. Both these ritual and geographical factors are tied together with the unique relationships humans have with animals in this community and explain how these animals surpass their being and become level to human-human relationships. The equation of human-human and human-animal has created a space for animals to exist in equal view. This furthers how hunters are not choosing to eat certain animals because they need that meat specifically, but because of a much more complex and symbolic relationship they have with the natural world.
This transcendence idea of an animal breaking beyond the concept of an ‘animal’ is also seen in animal domestication and the distinction between symbolism and sustenance. The differing types of domestication specifically regard ritual procedures as a factor in avoiding the consumption of certain meats. In regards to domesticating animals, Ingold suggests two viewpoints in which domestication takes place; taming and herding. Animals are either “incorporated into human society (taming) or… they are managed for meat, milk or a hedge against hardship (herding)” (Ingold cited in Shanklin 1985, 381). An animal being either tamed or herded massively changes the implications of meat consumption. This is due to rituals subjecting certain animals to exist as meat and some as symbolic beings not to be eaten. This practice of avoiding certain animals for consumption and then in turn demeaning other animals has ritualistic procedures in the choosing of not eating specific meats. It shows how ritual based on distinctions between symbolic animals that are part of ‘human society’ and those that are not is the factor that decides eligible meats.
Bulmer furthers this notion by analysing the comparison of the dog against the pig amongst the Karam people of New Guinea, as they believe dogs are “quasi-humans… [and] pigs are not quasi-humans with a separate society of their own” (Bulmer and Crocker cited in Shanklin 1985, 395). Karam theory is linked to kinship roles and rights because their theory describes dogs as potential affines and adopted children, whereas pigs are not considered human. A symbolic and religious weighting is placed onto the domesticated dog, which establishes that it must not be eaten as it would be like eating an affine or a human child. A dog goes beyond a mere animal because it is domesticated into human society and can be ‘tamed’, but a pig can only be ‘herded’. This explains how the distinction between the type of domesticated animal is determined to ensure and inform specific eating habits around meat. These eating habits link directly to culturally instilled ritual procedures as it discusses the prescribed set of actions that accompany correct and incorrect meat eating.
Finally, the ancient Israelites will be examined to demonstrate both religion and geographical convenience as key factors in the avoidance of certain meats. Leviticus is the third book of the Bible that examines the details of law and ritual, which also explain rules around meat consumption. Leviticus writes that “whatever parts of the hoof is cloven footed and chews the cud among animals, you may eat” (Leviticus 11:11, cited in Harris 1986, 71), which is the essential formula for what food was considered ‘clean’ and able to be eaten. This religious aspect surrounding meat deems certain animals ‘unclean’ and therefore must not be eaten as it will place evil into the body and go against holiness. Pigs were considered ‘unclean’ in ancient Israelite culture because although they had cloven feet, they did not eat the cud as they shared crops destined for human consumption. Pigs thence did not satisfy the formula and were condemned ‘unclean’. The consumption of pigs amongst the Israelites was forbidden as well as even touching or looking at them because of this religious uncleanliness. Douglas explains that “by rules of avoidance holiness was given a physical expression in every encounter with the animal kingdom and at every meal” (1966, 58) further showing how religion plays a large factor in what meats were not allowed to be consumed. Douglas explains the varying reasons for meat avoidance across different religions and different animals, essentialising holiness and cleanliness as the underlying and universal arguments in why certain animals were not eaten.
Geographically, pigs also do not suit the middle-eastern climate as they lack sweat glands and can only be cooled down by water, which was not convenient for the Israelites (Douglas 1966). Pigs also share food with humans and they cannot eat grass and cud alone, which was another geographical factor against keeping pigs for livestock. There is not enough environmental surplus in Israelites’ geographical sector to provide enough food for pigs and it therefore did not make sense to herd and eat them. This highlights geographical convenience as another major factor against meat consumption.
This essay has described the variant reasons as to why some people do not eat certain animals. Three factors; culturally instilled rituals, geographical convenience and religion were used as key reasons for specific meat avoidance. At least one or more of these three factors were always able to link to the communities studied notably, the Kluane, the Karam and the ancient Israelites.
Douglas, M (2013 ) “The Abominations of Leviticus.” In C. Counihan & P. Van Esterik (eds.) Food and Culture: a Reader, 3rd edition, pp. 48-59. London and New York: Routledge.
Harris, M (1986) Riddles of Food and Culture. Long Grove, IL.: Waveland Press. Chapter 6, “the abominable pig”, pp. 67-79.
Nadasdy, P. 2005. Transcending the debate over the ecologically noble Indian: Indigenous peoples and environmentalism. Ethnohistory, 52(2), 291-331.
Nasady, P (2007) The gift of the animal: the ontology of hunting and human–animal sociality. American Ethnologist 34 (1): 25-43. [e-journal]
Shanklin, E (1985) Sustenance and symbol: Anthropological studies of domesticated animals. Annual Review of Anthropology 14 (1): 375-403. [e-journal]