Domesticating Versus Adopting in the Columbian Exchange

Thursday, January 6, 2011: 3:00 PM
Grand Ballroom Salon A (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Marcy Norton , George Washington University, Washington, DC
This paper explores how the social-ecological structures of animal domestication and animal adoption structured relationships between Europeans and Amerindians, and people and animals, in the early Spanish Caribbean. I term the fundamental structures organizing how people related to and thought about animals “modes of interaction,” comprised of entrenched customs, patterns of behavior, and institutions.  With roots in the Paleolithic and Neolithic eras, the primary European modes of interaction were hunting and husbandry, linked in practice and ideology to aristocratic rule, and dynastic and colonial warfare in the late middle ages and early modern period. If “hunting” and “herding” can be fruitfully understood as primordial structures that organized society and ecology in Europe, then “adopting,” as well as hunting, appear to have been primordial structures for much of human society and ecology in the Americas. I use adoption to refer to what appears to be widespread practices of capturing and often taming wildlife for purposes ranging from food to companionship.  As such it is a correlate of the widespread Amerindian practice of taking prisoners of war, some of whom were destined for death (and in some areas ritual consumption) and others who became adoptive kin. In the colonial context adoption practices were hybridized through interactions with Europeans. Texts produced in colonial Caribbean and Mesoamerica offer glimpses of animal adoption practices among native Amerindians and Europeans, including those involving monkeys, foxes, manatees, kinkajous, sloths, iguanas, sucker-fish, and parrots and other birds. Despite millennia of divergent cultural developments and dissimilar ecological environments, Spaniards and Circum-Caribbean Indians found their respective interests and customs around certain animals – such as parrots and monkeys – mutually intelligible.
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