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View the documentCounting on sheep: historical perspective on a happy partnership
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Counting on sheep: historical perspective on a happy partnership

Sheep and Man, by M. L. Ryder, London, Duckworth, 1983, 846 p., 55 pounds sterling.

Except for the dog, the first animals domesticated by man were the sheep and the goat, preceding pigs and cattle by several thousand years. The transformation, which occurred in Mesolithic southwest Asia around 9000 B.C. after a long and gradual process of growing association and mutual benefit, changed the course of human history. In fact, says M.L. Ryder, in introducing his monument to this happy partnership, "It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that the history of man is the history of sheep."

Certainly, it is at least partly thanks to the sheep that the history of man has been recorded, since parchment was made from sheepskin. Sheep can supply man's needs for food, clothing, fuel, and skelter and have been known to carry loads and pull carts. Sheep bones have been made into many useful tools and other articles, including games and musical instruments; they have even been used in divination. Tents, as well as clothes, can be made from wool and felt, and dung and tallow give light and heat. The food products of the sheep include a great deal more then pecorino cheese and roast lamb. Sheepmilk yoghurt, well known in the Near East, has found its way to Western supermarkets. Scottish haggis, though of decidedly limited consumption, stands as testimony to the infinite culinary variety the sheep inspires. Most important, sheep meat is the only meat that is not taboo to any people in the world.

Infinite variety is the key to the study of sheep too. Merely to call Ryder's book interdisciplinary is to do it an injustice. It is a splendid melange of livestock husbandry (which the author teaches at the University of New England in Australia), biology, history, archaeology (both scientific and art historical), anthropology, sociology, history of religion, history of art, literature, geography, folklore, and linguistics. The author's purpose - "to combine evidence from all possible sources on the history of the association of sheep with man, and the changes in sheep wrought by him" - has resulted in a long and richly documented volume which aims specifically at providing historians and prehistorians with scientific background and scientists with a historical perspective. The curious researcher from almost any discipline will find some point of intersection of his own field of study with sheep, but the going can be a bit heavy for the casual reader with a few general questions, though he is likely to find at least a reference to what he wants in the 27-page bibliography. The reader whose only interest in sheep is that he likes to fall asleep counting them (another sheep-man connection) may want to study the fascinating section on counting systems, and before long he will be wondering whether he is dreaming of Merinos or Scottish Blackfaces.

The unique attribute. A book that attempts to cover a dozen millennia and six continents faces problems of organization. The principal unifying theme is the author's own research on ''changes in the fleece wrought by man", wool being "the truly unique attribute of sheep, of prime importance in the history of man from ancient Sumer to modern Australia." He has, accordingly, chosen to combine chronological, geographical, and topical approaches, none of which the reader should take too literally as there is much overlapping. The first of the three main divisions of the book, "Ancient Times", addresses the general biology of sheep (including what separates them from goats), prehistoric sheep and their diffusion, sheep of ancient civilizations, and sheep of the early Middle Ages. The second, "The Middle Ages to Recent Times", takes a geographical arrangement, with chapters on the Near East and North Africa; Asia, Eastern, Western, and Northern Europe; Africa; and the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand. The third section, called "The Association of Man with Sheep" (but, of course, that is what the whole book is about), contains chapters on sheep husbandry, sheep products (these chapters are, forgivably, rather Britannocentric), and the "sheep legacy", by which is meant "the legacy of modern breeds and their biological relationships, as well as the legacy of sheep in folklore, language and literature". Since the same topics turn up in different parts of the book and the readership is heterogeneous (the anthropologist's vocabulary is not that of the livestock specialist), a glossary of special terms would have been extremely useful and would have made the size of the book less overwhelming, but the style is clear enough and most terms are defined at least once.

A detailed tabular list of illustrations gives type of fleece, horns, and face in nearly three hundred representations of sheep in Western and ancient Near Eastern art. There is, however, no list of the other graphic material, which includes scores of scientific illustrations and tables (for example, of breeds and their characteristics) and some representations of sheep in non-Western art, for example, cave paintings of fat-tailed sheep in Zimbabwe, a seventeenth-century Indian painting of a four-horned piebald ram, and an eighteenth-century Chinese mirror painting showing spotted "hair" sheep. There is also a wealth of illustrations (many of them photographs) of sheep breeds, sheep products, and sheep husbandry activities and equipment from all times and all places.

Nomads and transhumants. For Ceres readers, the most relevant section will probably be that on the Near East and North Africa, where the sheepman connection is most keenly felt, since "for centuries sheep have formed an integral part of the cultural and social heritage of the region's population." Seventy per cent of the sheep in the region are kept in either nomadic or transhumant husbandry, and the tiny percentage of the human population involved "gives no indication of the economic importance or the variety of systems employed. Far from being aimless wandering, nomadism forms a highly efficient human adaptation to adverse conditions." Ryder stresses the difference between nomadism and transhumance. Nomads have no fixed abode: "True nomadism can be defined as the regular movement of whole families with their livestock in constant search of grazing and water." The movement may be constant, but it is not random or aimless. Transhumants, on the other hand, have a fixed abode for part of the year and practise seasonal migration with their flocks, as between mountains and lowlands, "at set times, following established routes". Ryder is sympathetic to nomads, who have suffered prejudice and political opposition deriving from poor understanding of their way of life. He cites FAO studies that "have created the more enlightened view that nomadism is highly rational, taking human occupation into increasingly severe environments. It is not an unsatisfactory alternative to settled agriculture, nor is it a half-way stage to something better.... All in all nomadism represents a most remarkable human adaptation to extremely adverse environments."

It is all very well to call a book Sheep and Man, but women too have always had an active relationship with sheep and sheep products. The sobriquet "distaff side" did not attach itself to the female sex for no reason (Carthaginian women were buried with their spindles), but spinning and weaving are not the only jobs women have done. Ryder presents, but not systematically, evidence for girls' and women's work in many areas of sheep husbandry, including, of course, shepherding. (But not only: in the Middie Ages, as difficult and athletic an activity as shearing was performed by a "shepster", or female shearer.)

"Has the sheep come to the end of the road?" asks Ryder in his epilogue. The short answer is No: "... compared with other livestock the sheep has a greater potential for survival in difficult circumstances. It already requires a lower input in terms of energy and labour, and its role as a universal provider in harsh environments everywhere throughout history has been amply demonstrated. Sheep can live in marginal areas unsuitable for cultivation, ranging from sub-polar vegetation through temperate mountain pasture to the scrub of tropical deserts." Answers can be found for such problems as exist. That is, breeds raised mainly for meat could be made to produce more wool too. The caveat is that examples of breeds that have declined because they have proved uneconomic must be maintained "as a base from which to make developments which cannot be foreseen today."

Maureen B. Fant