#ShelfieSunday: Horse Nations

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Horse Nations, by Peter Mitchell, 2015. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Review by Kathryn Renton

   In Horse Nations (2015), Peter Mitchell offers a wide-ranging synthesis of archaeological, ethnographic and material culture studies to describe the impact of horses in the “post-1492” world. Horses, reduced to Eurasia from their original evolutionary footprint, were then reintroduced by European efforts to colonize the Americas, Africa and Oceanasia. The rapid emergence of the “equestrian nomad”, like the Apache in North America and the Mapuche in Chile, demonstrates the dramatic transformations that horses could bring in just a short period of time.

   Mitchell moves beyond the stereotypical image of the indigenous raider on horseback to explore the diverse range of responses to the expanding presence of the horse. Using critical post-colonial methodology, contact with the horse becomes a set of mutually entangling processes, rather than externally imposed or internally motivated change in the areas affected by European colonization.[1] In collecting material culture evidence for dynamic processes of ethnogenesis that accompanied the adoption of the horse, Mitchell reviews nine distinct ecological regions and offers a four part typology: first, hunter-gatherer or mobile groups that became equestrian nomads, largely for big game hunting in the Prairie and Gran Chaco regions; second, semi-mobile pastoralists, using horses as accessories to other economic pursuits like herding, including the Navajo, Comanche and Australian aborigine; third, raiders and traders interested in the horse as an object for consumption, including the Great Basin Utes and South African Khoe; and fourth, sedentary and hierarchical groups that adopted horses for less obvious economic motives, most strikingly the Araucanians in the Southern Cone.

   Mitchell, a specialist in South African archaeology of nomadism, ranges far afield in his proposal for the category of “horse nations” as a particular global phenomenon that emerged in the sixteenth through nineteenth century. Beyond the question of the horse itself, Mitchell aims to provoke a broader comparative examination of nomadism. Through this overview, Mitchell makes the case for gradations in the range of movement and social stratification used to identify characteristic cultural traits based on interaction with adoption of the horse in diverse regions, without distinguishing ‘equestrian nomads’ from pastoralist nomads, and its reflection on the degree of sophistication in indigenous culture groups.[2]

   Instead, Mitchell introduces the unpredictable role of “ontological relations” as an explanatory factor for the degree of adaptive flexible that made it possible to accommodate the horse.[3] While not fully developed in this work, the anthropological concept of ontological relations determining human-animal relations moves beyond the functional or environmental determinism of older archaeological and anthropological studies of nomadic cultures. It nevertheless raises new areas for greater scrutiny about the distinctions between domestic and wild animals. In this respect, incorporation of zooarchaeological literature and research would substantially complement Mitchell’s survey.

   Despite the global interest of this book, more attention is paid to the extant literature focused in the Americas, and makes evident the lacuna in other complementary regional literature, particularly in the African continent. One extensive barrier, within the field of archaeology, stands at the division between prehistoric archaeology and palentology and later historical and ethnohistorical uses of archaeology. A second barrier to comparative nomadic studies appears in the vast leap from early hunter-gatherer interactions with feral horses and the historical development of domesticated horse populations, making clear the need for a new synthesis about the place of nomadism in Eurasian developments. Thus, as an enormously expansive, although not yet exhaustive, survey of major secondary works and primary studies, Horse Nations enriches the potential engagement between archaeology, history and anthropology on the topic of the horse in human-animal studies. It points the way to more work to come.

[1] See debate in American anthropological literature about cultural change attributed to the horse (Wissler 1912; Roe, 1955) or pre-existing trends within recipient cultures (Palermo, 1989)

[2] Thomas Barfield, 2015

[3] Philippe Descola 2013, Tim Ingold 2000

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