A history roamed by animals

Centering Animals in Latin American History
Edited by Martha Few and Zeb Tortorici
2013, Duke University Press
391 pages, plates, paperback

THIS book has been in print for several years now and we regret coming to it so late in the day, because it is a splendid and highly original collection that does something long overdue in Latin American historiography. By placing animals at the heart of the history of this region, the editors have made a significant contribution to the ways in which humans behave towards the natural world and understand it. What then happens when you read this book is really rather remarkable, making you realise that animals are, indeed, at the very heart of Latin American history in so many ways. The contributors take us beyond the Columbian Exchange, by which European fauna and flora transformed the natural environment in this region, to the symbolic roles played by animals and their relationships with social practices such as medicine and wedding rites. Perceptions and representations of animals give meaning to human understanding – from indigenous cosmology to ideas about masculinity – making the history of animals, as Erica Fudge points out in her foreword, invaluable for a number of reasons: providing us with new insights about human-animal relations, and about how important animals have been to human culture and what we now call “modernity”. As Fudge notes, something as apparently inconsequential as cow dung in fact played a vital role in agricultural improvement in England, and hence in urbanization and ultimately industrialization. The contributions explore the role of animals in culture and colonialism, in medicine, science and public health, and in meanings and politics. At every turn, the editors point out, a tension permeates the entire book: if we transform animals into the central actors in the historical narrative, does this give us a substantially different version of the past than historical works that solely present animals as visible factors in history? This, therefore, is a tenuous project, but one that is undertaken with fascinating results.