Iowa Alumni Magazine | October 2010 | In Class

Animals and Us

By Tina Owen
An archaeology course traces the long, intertwined, and complicated history of humans and beasts.

Archaeology professor Matt Hill is the first to admit that one element is missing from an incredibly popular course he's teaching this semester: fluffy bunnies.

Actually, that's the whole point. His "Animals, Culture, and Food" course isn't a lightweight offering. Although animals—from prehistoric mammoth to domesticated cattle to pampered pets—feature prominently, this rigorous class leads students into the complicated grey areas of thorny issues like animal rights, hunting, and industrial agriculture.

"I try not to hide unpleasant subjects. Throughout history, some of the worst aspects of human society are reflected in the way we treat animals," Hill explains. "Although the course isn't all about politics, it isn't a fluffy bunny class where we all love animals and we're all best friends."

Indeed, the 25 participants represent different majors—such as nursing, art, law, and business—and personal viewpoints from die-hard vegans to farm kids to hunters. In this course, they'll start with prehistory and wind their way up to current times, noting how animals have affected human diet, ideology, identity, and social development over the centuries.

"Animals have been part of human culture since there has been a culture. In fact, they helped shape civilization," says Hill. "Animals are critical to religion, art, economy, and technology. They're integral to who we are and how we live our lives. We would not be human without animals."

As they delve into new academic territory encompassing archaeology, law, philosophy, anthropology, history, ethics, and religion, these UI students encounter unfamiliar and challenging concepts. Any hopes of coasting through the course soon disappear as participants strain to wrap their minds around the sexual politics of meat, the status of animals in Christian thought, and top-down ecosystems.

Hill acknowledges that, when he first proposed the course two years ago, he did have some concerns that colleagues in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences might view it as insubstantial. "We didn't do that kind of course in a traditional archaeology class when I was at school," he notes. "But now, there's a growing appreciation of the environment and our relationship with it—including the animal world."

In fact, Hill partly developed this academic offering in response to his students' needs and interests. In other courses, he noticed that class members perked up whenever the subject of animals arose. If he spoke about hunting during the Paleolithic era (his research investigates whether humans helped chase the mammoth to extinction), someone would invariably draw a connection to modern issues such as overhunting. Noticing an enduring theme, students wanted to know more about humans' interactions with the animal world.

The trend that Hill spotted exists elsewhere in academia. Inside Higher Education, which featured the UI course in a recent article, notes that animal studies now feature widely in humanities and social sciences curricula, not just in veterinary colleges, agricultural schools, and biology departments. The publication highlighted law courses as a particularly fast-growing area; according to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, only nine law schools offered sessions on animal law in 2000, compared to more than 120 today.

"Students are at the forefront of these issues of social importance; faculty are trying to catch up," Hill says. "I've been impressed with students' very clear moral and ethical attitudes about the way we treat animals."

Many students reject the notion that humans are somehow separate from or superior to the natural kingdom; they realize the immense impact of human actions and decisions on other species. For all their interest, though, many have a limited appreciation of the roles of animals in human affairs.

"Animals, Culture, and Food" starts by examining human-animal interactions during the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods. Recent research specifically links human development to animals. As early hominids moved from simply scavenging wild animal carcasses to hunting their prey, they introduced into their diets vital nutrients that increased their brain and body size. Hunting and the preparation of animal carcasses prompted the development of tools, just as the later domestication of animals led to those cornerstones of civilization: farming and agriculture.

These topics eventually lead to moral and ethical discussions about current issues. For the session on modern farming and carcass processing, students read sections from The Slaughterhouse Blues: The Meat and Poultry Industry in North America, which examines the industry's effects on workers and communities. As they learn about the low-paid, gory, and dehumanizing work carried out in meatpacking plants, they consider how this tangled cross-species relationship impacts people as well as beasts. They understand what Hill means when he says our interactions with other species comes at a price—paid by animals, humans, or both.

"Our relationships with animals have outcomes and results—some unpleasant and horrible," he explains. "Whether in industrial agriculture or wildlife control or animal testing, there are political and ethical choices being made on a daily basis that we need to appreciate and understand."

Meredith Wismer, 09MA, an archaeology graduate student, was so stimulated by the discussion of factory farms that she changed the way she shops at the grocery store. "I haven't become a vegetarian by any means, but now I go out of my way to find the free-range, local meat products," she says.

In addition, she realized that humans have "an incredible dependence on animals, which goes beyond meat and leather. Animals play crucial roles in our mythology, our psychological well-being, and how we define ourselves."

Like any good liberal arts course, "Animals, Culture, and Food" aims to expose participants to such new ways of thinking about and seeing the world. Offering a multicultural, global perspective on the interactions between humans and animals, it encourages students to venture beyond their typically white, middle-class, and Western perspectives.

They learn that, while dogs have co-existed with humans for some 15,000 years (in fact, the creatures will form the basis of another course that Hill is developing), that connection is far from straightforward. While Americans typically lavish dogs with affection and care, natives of other countries eat them for dinner. As Hill points out, "That's a cultural decision that says a lot about who we are and what we value."

As they discuss such matters, students invariably encounter viewpoints they may disagree with—or even find reprehensible. The syllabus warns that certain issues may create strong emotions, but it insists that everyone must show proper respect for other people and their ideas. To ensure full participation, each student has to make presentations and lead discussions at two classes, as well as submit three questions about the week's readings for the other sessions.

"What's so nice about Iowa is that students are always so polite and kind," notes their professor. "They have very measured discussions; even when they hold very different opinions, they're always willing to listen to alternative perspectives."

Guest speakers, many from other UI departments, offer some of those perspectives. The diverse nature of discussions and readings also extends to class projects, as Hill gives his students leeway to explore subjects in ways that relate to their personal and academic backgrounds. One art student turned in a series of paintings. Another undergrad set up an organization and a website to help educate the public about puppy mills.

An anthropology major when she took the first "Animals, Culture, and Food" session, Meghann Mahoney, 09BA, says that her interest in animals used to be centered largely on the past. In fact, her honors thesis focused on ancient Romans' use of horses.

"This course helped me understand some of the complicated social processes occurring now," she adds. "It encouraged me to consider how we apply our own very human beliefs and ideas onto various animals. We anthropomorphize cats, dogs, pandas, whales, and chimps, while we turn rats, bugs, and snakes into villains.

"This class really made me look at such attitudes and think 'Why?'"