Culture in Animals? With Natasha Fijn

6 min. read (or watch the video)

One of the first exercises many of us are made to do, when we take an introductory course in anthropology, is to list all the things we think set us apart from other animals. In other words, we are made to think about what it is to be human. For many years, anthropologists and other thinkers have had quite rigid lists at hand. Culture and language were usually at the top of those lists — and for many, they still are. Over the years, I have become ever more hesitant with these clear cut markers of what supposedly sets us apart from other animals. Anthropology is supposed to be the study of humans. But if Darwin was right, then we are animals and we find ourselves in a world alongside countless fellow animals.

Like many others, I find it is time to revisit not the things that set us apart from other animals, but the things we hold in common. So much of what we thought for decades as uniquely human is actually a matter of gradation. We find ourselves on this scale of features and abilities. We have more of some skills than other animals, and less of other skills (and, of course, there are lots of abilities we lack altogether). We see better than dogs, but dogs leave us in the dust when it comes to smell. “Obviously,” we say, “our eyes are more important than our nose.” “I can’t very well navigate my car through 5 o’clock traffic with only my nose!” Thanks to our thorough going self confidence (or is it arrogance?), our species has never hesitated to rank our own skills above those of others.

Today I bring to you a radically different perspective. First of all, it’s no secret that sensory abilities differ vastly, even among humans. Not all of us can see. And those who cannot see, will often hear, feel, and smell much more acutely than those of us who can also see. Our blind fellow citizens then are a great example of how we (as a species and as individuals) can move along the spectrum of sensory density. Take the autism spectrum. Maybe I find myself quite high on this spectrum, and perhaps I make less use of what psychologists call ‘theory of mind,’ the ability to imagine what another must be feeling or thinking, than say does my sister. It doesn’t make me more or less of a person. But it shifts how and where I engage my senses in the world.

Allow me to introduce to you my dear colleague and friend anthropologist Natasha Fijn, who is a research fellow at Australian National University. Like myself, she studies with Inner Asian pastoralists, although she has been doing it for much longer than myself, and primarily in Mongolia. In her 2011 Book, Living with Herds: Human-Animal Coexistence in Mongolia, she does a beautiful job of explaining how different species that find themselves on various positions of the sensory scale not only make a life together, but even undergo what she calls “multispecies enculturation.” Enculturation is the process of acquiring culture by way of learning, usually from a previous generation, and often with the help of language. But how can she speak of “multispecies enculturation” if humans alone possess culture and language?

Or do they? Fijn quotes fellow Australian anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose (1984:46) (— and I love this woman’s work!): “We are not different from other species by having a culture which they lack; we are different in that our culture, like our shape, is different from theirs.” In her multispecies ethnography, Fijn shows us how “both herder and herd animal respond and engage with one another in a multitude of subtle ways” (Fijn 2011:105). Most of Fijn’s observations revolve around specific vocalizations, including songs, voiced by herders and responded to by their stock.

Women and children sing to goats, encouraging them to release their milk. Men sing to their race horses to mentally prepare them for an impending race, and to remind the horse to pee before they head out. In either case, it is believed by Mongolian herders’ in Fijn’s study that animals’ hearts are touched by song. But not only are animals sung to, they also are spoken to in a kind of trans species pidgin, or a mix of Mongolian with animal-like sounds. Finally, these herders also make use of a whole repertoire of communicative non-vocal signs and movements.

So, when Fijn speaks of ‘interspecies enculturation,’ she actually means the inter-generational transmission of a shared culture and language. Sometimes it is spoken, other times it is merely motioned. I will conclude by quoting Fijn: “From birth, both herder and herd animal learn to convey and to read these gestures. Sometimes the intentions may be misinterpreted and result in threatening or defensive responses, but in most circumstances a mutual understanding exists in which both comply with one another’s expectations. As young persons, both herder and herd animal become enculturated into herd society by means of interspecies communication, in the form of verbal and bodily signals” (2011:118-119).

You can find Fijn exquisite book at:

By alexoehler

I am an environmental anthropologist at the University of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.