Spring is a perilous time for sheep. Lambs are born in the spring, and often capricious weather can spell their doom. In the spring, many one year-old lambs are slaughtered to provide meat for a feast. It is the time of the sacrifice of the lambs.
Sheep are one of the earliest domesticated animals, and they still figure largely in the economies of pastoralist cultures from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe with China currently having the most sheep of any country in the world. Images of sheep appear in ancient rock art. Their wool provided one of the first textiles for humanity. Artisanal cheese from sheep’s milk is now a highly sought-after product. And don’t forget haggis.
What do cultural anthropologists have to say about this important animal? Compared to the amount of published sources by archaeologists: not much. In my search of AnthropologyPlus and AnthroSource, using the search words “sheep” or ‘lamb,” I found fewer than 30 articles published since 1995. I then looked in Google Scholar, using the search terms “culture sheep” and “culture lamb” and found a few more sources scattered among the many non-anthropological studies.
Several sources in the following list have to do with herding practices. Another prominent theme is the importance of sheep as items of exchange and sacrifice. Others look at sheep in mythology, symbolism, and healing. The most famous individual sheep in the world, Dolly, attracted some recent attention in terms of bioscience and ethics.
Cultural anthropologists have not written much about the animals in our lives, period. So sheep are not any more neglected than are dogs, horses, pigs, and other animals wild or domesticated. Cultural anthropologists have probably written more books with the word “car” than “sheep” in the title. Perhaps these gentle, low-demand, high-yield animals deserve more of us.
The following sources are the result of a few hours’ research and, with apologies again, they are not open-source:
Abu-Rabia, Aref. 1999. Some Notes on Livestock Production among Negev Bedouin Tribes. Nomadic Peoples 3(1):22-30.
Ayantunde, Augustine A., Timothy O. Williams, Henk M. J. Udo, Salvador Fernández-Rivera, and Pierre Hiernaux. 2000. Herders’ Perceptions, Practice, and Problems of Night Grazing in the Sahel: Case Studies from Niger. Human Ecology 28(1):109-140.
Bolin, Inge. 1998. Rituals of Respect: The Secret of Survival in the High Peruvian Andes. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Maggie. 2005. Quartering Sheep at Carnival in Sud Lípez, Bolivia. In Wendy James and David Mills, eds., The Qualities of Time: Anthropological Approaches. Pp. 187-202. New York: Berg Publishers.
Brower, Barbara. 2000. Sheep Grazing in National Forest Wilderness: A New Look at an Old Fight. Mountain Research and Development 20(2):126-129.
Dám, Laszlo. 2001. Buildings of Animal Husbandry on Peasants’ Farms in Hungary. Acta Ethnographica Hungarica 46(3/4):177-227.
de Wolf, Jan J. 2001. Talking Sheep, Dancing Calabashes, Devouring Gourds: Natural Symbols of the [Uncanny] East African Folktales. Afrika Und Ubersee 84(2):257-276.
Degen, A. Allan, Roger W. Benjamin, and Jan C. Hoorweg. 2000. Bedouin Households and Sheep Production in the Negev Desert, Israel. Nomadic Peoples 4(1):125-147.
Dransari, Penny. 1998. A Short History of Rosaries in the Andes. In Lidia D. Sciama and Joanne Bubolz Eicher, eds., Beads and Bead Makers: Gender, Material Culture, and Meaning. Pp. 129-146. New York Berg.
Edwards, Jeanette. 1999. Why Dolly Matters: Kinship, Culture and Cloning. Ethnos 64(3):301-324.
Estabrook, George F. 2008. The Significance of Sheep in the Traditional Agriculture of Beira Alta, Portugal. Journal of Ethnobiology 28(1):55-68.
Fowler, Catherine S.1995. Mountain Sheep in the Sky: Orion’s Belt in Great Basin Mythology. Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology 17(2):146-152.
Franklin, Sarah. 2001. Sheepwatching. Anthropology Today 17(3):3-9.
Gray, John. 1996. Irony and Paradox in the Scottish Borderlands: Hill Sheep Farms and their Relations with the European Union and the United Kingdom. Australian Journal of Anthropology 7(3):191-217.
____.1999. Open Spaces and Dwelling Places: Being at Home on Hill Farms in the Scottish Borders. American Ethnologist 26(2):440-460.
Heatherington, Tracey. 2006. Sin, Saints, and Sheep in Sardinia. Identities 13(4):533-556.
Hodges, Matthew. 2000. The Sheep from the Goats. Anthropology Today 16(5):19-22.
Jongh, Michael de. 1995. Kinship as Resource: Strategies for Survival among the Nomads of the South African Karoo. African Anthropology 2(2):47-59.
Kalandarov, T. S., and A. A. Shoinbekov. 2008. Some Historical Aspects of Funeral Rites among People of Western Pamir. Anthropology of the Middle East 3(1):67-81.
Kanafani-Zahar, Aïda. 1997. Religious Feelings Sublimated in the Sheep Sacrifice: An Example of Coexistence between Communities in Lebanon. L’Homme 141:83-99.
Onuaguluchi, G., and S. Ghasi. 1996. Pharmacological Basis for the use of Dried Sheep Placenta in Traditional Obstetric Practice in Nigeria. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 54(1):27-36.
Parezo, Nancy J.2001. The Diné (Navajos): Sheep is Life. Paths of Life: American Indians of the Southwest and Northern Mexico:3-33.
Paxson, Heather. 2008. Poast-Pasteurian Cultures: The Micropolitics of Raw-Milk Cheese in the United States. Cultural Anthropology 23(1):15-47.
Perezgrovas, Raúl. 1996. Sheep Husbandry and Healthcare among Tzotzil Maya Shepherdesses. Ethnoveterinary Research and Development 1996:167-178.
Rischkowsky, Barbara, Marianna Siegmund-Schultze, Katrin Bednarz, and Simon Killanga. 2006. Urban Sheep Keeping in West Africa : Can Socioeconomic Household Profiles Explain Management and Productivity? Human Ecology 34(6):785-807.
Shiawoya, Emmanuel L. 2006. Sheep Fattening Enterprise as a Strategy for Poverty Reduction: A Case Study of some Key Local Government Areas (LGAs) of Niger State. Journal of Human Ecology 20(1):11-14.
Sibbald, A. M., and R. J. Hooper. 2003. Trade-Offs between Social Behaviour and Foraging by Sheep in Heterogeneous Pastures. Behavioural Processes 61(1-2):1-12.
Skar, Sarah Lund. 1995. Appropriating Pawns: Andean Dominance and the Manipulation of Things. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 1.
Stavi, Ilan, Gideon Kressel, Yitzchak Gutterman, and Allan Degen. 2006. Flock use among Bedouin in ‘Spontaneous’ Settlements in the Negev Desert, Southern Israel. Nomadic Peoples 10(1):53-69.
Strawn, Susan M., and Mary A. Littrell. 2007. Returning Navajo-Churro Sheep for Navajo Weaving. Textile: The Journal of Cloth and Culture 5(3):300-319.
Watanabe, Kazuyuki. 2008. Formation and Reformation of Grazing Camps: Flexible Relationships among the Sheep Herders of East Nepal. Bulletin of the National Museum of Ethnology (Osaka) 32(2):237-301.
Image: “Sheeps Eyes” from flickr user James @ NZ, licensed with Creative Commons.