Marcy Norton of the School of Arts & Sciences uses history as a tool to understand what’s happening in the present. Her new book “The Tame and the Wild, People and Animals After 1492” does just that by looking at how European and Native American relationships with nonhuman animals differed and became entangled in the Atlantic World.
Animals played a huge role in colonization, from the horses who served in military campaigns and the dogs deployed as instruments of terror, to the livestock animals who made possible the agropastoral economy that facilitated the dispossession of Native people’s labor, land, and even lives.
Yet despite this colonial violence, Indigenous communities maintained their traditional ways of interacting with nonhuman animals, says Norton, associate professor of history. In the Caribbean, lowland South America, and Mexico, Indigenous people not only hunted wild animals for food but also selected some to raise as companion species. Parrots and monkeys were commonly chosen to be tamed (also known as familiarization), but almost any kind of animal was eligible.
The book explains how these differences in approaching animals transformed societies on both sides of the Atlantic, even paving the way for zoological science and the modern pet.
Penn Today spoke with Norton about how she landed on the topic, memorable anecdotes from her research, and what lessons we can draw from the past about the current state of animals in the world.