Current anthropological approaches to animals have noted that the contemporary Western categories of human and animal are historically particular ones, and that different ontologies can and do organize the categorical and practical relationships between beings in a variety of ways. The ritual use of dogs in ancient China illustrates this point well. At Anyang (ca. 1250–1050 BCE) dogs played a number of roles in the significant doings of both kings and commoners and occupied a unique position in the Shang web of being – patterning with humans in some practices and with other domestic animals in others. The surprising discovery that Anyang mortuary ritual dogs outnumber those found in other contexts and that they are almost exclusively juvenile individuals argues for both the development of the Shang ritual economy and at the same time its basis on more than just an equation of economic expenditure with status. Finally, an epigraphic and zooarchaeological contextualization of dog sacrifice reveals that the Chinese archaeological practice of equating sacrificial deposits with whole interments reveals only the tip of the iceberg and full understanding of animal sacrifice in the Shang and other early complex societies must consider the full range of zooarchaeological deposits and cultural practices involving animals.The authors argue
According to current evidence, dogs were the earliest domesticated animal in the world, indeed, based on genetic analyses (Savolainen et al., 2002) dogs (Canis familiaris) were domesticated from the wolf (Canis lupus) prior to the Holocene, with recent work claiming this process occurred around 15,000 BP (Larson et al., 2012; Frantz et al., 2016) or even earlier (Germonpre et al., 2009). They were also likely the first domesticates to appear in China - the earliest known remains coming from the Nanzhuangtou (Yuan and Flad, 2005. The earliest evidence of the ritual use of dogs, with 11 dog burials, comes from the site of Jiahu dating to between 9000 and 7800 BP (Henan, 1999, Zhang and Cui, 2013).
This paper will trace the development of the ritualized use of dogs across the major centers of the Central Plains Bronze Age in the period from 1800 to 1050 BCE. We will separately examine trends in mortuary contexts and in sacrificial pits. These trends in the use of dogs will be compared with wider trends in ancient Chinese ritualized animals practices. For Anyang we will incorporate zooarchaeological and inscriptional analyses to enrich our understanding of Shang animal sacrifice and the place of dogs within it. We examine the age and survivorship of the dogs to understand wider dog raising strategies, and within those, the place of ritual dogs. From the oracle-bone inscriptions we will derive additional context concerning the roles of Shang dogs in society and in ritual. Putting all of these lines of evidence together, we will offer critiques of on how animal sacrifice has been studied in China and offer some suggestions for the future.
... From this discussion of the uses of dogs in Shang China (ritualized or not), a number of points arise. Firstly, the understanding of sacrifice in Chinese archaeology of 2nd and 3rd millennium BCE derives from animal interment in pits interpreted through the unexamined projection of Anyang and later models. When sacrifice is recast less tendentiously as ritualized destruction (Bell, 2007; Campbell, 2012) the issue of the context and meaning of the ritualized phenomenon comes more clearly to the fore. Were the dogs and pigs in pits at Erlitou sacrificed to feed the ancestors, or was there some other purpose? Did they even have an ancestral cult at Erlitou (Liu and Hong, 2007)? Why pits? If we don't know any of these things (and we don't), then what is the significance of a ritualized deposit without other archaeological contextualizing data and a more systematic, integrated approach to ancient doings (Fowles, 2013)? Moreover, the case of dogs shows us that, at least at Anyang, the interment of canids in pits seems to have a number of purposes, including guards, companions, or offerings, and was directed toward a variety of recipients – spirits of the earth, sky, the four directions, or the dead. While it is true that not every time and place is endowed with equally rich contextualizing evidence, when sacrifice is used as a “black box”, it becomes counter-productive – giving researchers a false sense of content for something that is completely underspecified – leading away from, rather than to, understanding (Bell, 2007, Campbell, 2012).
Thus, if the story of animal sacrifice in Chinese archaeology is largely one of things in pits, an issue even more problematic than the under-specification of “sacrifice” is the fact that whole interment of animals in the ground is unlikely to be representative of the ritualized use of animals in ancient China. From the example of Anyang we can see that there were a great range of ritualized destruction phenomena, most of which would not have resulted in the deposition of a whole or even dismembered animal in a pit. Looking at the example of dogs is especially instructive – on the one hand, seeming to pattern ambivalently between humans and livestock in terms of ritual roles (guards, death attendants, ritually expended lives vs. food for the dead), and, on the other, the contrasting age profiles of the mortuary and midden dogs at Xiaomintun makes clear the need for a holistic understanding of ritual and zooarchaeological phenomena. If whole animals in pits were likely related to ritualized activities at Anyang, the opposite is not necessarily true. If the Central Plains Bronze Age is characterized by bronze vessels for food and drink, and feasting events and the division of sacrificial meat are well-established phenomena of at least later Zhou practice, then it cannot be assumed that animal remains in middens (especially large domesticates) were not related to sacrificial activities – only that their deposition was not ritualized. Thus, if ritual needs a total socio-cultural context, so does animal use – from birth to exchange to consumption and final deposition. Indeed, previous work at Anyang has already suggested that large and most medium mammals were not raised locally (Li et al., 2014), and that there were specialized butchery and generalized post-butchery distribution mechanisms at the capital (Campbell et al. 2011). Again, the use of dogs is instructive here – not only do the royal inscriptions reveal that large numbers of dogs could be obtained on short notice, the preferential use of puppies in tombs minimally indicates the dog economy was multi-faceted and perhaps partially specialized. In general terms, the Anyang animal/meat economy was large and complex and the ritualized use of animals cannot be understood apart from it. If this was true of Anyang, it was also likely true of earlier centers, though the nature of their animal economies (ritualized or not) remains even murkier.
This leads to another question raised decades ago by Tim Ingold (1994) – “what is an animal”? This is an ontological question that has to do as much with humans as animals and the fuzzy line between. To this we could add divine beings and the dead, for Shang animality was located along a fluid spectrum from the lowliest and least animate to the most potent and exulted beings (Campbell, 2014c, Campbell, 2018). The case of Shang dogs provides an especially instructive example of this fluidity of being. As noted above, dogs could both serve as pseudo-humans (in death, and perhaps in life) – guards, companions, hunters, and ritually expended lives - as well as food (for the living and the dead). In fact, the only animal with greater range at Shang Anyang was Homo sapiens – from deified royal ancestors to sacrificial livestock (Campbell, 2014c, Campbell, 2018).
Nevertheless, if dogs were so good to think (and do) with at Anyang, it is not clear that this was the case at earlier Central Plains sites. Erlitou seems to have had a qualitatively different ritual regime, while Zhengzhou and Yanshi have relatively limited contextualizing evidence. Nevertheless, there is evidence of qualitative diachronic change in the nature of at least the mortuary uses of dogs as what seems to begin as an elite mortuary feature at Zhengzhou becomes a widespread aspect of non-elite Anyang burials, and is negatively correlated with tomb size.
If, as we have been suggesting, the ritualized use of dogs was an ancient east coast tradition that became part of metropolitan Central Plains practices only with the expansion of the latter into the former, a future avenue of research should be focused on a holistic understanding of ritualized animal use in non-Central Plains societies. Indeed, the nature and role of regional traditions in the formation of the syncretic metropolitan cultures that we identify as the Chinese tradition is woefully understudied. In fact, the entire Central Plains Bronze Age ritual animal package can be unpacked and historicized, nuancing the current story of increasing focus on prestige animals concurrent with increasing socio-political complexity (Yuan and Flad, 2005). While the sequential centers of the Chinese Bronze Age do not really have comparable data sets, what we can see suggests that Erlitou, Zhengzhou and Anyang have qualitatively different ritual regimes, as if each mega-center was its own vortex and crucible of cultural transformation, pulling in regional traditions and creating new syntheses that lasted for a couple centuries before becoming only part of the next metropolitan order. Thus, the ritual interment of pigs lasted from the Central Plains Neolithic through the Bronze Age, but dogs were only added into the repertoire at Zhengzhou then intensified at Anyang. Moreover, if dog ritual came from the east, the ritualized use of cattle – appearing in numbers only in the Xiaoshuangqiao-Huanbei period (ca. 1400–1250 BCE) – most likely was a northwestern tradition (Cao, 2014), and horse burials – first seen in the Central Plains in the Anyang period – were clearly of exogenous, northern (ultimately Eurasian Steppe) origin.
The startling discovery of the mortuary dog ages at Xiaomintun, Anyang not only overthrows the commonplace (but largely unstated) assumption in the Chinese archaeological literature that mortuary dogs were animals that had loyally served their masters in life, but links ritualized animal use to the larger phenomenon of miniaturization (He, 2006, Jiang, 2012), reduction and replacement in Chinese mortuary practice from the Anyang period down to contemporary Chinese funerary offerings of ghost money. Just as dogs were not just “any animal” among sacrificial offerings, so too they were not just “any thing” among grave goods – the puppies took part in the general ontology of Shang tombs among miniaturized ceramics, fake bronzes and unfinished jades, yet their meaning and function was related to their being “dogs”. Put another way, Shang sacrificial dogs and mortuary puppies, within their wider contexts, reveal the extent to which Anyang ritualized practices do not break along our logical lines of “animal”, “sacrifice” and “grave good”, but enrichen the anthropology of ritual with unsuspected complexities.