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Weekly Edition 034: Saturday 20th October 2001

<< Island Ecology by José P Ribas

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An Anthropological View
by Kirk W Huffman

"Ric com un Verga"
Of Pigs and Men on Eivissa/Ibiza - Part Four

Last week we had reached the stage where all preparations had been made for the matanša (pig killing) and a day of hard work was ahead for the extended pagŔs eivissenc (Ibicenco peasant) family and other invited guests. For readers new to this website we are at the moment dealing with the importance of the pig in traditional Ibicenco culture and looking at the (still continuing) annual pig killings (matanšes in the eivissenc increasingly rare sub-dialect of the eastern Catalan language spoken on the island). If you have missed the previous articles about pigs here on Eivissa/Ibiza I would kindly suggest that you look at this column in the three previous issues of this weekly paper. Before we get into the matanša proper, though, I think we should have a brief look at pigs in general.

'Half wild and wholly tame'. Pigs have, it seems, certainly received a 'bad press' in many parts of the world over an extended period of time. The word is often synonymous with 'dirty', 'greedy', 'lazy', 'gluttonous' and more in that vein. Judaism and Islam have strong religious prohibitions against pigs. 'Pig' even became an insulting term for certain kinds of police in the US from the late 1960s. But, as human history goes, such a lowly position for the pig is relatively recent and human attitudes to pigs are really culturally (e.g., religiously) determined and therefore vary greatly around the world. In Melanesia (the area comprising West Papua/Irian Jaya, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu *) in the South-western Pacific, an area containing over a quarter of the world's languages and cultures, pigs are of great cultural importance, not just for food but for ancient and present-day ritual. The peak of this 'pig cultural complex' is reached in the Republic of Vanuatu; an archipelago of 83 inhabited islands possessing twice as many different indigenous languages and cultures as the whole of Europe. In Vanuatu pigs are the sacred animals and no important event can take place without the involvement of pigs in some way or another. There, depending upon the culture, pigs can have a language (which a few humans are trained to speak), a personality and often a soul. In fact aspects of ritual pig manipulation there are so essential that in some cultures in Vanuatu humans cannot attain life after death in The World of the Dead without it. At one level of analysis, in certain cultures in Vanuatu, being called a 'pig' can almost be considered a form of compliment (well, that of course depends upon the type of pig one is called: not all pigs are equal and, as amongst humans, there are individuals of high and low status, so it is amongst pigs). Certain types of pigs there are a form of sacred currency, their use oiling the links of the chains connecting the past, the present and the future. A world without pigs there would be considered impossible. When I began my anthropological work there in 1973 (Vanuatu was called the New Hebrides in those days) one of the first questions I was often asked in isolated traditional areas of the country was 'What island are you from and how many pigs do you have?' In England one might politely ask (after the proper introductions, of course) 'Where are you from and what is your job?' - it is very much the same.

In ancient times 'pagans praised the pig from Iceland to Israel and to the Indus'. The pig was very much part of the ancient cultural system in many areas of the world, even in the Middle East before the development of Judaism and (later) Islam. A common cultural phenomena around the world, when a new religion develops or penetrates new areas, is to denigrate or proscribe/prohibit important aspects of the previous culture/religion. Sometimes this has local variants: pigs are considered relatively 'OK' by Christian cultures, but not so by many white Christian missionaries in Vanuatu, who have tried, relatively unsuccessfully over the last 150 years, to persuade the indigenous inhabitants that pigs are dirty animals and are 'creatures of the Devil'. Certain Ni-Vanuatu (indigenous inhabitants of the country) subjected to these ideas are sometimes therefore rather surprised if they find out that 'White Men' overseas often have pigs. Some missionaries there have (in the last decade) found themselves in a rather awkward predicament when, after delivering a long harangue against pigs in some remote corner of Vanuatu, the chief politely shows them a photo of the famous statue of Sant Antoni des Porcs (Saint Anthony of the Pigs) in the church of Santa AgnŔs in north-western Eivissa. 'Why can the White Man be against pigs when they even have a special Saint to protect Pigs?' I have carefully distributed copies of photos of this statue around Vanuatu since 1992. 

In certain ancient Irish and Welsh myths the pig was almost considered as a god. The famous scholar Sir James Frazer linked the pig in parts of Ancient Europe to the sacred corn/barley spirit. He theorized that the ancient Greeks mythologies the pig into the god-figures of Demeter, Adonis and Attis and pointed out that for the ancient Egyptians the pig was associated with Osiris. The cult of the pig - or, more rather, the boar - in northern Europe possibly reached its height during the time of the ancient Celts, by whom it was considered the cult animal par excellence, at least in Celtic Britain. The rise of Christianity in northern Europe erased its cultic/religious/spiritual role and is probably responsible for the slightly negative view of the pig held today by many European Christian cultures. I am not yet sure of the early cultural position of pigs in certain areas of southern Europe and the Iberian Peninsula but it is possibly safe to assume that pigs were of cultural importance amongst early populations of this part of the world as well. Many European archaeologists today might find pig bones in early excavations but not necessarily recognise their real importance - there is sometimes a sort of unconscious assumption that this just indicates that pigs were a part of the traditional diet. Maybe yes, but it depends upon the culture. In the mid-1980s I was pleased to introduce the Swedish megalithic specialist and archaeologist, Dr Goran Burenhult, to certain aspects of living megalithic cultures in Vanuatu. He, of course, noted the importance of pigs (especially pigs with specially elongated tusks) in many of the rituals there. Upon returning to Europe he began re-analysing many of the archaeological remains from certain early cultures in northern Europe and noted that many of the early human burials contained pigs tusks, a fact that had been rather over-looked or minimised beforehand.

Pigs are of the family of the Suidae, belonging to the mammalian order Artiodactyla, the even-toed ungulates, and of the lineage of the Suiformes, whose other two families are the Hippopotamidae (hippos) and Dicotylidae (peccaries). Traditional European pigs were descended from the European Wild Boar, Sus scrofa. These creatures can withstand an amazing array of temperatures and climates ranging from minus 50 degrees centigrade (aided by their huddling and nestling behaviour) up to plus 50 degrees centigrade. The main northern limit to their area was not necessarily temperature but snow depth, Wild Boars finding it extremely tiring to travel through snow more than 40-50 cm in depth. Their main enemy was/is wolves  - and one needs to be able to move fast during a wolf pack attack! Wild boar of the Sus scrofa type may have been in Europe since the beginning of Middle Pleistocene times, approximately 700,000 years ago, replacing an earlier type of prehistoric pig (Sus verrucosus). Early pigs in the western Mediterranean, its islands (e.g. Corsica, Sardinia) and parts of Portugal and southern Spain (excluding Barcelona) were of the type Sus scrofa meridionalis, which may have been a dwarfed insular form of the northern Sus scrofa. Humans over history have interacted with these forms of Boar and over millennia developed the numerous special breeds of domesticated pigs that thronged Europe until approximately only a century ago. It may be a bit of a shock - to maybe the one reader of this column who is actually interested in pigs - to note that almost none of the pigs in Europe today are pure-blooded descendants of these original breeds. From the latter half of the 19th century onwards the traditional domestic European pig population was changed completely with the introduction from Asia of the Sus indices and highly modified pig breeds especially from China. The 'China Pig' (often called the 'China White'), so familiar to us today - large, fat and white - is now considered, in its many forms, to be the 'normal' pig. Well, it is not, at least not in Europe - it is a new interloper that was rapidly crossbred with existing traditional breeds in Europe from about the 1850s onwards, producing the pigs we know in Europe today and extinguishing other pig types that did not crossbreed. By 1900 almost all the major pure early European pig breeds had disappeared. This process of  `breeding out' (? Or 'breeding in') did not really begin, though, on Eivissa/Ibiza until around the 1950s, but since then the stocks of traditional porc eivissenc (Ibicencan pig) have almost completely disappeared.

But who mourns the passing of the real European pig? Almost no one except a few elderly Ibicencan peasants who well remembers this island's form of them. Certain areas - e.g. Mallorca - have fought a successful struggle to re-breed or re-introduce their traditional pig types, but such examples are few and far between. Famous British pig breeds such as the Essex, the British Lop, the Berkshire, the Middle White, the Gloucester and the Tamworth are not really ancient traditional breeds at all but are the mixed-blood descendants of possibly older pig types with relatively recent doses of the 'China White' or its variants. One can sometimes, however, find almost pure-blooded descendants of some early European pig breeds in certain isolated former 'outposts of empire' overseas. I came across examples of early southern Spanish pigs amongst an isolated community of Indians in northern Colombia in 1992 - obviously offspring of pigs brought to the New World ages ago by the Conquistadors. A nearby northern Colombian 'colon' community had examples of a rare pygmy 'bulldog-faced' type of pig. It should be noted that pigs were non-existent in the Americas before the arrival of the White Man. There is a similar example from another animal species, the cat. The famous tailless Manx cat from the Isle of Man is not really from there at all. It was originally a rare accidental form of cat from one area of Spain but arrived on the Isle of Man after a Spanish Armada ship possessing a small collection of them was wrecked off the island. The type has since died out in Spain.

Physiologically, pigs are very similar to man and we share many of the same genes. George Orwell's famous last sentence from 'Animal Farm' almost sums it up: "The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again, but already it was impossible to say which was which". Personality-wise, pigs are intelligent and fascinating animals, with many human attributes. A group of Australian scientists in Canberra announced in 1994 the results of a 15-year study into aspects of pig personality. They found pigs to be intelligent sensitive creatures who are easily susceptible to stress. This explains the famous incident of around 1997 when a plane carrying a large cargo of live pigs had to cut short its trip temporarily after going through some rough weather. The turbulence unfortunately unnerved the lively cargo so much that their resulting massive flatulence made it impossible for the pilots and crew to continue flying. Inhabitants of certain areas of northern Vanuatu in the Southwest Pacific would not be surprised at 'European' scientists telling them how similar pigs are to men: according to the traditional belief system in parts of the Banks group of islands in that area the creator god, Qat, created men and pigs at the same time. Pigs walked upright on their hind legs and spoke. Eventually men felt that the pigs were overlording things a bit and asked Qat to reduce their status; Qat complied by making pigs walk on all four legs but their other attributes remained the same. Pig extracts have been used in diabetes treatment for decades. In 1992 the UK-based Cambridge Company Imutran produced the first 'transgenic' pig, a pig implanted at the embryo stage with a human gene. It is hoped that eventually descendants of this type of 'transgenic' pig will be useful for transplanting pig organs (e.g. heart, liver) into humans without the fear of transplant rejection. Such 'xenotransplantation', it is hoped, will be successful as the system could trick the human body into seeing pig cells as human and therefore not rejecting them. Of course there are certain ethical and religious problems here, but I am just trying to point out how important pigs are and how close we really are to them.

This has come a bit of a long way from matanšes eivissencs, Ibicenco pig killing, and I think Gary Hardy is putting some more of his matanša photos in this issue. I thought I would try and give readers a bit of a world-wide historical and cultural look at pigs at this time so that you can more fully appreciate Eivissa/Ibiza's traditional approach to pigs without looking at it in a vacuum or through purely English bacon/ham consumers eyes. Ibicenco pig killing is part of an ancient cultural complex that cannot be fully understood without other cultural or historical references. So look at the photos carefully. It is not just pig killing. We will return in more depth to this stage of the matanšes in next weekĺs issue

* Melanesia also includes the islands of Kanaky (New Caledonia), but ancient pigs never arrived here.








All pictures © Gary Hardy (January 1991)

Kirk W Huffman

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