Accepted Paper:

An anthropological study of vegetarianism: Why there is no vegetarianism in preliterate cultures  


Hushang Philsooph (University of Aberdeen)

Paper short abstract:

This paper attempts to show that preliterate cultures, namely bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and so-called “primitive” states, do not and cannot have vegetarianism. It also tries to show in what type of cultures vegetarianism, which has bearings on gender and changes in modernity, came into being.

Paper long abstract:

Anthropologists have paid no attention to vegetarianism in preliterate cultures, despite their interest in ecological issues and in different culture-bound attitudes towards plants and animals. The reason for the lack of attention seems to be that in these cultures anthropologists have found no vegetarianism to study. My research indicates that, on the whole, there is indeed no vegetarianism in societies at the level of bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and so-called "primitive" states. This cannot, however, be the end of the matter, as the absence of vegetarianism is a puzzle, given, for instance, the fact that in these societies people have very close relations with plants and animals, and an strikingly empathetic and humanizing attitude towards them. The present paper examines the puzzle in the light of a number of factors, such as speciesism and preliterate religious beliefs. It will be argued that vegetarianism cannot develop in these cultures. Apart from comparative data, I rely on my two-year fieldwork in New Guinea.

The paper also tries to show when and why and in what type of societies vegetarianism came into being. In modernity the context and meaning of vegetarianism tend to change. It is not, for instance, intrinsically related to asceticism and other-worldliness any longer. The study of vegetarianism has unconsidered bearings not only on beliefs and values in relation to plants, animals and nature, but also on issues such as sexuality and gender. And it provides us with significant clues to people's basic orientation and worldview in different cultures.

Panel P21
Discussing speciesism: the moral failings that mark human relationships to non-human animals