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Beltane 2008

Information: Our Friend, the Pig

by Chris Gunn

Pigs play a prominent role in the lives of people in all parts of the world. Pigs are many things to many people—food, pets, wealth, gods. The pig, as a domesticated species, would certainly not be here today without human intervention. At the same time, it is also fair to say that many aspects of human cultures likewise are dependent on pigs.

The road from wild boar to pig is a long one, filled with many interesting (bacon) bits of biological facts. Pigs are members of the Artiodactyla order of mammals. This order has three main branches: Ruminantia, Tylopoda, and Suina. Ruminants (cud-chewers) include many major land mammals, including deer, antelopes, giraffes, cattle, sheep, and goats. Camels, llamas, and alpacas are all tylopods, named for the pads on their feet. From the perspective of fiber arts, then, pigs are the tastier, less-furry cousins of several major hair-producing species. In addition to pigs, the order Suina includes peccaries or javelinas, which are native to the Greater Southwest, Central America and South America. The order also includes hippos. Genetic evidence suggests that some of the ancestors of hippos apparently went back to living in oceans, becoming whales and dolphins. From a biological standpoint, the pig is in very good company.

Suidae, the biological family to which pigs belong, evolved first in Eurasia between 34-23 million years ago, and spread to Europe between 23-7 million years ago. Suids (that's right—"sooo EEEEEE") include all the species of wild boars and warthogs in Europe, Africa, and Asia. Currently, there is some debate as to where and when the pig was domesticated first, but early domesticated pigs are found in archaeological contexts from both the Near East and Far East dating to around 9,000 years ago. It appears that pigs were domesticated multiple times independently from one another, rather than a swine-herding technology spreading from a single origin. Interestingly, domesticated pigs are capable of reverting to wild pigs quite easily, and there is no clear dividing line between domesticated, feral, and wild pigs. All three can interbreed with one another, as was made infamous by Hogzilla. Killed in Alapaha, Georgia, in 2004, Hogzilla measured 8 feet long, had tusks 16-18 inches long, and was the progeny of a domestic Hampshire pig and a wild boar. So, the link between modern pigs and their wild progenitors and cousins is much stronger than their domesticated status suggests. Yet, domesticated pigs are an important part of life for many cultures around the world for many reasons.

Some of these reasons are religious, and a variety of opinions exist as to the place of the pig. Probably most familiar to people in the US is the prohibition against eating pork in Judaism and Islam. In Judaism, the prohibition is laid out in the Torah (which also forms a good portion of the Christian Old Testament), where it labels pork an "unclean" meat. Some scholars believe that this prohibition relates to the odd case presented by pigs—they are hoofed animals, but they do not chew cuds like cows, goats, and sheep. Because pigs blur the lines between what is expected of hoofed and non-hoofed animals, they were somewhat inexplicable and seen as dangerous. Other explanations offered for this food taboo are that pigs and humans are both omnivores, and thus compete for food. So, avoiding unclean pigs means less food for the livestock and more food on the table. Despite the food taboos outlined in their Bible, the majority of Christians have a more relaxed attitude towards pigs. The Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches consider Saint Anthony to be the patron, among other things, of ergotism, epilepsy, brush makers, and pigs. He is also a patron of basket weavers. Additionally, several Christian holidays associated with Jesus, such as Christmas and Easter, are marked in the United States by the consumption of ham.

Other religious traditions feature pigs as well. In the ancient world, pigs are associated with Set, Egyptian deity of the desert, storms, and chaos. They were also an appropriate sacrifice to Demeter, Greek goddess of fertility, seasons, and sacred marriage. In Asia, boar gods are a part of the Assyrian and Babylonian pantheons, and there is a Boar God, Moccus, in Gaulish belief. In China, the pig is one of the twelve animals of the zodiac. In fact, a Year of the Pig ended in February of 2008.

Perhaps one of the most elaborate uses of pigs is as valuables in moka exchange among several highland groups living in Papua New Guinea. Moka is a form of gift-giving exchange in which men compete for status as Big Men through public displays of generosity. Most highland people engage in small-scale gift exchanges, and successful Big Men are adept at giving many small moka gifts as investments with friends, family, and supporters that can then be called in all at once to amass a single huge gift that is used to shame other competing Big Men and to obligate them to return a larger gift in the future to avoid even more shame, and possibly death.

In the US, we generally associate pigs with negative traits. Dirty living conditions are referred to as pigsties, and pigs are commonly thought of as dirty animals. Also, sweating profusely is likened to sweating "like a pig." These phrases stem from an interesting misunderstanding of pig behavior. While pigs do have sweat glands, they do not function well to cool the animal. Sweating like a pig literally refers to an opposite condition. To alleviate overheating, pigs roll in mud to cool themselves and to deter parasites. Pigs are normally very clean animals.

Pigs are associated with gluttony, and English contains a variety of idioms reflecting this. Overeating is described as "pigging out," and to use too much of something is to "hog" it: Road-hog, server-hog, bandwidth-hog, etc. On related lines, "pig" is used to refer to power-hungry people. Police officers are called pigs in America, a usage that spans several countries and languages. Also, the women's liberation movement can be credited for the popularization of the phrase "male chauvinist pig" to refer to men who promoted gender inequality.

So, the next time you chomp down on your Baconator (thank you, Wendy's), give a little thought to the pig. It is an important part of human identities around the world. Despite its somewhat ambiguous position in our culture—the tasty meat between slices of iniquity and virtue—the pig is a truly great creature.



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