Being raised in Spain meant that, from an early age, I was exposed to the many and wonderful pork products out there. Upon growing up, however, I soon realised I knew very little about the pigs from which this tasty pork came from, and how we and them had come to be so close. I resolved to do something about this and began to find out more about pigs and pork. In fact I learnt so much that this journey of surprising archaeological, zoological, medical, gastronomic and many other discoveries led me to reconsider my own relationship with pork and, ultimately, with pigs; chorizo would soon be off my menu.
Archaeology tells us that humans have been using pigs for food for a long, long time. Excavations at the site of Medzhibozh 1 in western Ukraine, for example, showed that the hunting of wild boar, from which the modern pig descends, was already taking place around 500,000 years ago. This Ukrainian food trend was not, however, an isolated phenomenon. Wild boar bones and teeth recovered at sites such as Terra Amata and Orgnac 3 in south-eastern France and dated between 400,000 and 300,000 years ago have also demonstrated that our Palaeolithic ancestors were successfully catching these creatures and enjoying their meat at other times and locations.
Judging by modern wild boar running speeds (48km/h) pursuing these animals must have entailed quite the physical workout, so I wasn’t surprised to find out that archaeological sites in Japan have yielded evidence of the traps used by the Japanese for thousands of years to catch wild boar and other elusive prey. A number of Japanese prehistoric scholars have put forward the idea that if wild boar piglets fell into the traps these young individuals were not killed initially, but were instead kept by humans until big enough to provide sufficient amounts of meat. Whether or not this represents the first type of ‘wild boar husbandry’ in Japan is a subject of much archaeological debate, but it nonetheless reflects a practice that it still widespread in rural locations of the country. There people still occasionally raise wild boar piglets they find lost in mountain areas and either fatten them up for a few months prior to slaughtering them or, in some cases, end up adopting them as their family pets.
Pig pets, as you’re probably aware, are not just a Japanese occurrence. Back in the 1980s several micro Vietnamese Pot-bellied breed individuals were acquired by US zoos given their petite and therefore peculiar appearance. These new zoo residents became popular attractions almost instantly and it wasn’t long before US breeders began experimenting with different local breeds with the aim of producing small, cute piggies that could then be sold as pets to Americans fascinated with these small animals. The fact that celebrities like George Clooney and Paris Hilton thought it was trendy to own miniature pigs as family companions very much helped the mini pet pig business to boom.
The original idea behind creating tiny breeds, however, had less to do with cuteness, fame and hotel chains, and more with biomedical research. The first mini pig was born in 1949 at the University of Minnesota. The reason behind the breeding of such a small pig had to with practicality: when it comes to experimentation small pigs are easier to handle than larger ones and, not only that, they reach sexual maturity earlier so less time is ‘wasted’ waiting for the animals to grow up. Given the success of the Minnesota mini pig several other types of micro swine have been bred over the past 70 years, including the Chinese experimental miniature pig, which was obtained from a small breed in southwestern China, and the Göttingen, developed in this German city’s university by crossing the Minnesota with the Vietnamese Pot-bellied pig and the German Landrace. This latter breed is particularly pale-skinned/pink, and was introduced to the mix to provide the Göttingen mini breed with unpigmented skin, a useful trait to have for human skin-cancer trials. Do not, however, be fooled by these pigs’ ‘mini’ label. It turns out there is nothing particularly small about most of these creatures: they reach their maximum weight, around 35kg, by their second birthday, a figure not to be sneezed at given that a (non-obese) adult Labrador dog weighs around the same. Not quite the cute teacup piggy most people have in mind when visiting a pet shop (though still nothing on the prehistoric Daeodon shoshonensis).
...and pigs might fly
Research over the past few decades has shown that large or small, pet pigs, and other non-trained companion animals, can significantly improve the mental wellbeing of humans. Studies on these so-called ‘emotional support animals’ (ESAs) have highlighted that pigs and other ESAs can provide therapeutic benefits to their ‘owners’ simply through their companionship and affection (yes, pigs are very affectionate creatures!). Such is the psychological benefit provided by these partnerships that in 2013 the US Department of Transportation updated its Policy Guidance Concerning Service Animals in Air Transportation to include the statement that ‘animals that assist persons with disabilities by providing emotional support’ now qualify as service animals and are therefore welcome on aeroplanes. All is requires is a letter from a mental health profession in which the role fulfilled by the ESA is clearly explained. Pigs, it turns out, really can fly.
Finding out about these and many other aspects of the pig world, and how we humans consume, use and, let´s not kid ourselves, abuse these and other animals, was a real eye-opener. Not only could I now see I knew close to nothing about these fascinating and highly-intelligent mammals when I first started researching Pig/Pork, but this newly-acquired knowledge also made me realise how uninformed I was/am about the world I live in, the pork and other products I consume and the many aspects of our human history, involving pigs on many occasions, that have shaped us into who we are today.
Wild boar and pigs (and pork) have played a tremendous role in our development and survival as a species, but at what cost to them? Factory farmed, dwarfed and experimented on, even blown up in wars and military training exercises, it seems unnecessary to cause this much suffering to cure us of our ailments or to provide our bodies with the calories they require to survive when non-animal alternatives are available. Arthur Schopenhauer, the German philosopher, wrote in his The Basis of Morality (1841) “The assumption that animals are without rights and the illusion that our treatment of them has no moral significance is a positively outrageous example of crudity and barbarity. Universal compassion is the only guarantee of morality.” I think he had a point. My chorizo days are now over and all I can say is love pigs, not pork.
Pig/Pork: Archaeology, Zoology and Edibility by Pía Spry-Marqués is out now (£16.99, Bloomsbury)