This book is an extraordinary ethnographic account about the ‘civilisation of the horse’ with a focus on the Turkic and Mongol world of Central Asia and Siberia. With over fifteen years of experiences and research, Carole Ferret has realised an outstanding piece of scientific comparative work. Moving in time and space the book guides the reader through the various chapters that are well portioned. The material is based on a profound archival research as well as on careful and detailed observations and interviews. The discussion is situated within anthropological discourses at various places without having one theoretical thesis forced upon the numerous nuances of practices and experiences. This and the author’s wonderful writing skills make the lecture very pleasant and enriching and, as J.-P. Digard mentions in the preface, an ethnographic piece of writing of deepness and precision with no equivalence. At the end of the book the reader finds a glossary of the terms, well marked in the text, with their various ways of denotation in numerous Central Asian and Siberian languages. Another glossary helps to identify the different populations and ethnic groups that inhabit the vast area.
The aim of the book is to analyse the uncountable benefices that humans have taken from the horse. Mastering not only the local termini, the author has also made use of various French terms so not to loose the various nuances. Whereas the term équestre (equestrian) is reserved for various ways of horse riding, the term hippique (equestrian, horse) is used for games and competitions while chevalin (equine, horsy) refers to the corporal products and équin (equine) to the animal and the breeding practices (p.16). Against the backdrop of these functional differentiations, C. Ferret has organised the book chapters: The horse is old like a mammoth, tastes good like a pig, is woolly like a sheep, and the vessel of the taiga. The author moves smoothly in between time and space which demands great attention from the reader, however, hereby successfully cross-cutting and relating the historical periods which had been so nicely separated in Russian ethnography.
Chapter 1 starts with some basic statistics and a critical view of the so called Yakut horse which was declared a separate race only on September 2, 1987 (p.64). The horses’ amazing resistance to Siberian cold and maximal independence while minimally cared for by their owners, made the Yakut horse a unique adaptation to environment (p.55). Wherever the horse is mentioned it is linked to the people’s fate and the Yakuts’ arrival to the Siberian plains. C. Ferret argues that the invention of the Yakut horse is just a continuation of Soviet ethnographic practices of ethno-genesis. In other words, the ‘race’ discussions around the Yakut horse became an ideological tool in line with human race theory of Soviet science. Hence, animals relate to the people and help justifying their place in time and space. No wonder then that the Yakut horse eventually was declared the ancestor of all horses. In fact, the Yakut horse existed as separate race before the ethnic group of Yakut became officially recognised as such. The peak of the effort to create the optimal Soviet horse out of the existing ‘races’ led to an equus sovieticus (p.69) which was the new Kyrgyz horse. C. Ferret’s theoretical analysis which links Soviet scientific theory and practice to ethnographic observations makes the book a scholarly exemplary study which can help future students on how to relate the ethnographic present to Soviet scientific past.
Chapter 2 explores the corporal products of the horse. As we learn throughout the book, horse and humans interrelate in all aspects thus also in consumption. The specific values accorded to the different parts of the body of the horse reveal the status of the consumer, the religious and cultural context and thus the relation between the one offering and the receiver. In order to differentiate the various ways of equine exploitation the author identifies basic uses: the horse as a product, the horse as a means and the horse as sign. The latter has then to be differentiated in signs, indices, icons and signals which give information about the relation of the representation and the represented (p.76-7). The economic use of the Yakut horse in terms of input-output exceeds his use of energy and products. To understand these numerous exploitations more clearly a table of the various utilisations of animals is presented on pp. 79-80. Relating the economic analysis to the symbolic importance of the horse in various Central Asian and Siberian republics the author has demonstrated the discrepancies between economic and symbolic exploitation. Whereas the Kyrgyz have a comparatively large amount of horses, only 25% are exploited, whereas 90% of Yakut horses are productive horses (for milk or meat). This and many other examples throughout the book link the Yakut example to other populations’ use of the horse such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Mongolia, and Buryatia to name the main ones. The characteristic of the Yakut horse breeding lies in the selection practices according to which most young horses are killed before the winter. Thus the mares produce about 100 kg of meat per year without much feeding, for Yakut horses remain out in the taiga throughout the year. For the Yakut people the products (meat and milk) are more important than its energy (agricultural work, pack animal, military use, travel, post horses etc.). In fact, the closest relation between a Yakut and his horses takes place in their plate. As well in everyday consumption as in ritual use horse meat is central. This is reflected in various terms not only differentiating horses by age, sex, colour, character etc., but also each part of its body and the products obtained from them. Only three parts are taboo: the brain, the spinal cord, and the aorta ― all three relate to the culturally defined centres of life (p.90). Comparing the horse with the pig in Europe, the author writes ‘dans le cochon, tout est bon’ whereas for the Yakuts ‘dans le cheval, tout est un régal’ (p.102). Eventually meat is accorded medical attributes within a hot/cold classification system in Central Asia. According to Carole Ferret it is under Soviet influence that the horse transformed from a means of transport to purely consumption good. Thus the relation between the horse and other animals such as cattle or pig changed in favour of the more economic rentable kinds of animal; this, however, did not affect the horse’ symbolic value.
Chapter 3 looks at the horse as a provider of various products beyond meat and milk. This chapter reflects the material culture of the societies under research based on archives and museums as well as observation during the last two decades. Not only did the author describe, draw, present and compare the different objects, she also looked at their production and their use over time and space. She concludes that, in fact, everything, even the bones, can be used if not for consumption or for objects so for magic or medical treatments. Chapter 4 engages with a popular view of the horse as the vessel of the step and the taiga. However the book does not feed cliché pictures of nomadic warriors and instead integrates various practices within a civilisation of the horse. In Central Asia and Siberia, the population movements used to take place through the horse, more often on horseback than in horse pulling vehicles, yet also as pack animal. The Yakuts used their horses for long distance transport via otherwise impenetrable terrain, a practice that was disliked by the Soviet who lacked control over such practices. The section on equestrian uses of the horse is given great care comparing numerous saddle forms to riding practices today and in previous centuries as far back as the Scythians. Riding is part of socialisation processes in those societies and thus the formation of group specific identities. Here also, the female/male antagonism comes up as an opposition between cattle and horse, the north and the south, a subject that is picked up more deeply in the last chapter. Central to the civilisation of the horse are games on horseback which accompany various celebrations (marriage, funerals, New Year etc.). These games encourage heroic songs and stories that glorify horse and rider as national heroes. Famous in earlier centuries in Central Asia was the use of the horse within the post system. The vast territory of the steppe was cut into regular intervals (by relay stations) measured along horse capacity to manage the distances. One day track on horse back equals two relay stations, an abstract distance measurement existing in these nomadic societies.
Chapter 5 relates the horse to the cattle and demonstrates that the economic use may be opposed to the symbolic one. Whereas today the cattle by far exceed the number of horses in the republic of Sakha (Yakutia), the horse has remained the signifier of wealth. Getting a herd of some mares and a stallion is an aim in itself and increases the owner’s status independent of any other source of wealth. In previous times the monetary system was based on the value of horses which related cattle to horse in a 10:1 relation. This value system was and to a certain degree still is important in exchange and compensation payments in marriages (p. 258-9) and in criminal cases. As a classic anthropological subject C. Ferret links Yakut practices of exchange to anthropological theory. The effects of collectivisation and privatization during the Soviet period had tremendous effects on animal breeding including the horse population in Central Asia as well as in Siberia. The horse as a collective good in Yakut culture thus became even more distant from the people who were not allowed to possess even one private horse (compared to cattle, sheep, pigs, etc.). However, ritually the cult through the horse has remained vivid. ‘Through’ and not ‘of’ because it is not the horse which is glorified but its link to humans makes him central to any ritual sacrifice, whether as substituted to humans (i.e., as vehicle) or for consumption during festivities. According to C. Ferret, it is the way to kill the animal that determines its future role as provider of meat or companion of his master or god. Another sacrifice is the ‘sacrifice passif’ which is an interesting exception in the study on sacrifice. In this case, the animal is not killed but excluded from exploitation for a certain period or for ever. The horse also provides symbolic value to Yakut culture. However, humans’ and horses’ representations are avoided out of fear that their spirit could become malicious. Still the author has presents numerous cases in which horse representations have been used; the most popular today is certainly the national emblem for many of these republics. The representation says nothing about its economic relevance rather this ideological convergence and the total of equine traditions makes what she has called the civilisation of the horse (p.298).
The conclusion provides a last comparative approach. The author states that compared to the other Central Asian uses of the horse, Yakut are the least equestrian but the most chevalins. The rich ethnographic description and the great care with which the subject has been dealt make the book a thick ethnography in the sense of Clifford Geertz not only as a contemporary observation, but also a reflection across time and space. The author’s numerous engagements with ethnographic theory have made the book a great contribution to anthropological studies.