ASA15: Symbiotic anthropologies: theoretical commensalities and methodological mutualisms
Alex Oehler, postgraduate student, University of Aberdeen
As anthropologists and ethnographers we have been examining the significance of individual
animal histories for a long time, and our discipline has been defined by multi-special hybridity from its
inception, even if we have not always used the same terms to define it. What I attempt here is to
construct an account of mutual social learning as a backdrop to competing will assertions in hybrid
communities. I am interested in the social dynamics of inter special relations, particularly in how
humans and wolves read one another, learn from observation, and anticipate each others' movements
based on growing repertoires of memory. In this regard, I am looking at existing conspecific behavioral
practices that can be applied across species. It is important to mention at this point that I am not an
ethologist, and that as an anthropologist my study of animal behavior must be understood as a study of
my human interlocutor's understandings of the same.
To take mutual reading a step further in this context, I will explore a situation in which a male
wolf is seen to infiltrate a human-dog relation. My purpose is to suggest mutual reading and relational
infiltration as possible scenarios taking place in inter special encounters, such as domestication. Not
only do these observations grace the question of 'who domesticates whom,' but I will argue that such
scenarios can speak to the question of how divergent dominance hierarchies in humans and wolves
facilitate competition for control over an other specie's agency, and, “to what extent dog-human and
wolf-wolf cooperation relies on the same mechanisms” (Viranyi and Range in Kaminski & Marshall-
Pescini 2014:55-56). Due to lack of time, I will limit my observations here to two accounts, one which
speaks to mutual reading and the other to infiltration of inter special relations. Both observations were
gleaned during fieldwork with indigenous Soiot herder-hunters in the Eastern Saian mountains of south
central Siberia. The research was conducted between 2013-14 and it is funded by the Arctic Domus
I. Mutual reading as a form of social learning
On a brisk morning in mid October, after marching across our valley to borrow some waders
from another household, I made my way to cross the cold waters of Sorok river to Damzan's1 (b. ca.
1965) household. Sometimes I would help cleaning out winter stables here, other times I would help
gather dried yak and cow excrements. In either case labour would later be rewarded with insightful
sessions of tea drinking at his winter pasture. On one such occasion, Damzan told me the story of how
a wolf couple had worked together one summer, harassing his household's stock at their summer
pasture, the place to where Damzan's household would migrate annually. Damzan shared the following
memory with me to illustrate the 'shrewdness' of wolves in Oka, and to reiterate an example of their
manipulate strategies based on observing tendencies in human movement:
The male wolf had approached several Mongolian cows on one end of the summer pasture and
was now crouching in tall grass as if ready to attack. His overt posing immediately called for the
attention of several householders who quickly rushed to the site, hoping to chase the wolf away. While
everyone had run to where the male was ducking in the grass, his female partner remained unseen as
she was approaching the summer pasture from the opposite end. Here a solitary cow was grazing in a
spot visible only from the now abandoned cabin. After the male wolf had been chased off successfully,
the householders slowly returned to the cabin area, only to find that the female wolf had killed the cow
on the other side of the pasture.
In retrospective, householders explained the male wolf's crouching as a performative act
intended to captivate their attention. That a female was part of the plot only came to light after the act.
Retrospective sense making then helps explain and predict wolf tactics, which become part of a
1 Not his actual name.
narrative body. It is in their retelling that these memories become educational devices. Even during my
stay with Soiot householders, new accounts were added to this narrative body whenever new or unusual
behavioral aspect were observed, such as wolves taking down an entire horse in September, dragging
sheep over a particularly tall fence in January, or predating on stock in front of someone's house in
November. This repertoire of observations directly informed Damzan's householders' strategies vis-a-
vis wolves. I will argue that the household's collective memories represent a form of social learning,
mirrored, albeit non-linguistically, by wolf households.
If adaptation to another’s repeated actions is marked by new ways of responding, ways that are
copied by other members of one's social group, then such adaptive acting may be referred to as a form
of social learning. Although some ambiguity exists in what exactly constitutes social learning, I shall
follow Reed & Evely, et al. (2010:5-6), who establish three markers for social learning: a) that there be
evidence of transformed apprehension, b) that such transformation spread across a community of
practice, and c) that transformed knowledge result from social interactions within the group. As such,
social learning is a widely observed phenomenon across species, vertebrates and invertebrates, which
can be seen in laboratory and field settings, and in domestic and wild animals (Reader & Biro
2010:265). The changes observed by humans in wolf behaviour, particularly wolves' behavior in
reading and responding to human activities, indicates a form of inter special social learning that occurs
within both species' households, and which is directed against the other.
But wolves seem to socially juggle information gleaned not only from their interactions with
humans and other species, but also from conspecific socializing, and from contact with (and
observation of peers in contact with) inanimate objects such as traps. Ethologists working with wolves
tell us that improvising and cross-applying social behaviour allows wolves to fluidly respond to new
encounters, all the while learning through practice. Thus, wolves seem to respond to the actions of
members of different species by drawing on patterns learned from other similar interactions. According
to Packard (2012:16), “For wolves, flexibility is more a matter of branching, generalizing from actions
in one context, to actions in another context. What worked in a social context might work in a prey-
catching context; how to catch your sibling generalizes to how to catch a calf.” This kind of branching
may also have been part of the wolf couple's strategy at Damzan's summer pasture, when they
cooperated in isolating prey from humans. But not only prey is isolated by wolves from humans.
II. Intentional infiltration of established social relations
My host's elder brother Dugar2 (b. 1966) vividly remembered one summer's encounter with “an
abnormally obnoxious (Ru- nagly) wolf,” who in 2003 had harassed his camp on the Upper Sorok
river. The wolf had beset his stock day after day, and especially during the nights, over the course of
two or three weeks. Bold enough to move within the fenced-in compound, and between the family’s
cabin and adjacent stable, he had the nerve to frequent even a narrow pathway between cabins where
Dugar's hunting dogs were tied up. While the dogs had initially barked at the wolf, Dugar remembered
how the wolf had “made friends” (Rus. podruzhilsia) with his dogs. Although it had been their job to
warn the family of approaching predators, both dogs now remained silent during the intruder’s nightly
visits. Dugar reasoned that perhaps his dogs had become “too scared” to bark. Everyone assumed they
were dealing with a young and especially capable wolf. Over the course of the weeks, the wolf had
killed “one animal after another.” Every night Dugar's men would rush out into the dark with their guns
loaded, unable to take down the predator. The harassing came to an end only when Dugar brought in a
secret stash of old poison. The next day they found the wolf near a bend down river. He had been an
old and haggard beast.
While singling out and isolating select prey may be one way wolves generalize socially learned
knowledge, Dugar's example raises the question of how one may account for what looks like a
systematic destabilization of the human-dog tie. Thinking about differences in cooperation between
2 Not his actual name.
species, Viranyi & Range (in Kaminski & Marshall-Pescini 2014:55-56) find that:
“Further research needs to examine [...] to what extent dog-human and wolf-wolf cooperation
relies on the same mechanisms. Based on our current knowledge, we suggest that dog-human
cooperation likely relies on the leading role of humans enhanced by the dependency of dogs on
humans and by a steeper dominance hierarchy that characterizes dogs in comparison to
In deed, it would seem that the “abnormally obnoxious wolf” from the summer pasture did not share
Dugar's dogs' sense of being subjects to human will. In fact, to Dugar it seemed that the wolf had
recognized his dogs' subordinate function, a role in which the dogs became their owner's eyes in the
pasture. By “befriending” Dugar's 'eyes in the pasture' through frequent visitation at very close
proximity and possibly by implying a threat to their lives, the wolf succeeded to infiltrate the
hierarchical relationship that united dogs and master. In fact, he made the dogs, at least temporarily,
complicit to the wolf's agenda, silencing them without having to kill them.
What then may observations of 'mutual reading' and 'relational infiltration' have to say to inter
special becoming, and perhaps to domestication? In the case of mutual reading we may identify human
observation of another's movements as learned behavior. My interlocutors seem to attribute similar
abilities to wolves. In fact, continuous observation of others' movements, as well as of the degree to
which they may or may not have come to understand one's own movements 3, forms the dynamic body
of shared experience within each respective household (human and wolf). Based on this body of
collective experience, future movements in the other can be anticipated. Although my interlocutors
seem to attribute to wolves the ability to make informed predictions about human movements, the
means by which this social learning is facilitated in wolves was not directly addressed by them4. What
3 This includes architectural innovations, such as human-made traps and wolf-built dens.
4 In this regard my work relies on ethological studies conducted by others.
does seem clear is that wolves, as much as people, perpetually attempt to control the actions of the
other by way of scheming and what may be called one-upmanship or opportunism.
In the case of relational infiltration, the wolf is understood to recognize established ties between
a human and his dogs. By habituating the dogs to his presence through gradual increase in proximity
(presumed to reduce anxiety) he is seen to “befriend” the dogs. At the same time, the wolf is
understood to coerce a degree of complicity in the dogs through tactics of intimidation. Although this
particular scenario was of temporary affect (the wolf was killed, and had it lived, the dogs would likely
have been shot), it suggests that hierarchical relations offer space for inter special contestation. It
suggests that wolves who are familiar with conspecific hierarchies of power can apply their experience
to inter special contexts of hierarchy, ensuing competition over the agency of subordinate actors. While
a singular instance of relational subordination has little in common with multigenerational selective
breeding (as in dog domestication), it would seem possible, at the very least, to speak of the wolf as
taming the dogs for a particular purpose.
Reed, M., A. C. Evely, G. Cundill, I. R. A. Fazey, J. Glass, A. Laing, J. Newig, B. Parrish, C. Prell, C.
Raymond, and L. Stringer. 2010. “What is Social Learning?” Ecology & Society, 15(4):r1.
Viranyi, Z. and F. Range. 2014. “On the Way to a Better Understanding of Dog Domestication:
Aggression and Cooperativeness in Dogs and Wolves.” In The Social Dog: Behavior and
Cognition. Juliane Kaminsky and Sarah Marshall-Pecini (eds.). London: Elsevier.