Pigs in ancient Israel?

As part of my Sacred Economy project, I have been enthralled by the animal remains that provide insights into the basic features of the economies of the Levant, with subsistence agriculture at their basis. Sheep and goats have turned out to be the key, with small numbers of bovines for traction.

But what about the much-debated pigs, with their lovers and not so enthusiastic consumers? Were they fostered and consumed in that largely dry zone between Egypt and Mesopotamia. The remains of pig bones fluctuate over time, with abundant distribution during the Chalcolithic, declining to a low in the Late Bronze Age, rebounding in the early Iron Age for a while, until full resurgence in the Hellenistic era. When they are present, they are so pretty much everywhere; when absent, the same applies. Rather than laying the cause of such a patchy pattern on an emerging ideological aversion to porcine products (and investing wasted energy in trying to determine ethic identity in the basis of pig remains), it is more realistic to focus on the limited possibilities of pigs within a subsistence survival institutional form. Although pigs provide good quality meat, they fare ill under temperature extremes, requiring relatively high levels of water. Pigs are limited to the 250 mm isohyet, much higher than that required by sheep and especially goats. And they do not provide fiber or milk for human consumption. Our porcine cousins provide only limited resources, under certain conditions, and are thereby not always the best option when conditions are tough.

As a footnote, it is worth noting that where the conditions were more well watered and therefore favourable, class issues often turned on the humble pig. More often than not, pigs were used by common farmers and shunned by the ruling class. A similar situation applies to Egypt, where the riverine environment is more favourable to pigs. Here the abundant remains of pigs are limited to the rural population, while they were denigrated and avoided by the ruling class.


3 thoughts on “Pigs in ancient Israel?

  1. Victory to the historical materialist! Defeat to the Idealists and Young Hegelians!

    “… extremely high pig frequencies (c. 20 per cent or more) are found in [Philistine] sites in the Israeli coastal plain (Ashkelon, Tel Miqne-Ekron)…. At Tel es-Safi/Gath, located on the interface between the coastal plain and the hill country, pigs comprise 13 per cent of the Iron I fauna …, while Tel Batash, located in a similar setting, has yielded only 8 per cent pigs; at southern Philistine sites, the Nahal Patish temple … and the small village of Qubur el-Walaydah in the northern Negev …. pigs represent less than 1 per cent of the faunal assemblage, a similar low frequency to that observed in coeval Israelite sites…. Thus, it is very feasible that ecological, economic or functional factors, or a mixture of them, rather than ethnicity, were responsible for the relatively high frequencies of pigs in some Philistine sites and their dearth in others – Philistine and Israelite settlements alike”
    – Aren M. Maeir, Louise A. Hitchcock, and Liora Kolska Horwitz, “On the Constitution and Transformation of Philistine Identity”, Oxford Journal of Archaeology 32 no. 1 (2013): 5–6.

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