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The Tame and the Wild

People and Animals after 1492

Marcy Norton

ISBN 9780674737525

Publication date: 01/09/2024

A dramatic new interpretation of the encounter between Europe and the Americas that reveals the crucial role of animals in the shaping of the modern world.

When the men and women of the island of Guanahani first made contact with Christopher Columbus and his crew on October 12, 1492, the cultural differences between the two groups were vaster than the oceans that had separated them. There is perhaps no better demonstration than the divide in their respective ways of relating to animals. In The Tame and the Wild, Marcy Norton tells a new history of the colonization of the Americas, one that places wildlife and livestock at the center of the story. She reveals that the encounters between European and Native American beliefs about animal life transformed societies on both sides of the Atlantic.

Europeans’ strategies and motives for conquest were inseparable from the horses that carried them in military campaigns and the dogs they deployed to terrorize Native peoples. Even more crucial were the sheep, cattle, pigs, and chickens whose flesh became food and whose skins became valuable commodities. Yet as central as the domestication of animals was to European plans in the Americas, Native peoples’ own practices around animals proved just as crucial in shaping the world after 1492. Cultures throughout the Caribbean, Amazonia, and Mexico were deeply invested in familiarization: the practice of capturing wild animals—not only parrots and monkeys but even tapir, deer, and manatee—and turning some of them into “companion species.” These taming practices not only influenced the way Indigenous people responded to human and nonhuman intruders but also transformed European culture itself, paving the way for both zoological science and the modern pet.


  • The Tame and the Wild reads like a revelation. Norton’s groundbreaking work compellingly shows how the history of nonhuman animals in the Atlantic world, and their transformation from beings to things, is intrinsically entangled with the history of the early-modern European extractivist and genocidal colonial project in the Americas. At the same time, it luminously recovers and foregrounds early-modern American Indigenous ways of being in the world and knowing it that emphasize the shared nature of human and nonhuman flesh and subjectivity. Her book shows us new ways for writing both our histories and those of our ‘fellow creatures.’

    —Pablo F. Gómez, author of The Experiential Caribbean: Creating Knowledge and Healing in the Early Modern Atlantic


  • Marcy Norton is Associate Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of the award-winning Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World. Her research has been supported by fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Library of Congress, and the Huntington Library.

Book Details

  • 448 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press