Pigs don’t deserve the name ‘Lesser Beasts’

A history of swine details their marvelous adaptability to human culture

A pig in a field

NOT SO HUMBLE  Humans owe much of their success over the millennia to the bounty of Sus scrofa domesticus.


Lesser Beasts
Mark Essig
Basic Books, $27.50

If humans have a counterpart in the rest of the animal world, it is surely the pig.

As historian Mark Essig writes in Lesser Beasts, perhaps no other animal’s history more closely mirrors that of humans. From the appearance of semi-tame Sus scrofa living with hunter-gatherers 11,000 years ago in Turkey to the role of swine in the rise and fall of empires, the story of the pig is also the story of modern humans.

The traits that made domesticated swine so numerous are the same ones that have helped humans become the dominant species on Earth: cleverness, omnivorousness and adaptability. Like a pig unearthing acorns, Essig overturns gem after gem of hog history, and he peppers them with humor and empathy.

The human-pig relationship has sometimes been almost comical, as during medieval times, when swine were put on trial for murder or for disobeying Sabbath laws. The relationship has also been religious, as in boar-themed holy garments from Celts and Norse. Most of all, it has been bountiful. Whether by saving ancient Egypt’s poor from starvation or enabling the conquistadors’ march across the Americas, the pig greased the skids of civilization. 

When Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto stepped ashore in what is now Florida in the mid-1500s, he traveled with hundreds of soldiers but just 13 pigs, the first to reach North America. De Soto gave his hogs first-class treatment, and it worked. When he died three years later, his swine herd numbers had swelled to 700.

Within a couple of hundred years, pigs in colonial America had become “agents of empire,” Essig writes. They devoured wild foods and inadvertently helped destroy Native Americans’ way of life.

Today, factory farms churn out pork at the fastest rates in history. But recently, Essig writes, many people have become uncomfortable with the factory farm standard of sows spending most of their lives in crates. Some nations have mandated that pigs have more space and access to rooting material.

Perhaps growing discomfort with some farming techniques comes alongside recognition of pigs’ humanlike behavior. In tests, the animals display an understanding of how mirrors work, learn to sneak extra helpings of food and play video games.

Buy Lesser Beasts from Amazon.com. Sales generated through the links to Amazon.com contribute to Society for Science & the Public’s programs.

More Stories from Science News on Animals