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Meleagrides: An Historical and Ethnogeographical Study of the Guinea Fowl.

R.A. DONKIN is the champion of the undeservedly marginalized domesticate. Following masterly treatises on The peccary, with observations on the introduction of pigs to the New World (1985) and The muscovy duck, Cairena moschata domestica: origins, dispersal, and associated aspects of the geography of domestication (1989), the trilogy is now completed with Meleagrides: an historical and ethnogeographical study of the guinea fowl (x+157 pages, 31 illustrations, 8 maps. 1991. London: Ethnographica; ISBN 0-905-788-36-2 hardback). In detecting the spread of guinea fowl beyond their natural sub-Saharan range, DONKIN displays an astonishing breadth of erudition. Episodic penetration up the Nile corridor is hinted at an early date by a Pre-Dynastic slate palette, with supporting evidence from identification with the nhbird attested at Fifth Dynasty Saqqara. Yet it was not until later that guinea fowl entered the Mediterranean, probably at both ends via Greek and Phoenician ships. They were still bizarre enough in Hellenistic times to be paraded around Alexandria by Ptolemy II Philadelphus, and (curiouser and curiouser) were associated with the sources of amber, another speculation-generating exotic, by both Sophocles and Strabo. In Greece they became sacred; in Rome ornamental and, predictably, edible -- for those who could afford them. Finds of bones on the Rhineland limes indicate that they followed the Romans north to chillier climes. Post-classical guinea fowl are depicted in Abbasid wallpaintings at Samarra, joining the queue for Noah's ark in a mosaic at St Mark's, Venice, and in a painting by Bellini. They are reported as 'pearl birds' in Java in 1433, presumably conveyed there by Arab traders, and shortly afterwards took part in the Columbian exchange, which initiated a period of humiliating confusion with the Mexican turkey. Meanwhile, in Africa the picture is less clear. A long-term familarity is evinced by the wide distribution of derivatives of an inferred proto-Bantu -kanga, but outside West Africa the birds may have been largely trapped in the wild. Meleagrides are, however, not just a striking tracer of cross-cultural interaction. They are also an exemplary instance of creatures on the fringe of domestication. Gregarious, credulous, and feeble fliers, yet aggressive to other birds and less productive than chickens, guinea fowl in their home range might be as conveniently hunted as controlled, whilst the expansion of tamed birds northward represents a dispersion driven more by symbolism of the sacred and sumptuous than by any great significance for subsistence.

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Author:Broodbank, Cyprian
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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