Written by David Steven Chalmers
Pigs have been domesticated across Eurasia for around 9000 years, independently in several different countries, with different methods and levels of success. China, in particular, has had a long history of pig rearing, with an estimated 180 million farmers currently raising pigs for commercial and personal consumption. Additionally, pig dung is widely used across China as a domestic crop fertilizer, with crop waste being fed back to the hogs.
Today, China is one of the largest producers of pork, ranging from small backyard farms to large-scale industrial farms (Cheng. H, et al, 2011). Meanwhile, Europe has had a more tumultuous time developing a pig-rearing system; however, some European civilizations developed pig-rearing systems independently. It is implied that Europe was not able to develop more efficient methods for pig rearing and fattening until later trade with China. The purpose of this essay is to explore historical accounts for both China and Europe in terms of how pig rearing methodology developed and when they would have reached the more modern approach of sty rearing and foddering.
Early Development for Chinese Pig Farmers Between the 6th and 2nd millennium BC, China was one of the main countries in Asia for rearing both pigs and dogs domestically. During the bronze age, trade existed between central Asia and eastern and central China, which mostly included livestock, including pigs, as well as farming methods and technology.
By the 2nd millennium, a dietary shift occurred for domestic pigs in northwestern Asia towards cultivated crops and farming by-products. Prior to the second millennium BC, communities in northern China had an entire economy based on pig rearing and millet farming, which was linked due to pigs feeding on millet. It is thought that pigs were kept in social enclosures to restrict their movement, encouraging growth and ensuring their dependence on farmers. As trade across the Hexi corridor increased, the diet of domestic Chinese pigs diverged further, alongside regional variation into other livestock management alongside pigs, such as stall-feeding cattle somewhat based on pig sties (Vaiglova. P, et al, 2021).
From early neolithic fossils, significant divergences can be seen between wild and domestic pigs in China. This implies that China had a complex domestication process between 8000 to 4000 BC, which involved Chinese farmers keeping their pig stock separate from their wild cousins. It is thought that these practices would have changed from extensive herding during the Yang Shao period to entirely household rearing during the Han dynasty. This would have involved foddering with millet and other agricultural by-products, as well as household scraps.
Changes to Chinese pig rearing may have been due to economic and political changes during the Han dynasty, as well as some climate changes. Droughts may have caused pig herds to collapse, leading pig farmers to keep small amounts around their home to maintain sustainable food sources (Cucchi. T, et al, 2016, Pechenkina. E. A, et al, 2005). Typical daily life for Chinese peasants involved pigs to the extent that the Chinese character for home was a pig under a roof. Before the advent of commercial fertilizers, peasants fertilized their crops with pig manure. This shows farmers were reliant on pigs even outside pork, of which China is still the largest producer (Chen. C, et al, 2022).
Archaeological evidence suggests that while pigs were the most common domesticated animal in neolithic China, hunted meat was still more predominant, with pig bones accounting for 14-41% of animal bones found on site. Domestic pigs were commonly fed on human refuse in later eras, implying that keeping pigs in confinement and foddering was common early on. Some evidence suggests that pigs were also used as sacrifices and for specific feasts, implying that Chinese cultures may have developed specialized rearing programs.
Depending on their purpose, some pigs may have been fed better than some humans around them, particularly if they were reared for religious purposes. By the late neolithic, many pig sties were connected to latrines and household refuse bins to assist in feeding the animals. This practice would later become used throughout Asia, with a well-known example being the traditional method of rearing Jeju black pigs in South Korea. However, neolithic practices were not perfectly efficient, as around 90% of a pig’s caloric intake would be lost in the metabolic process (Pechenkina. E. A, et al, 2005).
Problems for Early European Pig Farmers Archaeological sites in Europe are dominated by livestock bones, including pigs, showing they have been common for some time on the continent. However, in the early to late medieval periods, cattle and sheep tended to be more commonplace, as seen in records for the Domesday Survey. Pigs were often found in assemblages in rural sites, implying they were commonly slaughtered on-site. Smoking was a common practice for pork due to it being more commonly killed for household consumption, with only a few males reared for sale (Albarella. U, 1999). Pigs were quite commonplace in medieval England due to their foraging ability, allowing for the conversion of various materials to edible meat and fat.
This led to the theory that they were not the multifunctional animals they are today and were just for meat. The main method for European pig keeping was pannage, where pigs are loosely managed and moved seasonally, released into forests to root. This is a highly unreliable method and was argued not to be the only method of pig rearing, as some evidence suggests pigs were fed on waste marshes, pastures, and other rubbish. One reason for the decline of mast feeding (letting pigs forage in forests, usually on fallen nuts, roots, and fruit) may have been a decline in woodlands due to an increase in urban areas and cultivated land. While sheep and cow rearing would have been more popular due to pasture feeding, pig’s more destructive rooting behavior would be incompatible with (Hamilton. J, Thomas. R, 2012).
Historical evidence suggests pannage declined by the 11th-12th centuries and was replaced by sty feeding, utilizing legumes, cereals, and waste from breweries and dairies. This was furthered in the 14th century when specific products were grown for the purpose of pig feed (Hamilton. J, Thomas. R, 2012). From the late medieval period onwards, domestic livestock, including pigs, began to get larger, implying greater efficiency in both breeding and fattening. Evidence suggests that in the 17th century, new breeds were introduced, which may have augmented the gene pool of European stock.
This led to greater efficiency in producing meat, as pigs would get larger faster, meaning they could be slaughtered at an earlier age, making them a more efficient investment for farmers (Albarella. U, 1997). Pigs were not as beloved in Europe as in China, as pigs could be quite damaging to medieval townscapes if left uncontrolled. There is evidence that in the 1300s, domestic pigs were left to wander by their owners, which resulted in property damage, injuries, and even fatalities, making European pig keeping a somewhat undesirable element. As a result of this, it began becoming mandatory for pigs to be kept in sties, and pigs wandering without an owner could be legally killed. This is a sign of adopting a sty system many centuries after China, though not through interaction with China (Jorgensen. D, 2013).
Livestock was an essential part of the urban economy, and urbanization may have been a major factor in the development of the European sty system. Swine products became increasingly popular in European towns, and sty-rearing pigs became increasingly cheaper. A pig’s omnivorous diet made them more suitable for urban environments, as they would not require grazing like herbivores. Another form of evidence was local governments trying to regulate pig rearing practices; however, records were only kept on incidents, making it hard to get a good feel for general processes.
As of the 15th century, pigs could only be removed from their sties at allocated times for sanitization, which, of course, led to further disputes over proper waste disposal. While this was going on, it seems countryside farmers still kept to traditional methods, such as swine herding and mast feeding. In the 16th century, sties were standardized as closed rooms with stone floors, with pigs being fed on domestic waste, such as brewery dregs. This was the beginning of pigs being used as waste recyclers, being fed butchery waste and even excrement, and even specific occupations, such as bakers and brewers, keeping pigs to help dispose of their businesses’ waste (Jorgensen. D, 2013).
Interaction Between Europe and China Chinese breeds and farming methods were first introduced to European nations, such as England, at around 1700. However, by this point, many European nations had already begun to adopt sty systems, so it is unlikely that this would have had a significant impact on European pig farmers. It is possible, however, that the interbreeding of Chinese and European pig stock may have been the actual catalyst for modern European pig keeping.
Being kept in sties for many more centuries, Chinese breeds would have had many more generations to adapt and evolve traits such as faster weight gain and tolerance to more intensive practices. Meanwhile, mast feeding would not protect pigs from natural evolutionary pressures, as they would still need to move long distances and potentially fend off predators. These pigs would also interbreed with wild stock, making selective breeding for European stock highly difficult. After their introduction to European stock, Chinese-descended genes would eventually become dominant in the pork industry. As industrialization would later occur, intensive farming would become more standard, and newer generation hybrids of Chinese and European stock would become popular, while older leaner breeds would either go extinct or become niche breeds (White. S, 2011).
Conclusions From what has been read, it seems that while China has always been more advanced in pig rearing due to a greater cultural dependence on them, in Europe, ruminants like cows and sheep were much easier for farmers to rear and breed, making pigs a more secondary concern for many farmers. These factors would cause pig rearing methods to remain much more primitive in Europe, as easier livestock were always more available. However, it seems that as time goes on, pig farming in Europe would start to advance towards sty keeping, as more traditional free-ranged methods became more undesirable. Of course, the millennia head start saw Chinese stock evolve into more suitable livestock breeds. It seems that it was the genetics of Chinese pig breeds that allowed European pig farming to modernize, rather than methods. And while pigs under European methods would have eventually evolved in a similar fashion to their Chinese cousins, it would have taken significantly longer. So, while China was not arguably essential for the development of modern pig keeping, it certainly helped catalyze it in time for events such as the industrial revolution.
Albarella. U, 1997. Size, power, wool and veal: zooarchaeological evidence for late medieval innovations. Environment and subsistence in medieval Europe 09.
Albarella. U, 1999. The mystery of husbandry: medieval animals and the problem of integrating historical and archaeological evidence. Antiquity 73 (867-75).
Chen. C, Gong. Y, Tang. L, 2022. Peasants and pork: The changing contribution of pig farming to rural livelihoods. Open journal of Social Science 10 (40-54).
Cheng. H, et al, 2011. Pork production systems and its development in mainland China. International journal of fisheries and aquaculture 3 (5, 166-174).
Cucchi. T, et al, 2016. Social complexification and pig (Sus scrofa) husbandry in Ancient China: a combined geometric morphometric and isotopic approach. PLoS ONE 11 (7): e0158523. Doi10.1371/journal.pone.0158523.
Hamilton. J, Thomas. R, 2012. Pannage, pulses and pigs: isotopic and zooarchaeological evidence for changing pig management practices in later medieval England. Medieval Archaeology 56. Jorgensen. D, 2013.
Pechenkina. E. A, et al, 2005. Reconstructing northern Chinese neolithic subsistence practises by isotopic analysis. Journal of archaeological science 32 (1176-1189).
Vaiglova. P, et al, 2021. Localized management of non-indigenous animal domesticates in North-western China during the Bronze age. Scientific reports 11 (15764).
White. S, 2011. From Globalised pig breeds to capitalist pigs: a study in animal cultures and evolutionary history. Environmental history 16 (94-120).