One of my favorite bloggers, Unmitigated Pedantry, has put up a multi-post series on the way the Dothraki are portrayed in Game of Thrones. He has many complaints, but I want to focus on one: how few animals appear in either the books or the TV series.
George R.R. Martin actually says that the Dothraki incorporate ideas from both Eurasian steppes peoples and Indians of the Great Plains. But that doesn't help much, since Lakota, Comanche, etc. also had many more horses than people.
Even when going on a raid, Mongol warriors typically took along 5 horses each. This was partly because their horses were small –see the picture at the top – and tired out quickly when carrying a man. They were small because they had to subsist entirely on grass; the larger horses bred in settled regions have to be fed grain. The humans also depended on their horses in other ways. While on a raid Mongols liked to take along at least two lactating mares; two mares produced enough milk that a warrior could live off it for two weeks with no other food.
Thinking about this, it dawned on me that what I always thought of as a human community, whether Mongol or Comanche, was actually a multi-species community in which humans were very much outnumbered by other animals. And this has been true in many different cultures.
The traditional communities I know the most about were medieval villages in northern Europe and plantations in 17th-century Virginia. In both, humans were by far the minority among the large mammals. One Virginia inventory I happen to have on my desk, from 1752, lists nine horses, four colts, 30 sheep, 14 swine, eight cows, five calves, and 13 "small cattle." If I am reading this right, the farm had four human inhabitants, who were thus outnumbered 20 to 1. That's without getting into dogs and cats, which were ubiquitous but for obscure reasons were never listed on estate inventories.
And it wasn't just peasants. I recently read a scholarly article about Norse kingship that said the objects most associated with royalty in our sources are animals, especially hawks, horses, and herds of cattle. I mean, anybody could have a crown knocked together, but if you had a mews full of goshawks and a pasture full of champion milkers, you were the boss.
One of the ways my life differs from those of my ancestors was that they lived very intimately with livestock – lots of livestock. Their lives were deeply intertwined with their animals; how well they lived depended on how well their animals thrived. So they cared a great deal about their animals and would go to much effort and expense to treat their illnesses and so on. Of course, they also ate their animals. It's a relationship I find difficult to understand, and which of course continues for farm folk in our own time. Think about how we encourage 4-H kids to throw their hearts into raising a lamb or pig that is sold for slaughter after judging.
But that has been the human way for many people across much of history. We lived with animals in intense, mutually dependent relationships, knowing them better than we knew all but a few people, but also eating their flesh and wearing their skins.
When we recreate the past without animals, and the feelings people had toward them, we miss a great deal of human life.