Skeletons in her cupboard: Do you know why a pekinese thinks it's a wolf, or why cats hunt alone? Paula Weideger meets someone who does

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Indy Lifestyle Online
BONES are everywhere in the basement of the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, London, where Dr Juliet Clutton-Brock works. Skeletons fill tall glass cases. Walls of brown-paper boxes rise up from long tables in the huge, high-ceilinged room. They are full of bones, too - the remains of sheep that lived at Skara Brae, on Orkney, 5,000 years ago. These cartons partly obscure a herd of freestanding skeletons: horses, a mule and zebra. Surreally, the heads of all but one have been placed between their forelegs; they have a tendency to wobble and crash to the floor.

Dr Clutton-Brock reads these bones - of sheep and horses, cats and dogs - and from them learns not only their stories but our own. She is 'the expert' on the natural history of domestic animals; creatures whose lives have been intertwined with man's ever since their wild progenitors began to be tamed by humans more than 10,000 years ago.

Although she is an eminent scientist - an archaeozoologist - and old bones are the material with which she routinely deals, there is nothing dry about Dr Clutton-Brock. Her grey hair is smartly cut in a swinging bob. 'Call me Juliet,' she quickly says. In her bookshelves, The Travels of Marco Polo and Kipling's Just So Stories stand alongside texts about the Pleistocene period. She herself has written some brainy but popular works, most recently a book about the history of horses - and us. But she is not only interested in creatures that are long dead. Old bones have given her an appreciation for the way animals adapted to their local conditions, and she is trying to save domestic animals that are in danger of disappearing today. For more than a decade, Dr Clutton-Brock has been on the council of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust.

The cavernous rooms where she works have been painted an almost colourless yellow and are lit from high up by fluorescent strips. In spite of this, the atmosphere is not clinical but fantastical.

'Why did wolves allow themselves to become dogs?' I am soon asking. 'When did wild cats agree to curl up in people's laps?'

Dr Clutton-Brock employs a highly educated mind rather than a magic wand as she does the work that leads to answers to questions of this - and a rather more sophisticated - kind. Recently she has also had the help of a computer. Her eye is trained to tell a bear's foot from a pig's by looking at a couple of bones and to know from just a few fragments whether 2,000 years ago a particular ox did its work by pushing or pulling. A year dissecting animal corpses at London Zoo gave her an invaluable understanding about the relationship between bones and muscle and how bone changes as a result of the way the body has been used. But, she points out, 'it's very difficult when you've got just a few fragments of bone to tell whether that animal was killed for its skin and the rest was chucked out with the food, or whether it was a tamed animal. Really, you have to look at a cultural connection.' Making such connections has given her a view of the world which would shock the Victorians who built the museum that employs her.

'Human beings may be the top of the ladder in many ways,' Dr Clutton-Brock says, 'but they're also just part of the whole community of life through time. Without all these animal societies, human society wouldn't be what it is and couldn't survive.'

As a child, Juliet Clutton-Brock had firsthand experience of the empire- builder's belief that only people really counted. Born in England during the Second World War, she was sent to live with an aunt in Zimbabwe. There, the wall of the veranda was lined with heads of game. Juliet went out shooting crocodiles. But it was in Africa, too, that she became interested in archaeology.

'We were surrounded by archaeology of one sort or another,' she recalls. Around the rock shelter where the children played they found old pottery, which they took to a local museum to have identified.

At the age of 12, she returned to England and during breaks from school went to live at Chastleton House, in Gloucestershire, which her father, who was the art critic of the Times, had inherited. This exquisite, if tumbledown, Jacobean manor was something of an archaeological site itself.

She began studying medicine, but she soon switched to the Institute of Archaeology in Regent's Park, London. 'It was not yet possible to take a first degree in the subject,' she says, 'but it was just the time after the war that archaeology was really beginning to flourish with Mortimer Wheeler and Agatha Christie . . . It was a really exciting, romantic subject.'

Her mentor at the institute, Professor Frederick Zeuner, suggested she get a degree in zoology and then come back to work with him on archaeozoology, which is just what she did. By the time she became Dr Clutton-Brock in 1961, she had been married to Professor Peter Jewell for three years and had started a family.

Professor Jewell was seconded to Nigeria to teach biology. They and their three little girls arrived just as the Biafran war broke out. Although the five of them were safely evacuated, they lost everything they had. On their return to England, Juliet Clutton-Brock was offered a job at the Natural History Museum, cataloguing the collection of animal bones all the great archaeologists had been sending back for nearly a hundred years.

'What I feel very privileged about in my career is that I was in on the beginning of archaeozoology, really, and it has grown into quite a massive science.' At Nice in 1976, she was one of 10 scientists who founded the International Council for Archaeozoology. Now the council numbers 600 scientists from around the world.

'You can learn an enormous amount from animal behaviour about our behaviour,' she says 'Out of this comes the whole question of the interaction of us and other animals. I think it's one of the most important things that has got to be studied.'

Dr Clutton-Brock explains that any animal can be tamed, provided a person removes it from its mother at a young enough age. However, most species revert to their wild state when they grow up. Those that become domesticated tend to have quite a lot in common with people. Take wolves, for example.

Like men, wolves hunt prey larger than themselves. Each therefore benefits when another of its kind joins in. Wolves and men are more co-operative and sociable than animals that hunt alone. Horses, however, are not predators. And though a stallion lives with his harem and foals and is therefore sociable, it is not the same sort of social life humans had in mind for them when they domesticated wild horses about 6,000 years ago.

'Exploitation' is a word that fast comes into the conversation when Dr Clutton-Brock talks about the relationship between humans and the animals they tamed for use as transport, farming and food. Likewise 'cruelty'. Among the wretched techniques used to tame horses were starvation and the use of bits that cut into their lips.

Species change as a result of domestication. Their brains become smaller and their perceptual world does, too, some scientists believe. But 'a pekinese still thinks of itself as a wolf,' Dr Clutton-Brock points out. Certainly lots of dogs like nothing better than running unleashed with one another. Still, their wolf ancestors were a long, long way back.

The first evidence of a canine pet was discovered in a 12,000-year-old grave in Israel. Dr Clutton-Brock shows me a photograph. The skeleton of an elderly woman is curled on her side, one hand stretched out above her head resting on what remains of a five-month-old puppy's body. 'Even if you can't tell if it's a dog or a wolf or a jackel, you know that they had a relationship,' Dr Clutton-Brock observes.

It will not surprise anyone who has lived with a feline to hear that it was much later that wild cats evolved into the tame variety. Some would say it has not entirely happened yet. 'One of our earliest finds is from Cyprus, about 5,000BC,' says Dr Clutton-Brock. She explains that apart from lions, wild cats are solitary. They hunt prey smaller than themselves and therefore do not require help. But the gangs of feral cats that hang around waiting for hand-outs in certain neighbourhood parks give evidence that even untamed cats have a social side.

As one might expect of a scientist, Dr Clutton-Brock is allergic to prejudice. However, she does have one blind spot: 'I think the only thing I'm really against in life is Christianity,' she blurts out.

My eyes open wide.

'The way whole continents were despoiled of their wildlife,' she explains. 'It makes my blood boil. They think only man has a soul. They have no reverence for life.'

Yes, she had hunted as a child. 'A child of eight or nine is very adventuresome and enjoys killing animals. I certainly did. But you expect people to grow out of it.' Obviously, a lot of trigger- happy Christians failed to live up to this expectation.

Our own dogs feature in the conversation in a big way - after all, how often do you meet another person who will listen? But we talk about other people's pets - or animal companions, which I learn is the politically correct term.

'There is statistical evidence that children who are brought up with a dog get on better with their peers later in life. And with other children, too,' she tells me. This, it turns out, is not because Spot has taught Susie to be patient or kind, but because he has taught her to understand body language.

The study of Spot and the children was carried out in America. We touch down on Tierra del Fuego and in Belize - both sources of bones that Dr Clutton-Brock has studied. We talk about the desert of southern Iraq, one of the places where she has done field work. And Roman London. The small skeleton of a horse from Londinium stands towered over by the others in the herd near her computer.

'Yes, it does give you a great sense of time, and also space; a global view of human societies through time,' Dr Clutton-Brock acknowledges. 'And it stops one worrying about the present,' she adds with a smile.

'Horse Power: A history of the horse and donkey in human societies', by Dr Juliet Clutton-Brock, Natural History Museum Publications, pounds 19.95.

(Photograph omitted)