Traps: technological mediations of human-animal encounter

27 September 2016 - 28 September 2016

Alison Richard Building, 7 West Road, Cambridge

Registration for the conference is now closed.



Chloe Nahum-Claudel (University of Cambridge)



The trap is… both a model of its creator, the hunter, and a model of its victim, the prey animal… traps communicate the idea of a nexus of intentionalities between hunters and prey animals, via material forms and mechanisms.

Alfred Gell 1999: 202-3

Entrapment is a privileged way into a nexus between human-animal relations and technology. There are many contexts in which an efficacious relationship between human and animal depends on a fusion of knowledge of animal behaviour and technological innovation or skill. Conservation practitioners have to locate, lure or trap an animal in order to collar, manipulate, measure and sample it. At sites of human-animal conflict, species relations are being urgently reconfigured through the deployment of novel technologies like bugs, radio collars and camera-traps. In this conference participants from all science, arts and humanities backgrounds are invited to expand their usual horizons of analysis to consider hunting traps alongside non-lethal devices used in conservation and zoological science, animal husbandry, sport and cinematography among other, as yet unimagined, contexts.

Hunting technologies have long been avidly documented in anthropology, archaeology and material culture studies. The best works are holistic and treat entrapment as a simultaneously cosmological, technological and sociological phenomena. A number of themes recur in these works: the concretisation of human-animal relations in a trap’s form; conceptions of efficacy and risk at the scene of capture; the potent fertilizing capacity of entrapment; and the practices of mimicry and concealment which propitiate the trap, including masking, linguistic constraints, and affective and moral imperatives.

Building on this small but rich vein of anthropological scholarship, the conference seeks to foster an experimental cross-disciplinary conversation about the ways traps and allied technologies serve as the medium for humans’ conceptual and practical engagement with other species.




Supported by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH), Pembroke College, and the Division of Social Anthropology. 


Administrative assistance:

Tuesday 27 September

8.45 - 9.15


9.15 - 9.30

Welcome and Introduction

9.30 - 11.00

Session 1: Trapping for alimentary predation: political-economy, sociality and cosmology

Chair and Discussant: Rane Willerslev (Anthropology, Aarhus)


Chloe Nahum-Claudel (Anthropology, Cambridge)

‘Subjected to the will of the traps’


Stuart Marks (Anthropology, Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa)

‘Snaring as Social Protest for Sustaining Local Identities and Access to the “Game”’

11.00 - 11.30


11.30 - 13.00

Carlos Sautchuk (Anthropology, Brasilia) 

‘Trap or Trust: technical objects in the Amazon'


Discussion led by Rane Willerslev

13.00 - 14.00


14.00 - 15.30

Session 2: What is it about trapping in particular? Technology in space and time

Chair and Discussant: Philip Howell (Geography, Cambridge)


Garry Marvin (Anthropology, Roehampton) 

‘Trapping and Hunting: Knowledge, Skills, Engagements and Relationships’


Klint Janulis (Archaeology, Oxford)

‘Catching Time: how trapping may have influenced human cognition’  

15.30 - 16.00


16.00 - 17.00

Discussion led by Philip Howell

Wednesday 28 September

9.30 - 11.00

Session 3: Trapping for knowledge: non-lethal traps in human-animal conflict and coexistence

Chair and Discussant: Jonathan Saha (History, Leeds)


Nayanika Mathur (Social Anthropology, Sussex) 

‘The Beastly and the Beautiful: cage-ing and camera-trapping big cats in India’


Hannah Mumby (Zoology, Cambridge) 

‘Uses of technology in managing and studying elephants’

11.00 - 11.30


11.30 - 13.00

Bill Adams (Geography, Cambridge)

‘Tagging Tony: bird tracking technology and geographies of migration’


Discussion led by Jonathan Saha

13.00 - 14.00


14.00 - 15.30

Session 4: Conceptual and practical experiments with entrapment

Chair and Discussant: Christos Lynteris (Anthropology, Cambridge)


Hermione Spriggs (Anthropology of Other Anima, London)

‘Gobbles Sound OK’    


Alberto Corsin Jimenez (History of Science, Spanish National Research Council)

‘Three traps many’             

15.30 - 16.00


16.00 - 17.30

Natalie Forssman (Anthropology, Aarhus) and Meredith Root-Bernstein (Bioscience, Aarhus)

'Laying out their traps and cakes: tinkering towards deer aesthetics in a hunting landscape'


Final discussion led by Christos Lynteris

1. Bill Adams (Department of Geography, University of Cambridge)

Tagging Tony: bird tracking technology and geographies of migration

Changing technologies have mediated understanding of bird migration since the end of the nineteenth century, and over that period, the scientific story of migration has played an important role in the form and growth of bird watching and the conservation movement.  Satellite-tags (fitted to cuckoos since 2011) are just the latest in a series of technologies used to identify and relocate migrant birds (e.g. numbered metal rings, coloured rings and tags, digital ‘geolocators’).  Capture technologies have evolved from the artisanal nets and traps used in bird harvesting, through the fixed Heligoland traps of bird migration observatories, to today’s ubiquitous mist net.  This paper will discuss technologies of bird capture and marking and their role in revealing the geographies of migratory movement.  It will consider the revolution that digital technology brings, both to identifying the routes taken by individual birds, and the way that movement data is curated by conservation scientists to create online human communities of care.


2. Alberto Corsin Jimenez (Department of the History of Science, Spanish National Research Council)

Three traps many

In this paper I want to introduce the trap as a method and genre of description. In anthropology and archaeology, traps have traditionally been described in the tradition of material culture, as artefacts whose features are representative of various functional, technological, symbolic or socio-cognitive qualities. The history of science has also produced abundant descriptions of experimental setups as traps designed to capture epistemic things. Traps have also been used to illustrate the relational qualities of ecologies, as is the case for example of the spider web, where the fly and the spider are said to be mutually entangled in an emergent ecosystem. Traps have therefore been variously mobilized as infrastructures, ecologies and epistemic interfaces. Here I want to attempt a somewhat different description of what traps do, one that places description itself at the heart of the trapping project. To describe is to trap, and to trap – to lay out an infrastructure, to clear an ecology, to equip oneself with a set of epistemic tricks – is but another way of going about the business and method of description.


3. Natalie Forssman and Meredith Root-Bernstein (Research on the Anthropocene Project, Aarhus University)

Laying out their traps and cakes: tinkering towards deer aesthetics in a hunting landscape

This paper is an exploration of a deer-hunting landscape in Denmark, drawn from our participation in an interdisciplinary project on the Anthropocene. Efforts to hunt in this highly-managed landscape work not through enclosure, but enticement. Deer are captivated and captured through landscape interventions involving vegetation, feeding stations, and hunters’ bodily comportment in the forest. We view these interventions in the landscape as attempts to discern deer preferences and aesthetics, and thereby to construct empathy with them. We then use the analytic opportunity presented by these practices of landscape management ‘for deer’ to think about other design practices as devices for constructing and experimenting with empathy. Entrapment emerges as a useful analytic to reconfigure discussions around empathy. As a materialization and externalization of the human-animal encounter, entrapment helps us see empathy as more than a practice of ‘being other’, but also as involving imagination, tinkering, and landscape production. Practices of investigating and representing deer in scientific and artistic methodologies, which are similarly centred on the puzzle of luring them, involve tinkering in the landscape in order to understand their preferences. There are both alignments and mis-coordinations between deer aesthetics, landscape aesthetics, scientific aesthetics, and art aesthetics. 


4. Klint Janulis (School of Archaeology, University of Oxford)

Catching Time: how trapping may have influenced human cognition

Traps and snares (remote capture technologies [RCT]) may have been used in the Middle Stone Age (MSA) alongside other emergent technologies like hafting and complex tools (Wadley, 2010). The primary evidence for RCT use is the faunal remains of animals more easily acquired (or ethnographically attested) with RCT than hunting (Barham, 2014; Wadley, 2010). RCT vary greatly in their design, employment, and success. Some can be employed opportunistically and thus do not require extensive preparation or resource expenditure. Others require systematic distribution and rotation, with success depending on quantity and efficient harvesting techniques. These differences can inform interpretations of archaeological data. The technical complexity of traps suggests the involvement of neural networks similar to those implicated in hafting and compound tool manufacture. RCT also imply the presence of executive functions like working memory (Coolidge & Wynn, 2009). However, how RCT use may have cognitively influenced their makers has not been assessed. RCT variables and associated zoological data can provide insight into the cognitive capabilities of early trap users. Such analysis may also help us understand how RCT use and employment might have influenced human cognitive evolution. This exploration suggests that if early humans were exploiting smaller game resources with traps, they were engaging with the landscape and material culture in ways implying cognitive change.


5. Stuart Marks (Department of Anthropology, University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa)

Snaring as Social Protest for Sustaining Local Identities and Access to the 'Game'

The Valley Bisa of Zambia live within a slim corridor of  land surrounded by three national parks and a steep escarpment. Their homeland, portrayed as a ‘wilderness’ for tourists and safari hunters, and their stories are litmus tests for the myths that conservationists, administrators, and donors promote about their efforts to effect Africa’s environmental and wildlife crises. In this context local hunting and husbandry strategies have been successively transformed by the introduction of technologies and policies. This paper charts the most recent of these transformations; the refashioning and deployment of former technologies (snares, pits) in the wake of the criminalization of muzzle loading guns due to the top-down imposition of ‘sustainable conservation’. As a ‘democratic’ technology, snares and pits are readily modified to fit local routines, skills, and subversive calculations. Snaring has cultural energy and ingenuity behind it. Unlike the largesse of past patrons, who through their guns supplied and supported clients in state-mandated large villages, today individual trappers pursue strategies that are appropriate in the shadows of a scaled back political economy of fractured lineages and individual household survival. 


6. Garry Marvin (Department of Life Sciences, University of Roehampton)

Trapping and Hunting: Knowledge, Skills, Engagements and Relationships

Trapping features in many histories of the fur trade, particularly in North America and the Circum-Polar regions, and it is touched on in some anthropological studies, especially in terms of the technologies of trap-making. However, it seems that there is little anthropological ethnographic material on the nature of human-animal relations as mediated through the technologies of traps and also through the skills, knowledges, practices and processes of their placement. Given the paucity of literature on the subject this will be an exploratory excursion through a consideration of trapping handbooks and guides to see how trapping differs from hunting. A key issue in hunting is that the hunter must enter the terrain of the animal, attempt to find it and draw it into a relationship with him/her in the present in order to kill it. Relationships, timings, presences and absences are significantly different in trapping. Here the animal is not present when the traps are set but the trapper hopes that s/he has set them where the animal has been in the past and will be in the future and that both of them come together in a later future.


7. Nayanika Mathur (Social Anthropology, University of Sussex)

The Beastly and the Beautiful: cage-ing and camera-trapping big cats in India

This paper sets up a comparison between two technologies of big cat trapping in India. It asks what an ethnographic analysis of the two might tell us about the role of technology in the production of big cats as a particular kind of animal (cute/beautiful or vicious/beastly). The human perception of big cats has thus far been studied through the lens of myth, religion, ritual, capital, conservationism, and class-inflected aesthetics. Instead, this paper focuses on the technology of two forms of trap – one physical and one visual – to make a case for understanding the contrasting accounts of big cat in India. The first trap discussed is a cage that uses animal bait and is camouflaged by greenery. The second is visual: the use of camera-trapping techniques to gain an intimate and candid knowledge of big cats. Through fieldwork conducted with camera-trappers in the Himalaya as well as in the city of Mumbai, I discuss the processes whereby these two forms of traps are laid. The skills required for trapping in both these cases are, on the surface, similar: a knowledge of terrain; familiarity with the animal and its movements, likes, and dislikes; a rapport with human residents who allow for the traps to be installed and are at hand to monitor them; patience and constant surveillance of the traps. The differences arise at the point the animal has been captured. Through an ethnographic tracing of these different forms of trapping I show the construction of ideas of beastliness and beauty.


8. Hannah Mumby (Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge)

Uses of technology in managing and studying elephants

Humans have a long history of interaction with African and Asian elephants. Elephants have been used as draft animals, in wars and in cultural and religious ceremonies. All of these encounters utilise technology. For the first section of my talk, I will focus on logging elephants in Myanmar. Today, as logging is phased out, there are around 2,700 government-owned animals trained in pushing and dragging logs. In historic records dating from the 1890’s onwards, the life histories of around 10,000 individuals are detailed, including dates and causes of death, workload and disease history. Half of the animals were born in captivity and the other half captured using a range of methods including stockade, immobilisation and a lasso method known as milashikar. My research has focused on workload and capture-induced stress and their associations with mortality, fertility and patterns of senescence. In a second case study from my current work, I will describe the role of satellite tracking technology in monitoring free ranging African elephants. I use collars to collect data on the movement and association patterns of elephants. They are also an important tool in human-elephant conflict management. I will describe collaring operations and their role in “green hunting” in which elephant hunters dart elephants to be fitted with collars rather than shooting to kill. Finally, I describe the uses of the technology in my behavioural and evolutionary ecology research; recent advances in real time tracking; and the use of such data to improve monitoring of the illegal killing of elephants.


9. Chloe Nahum-Claudel (Pembroke College and Division of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge)

Subjected to the will of the traps

The Amazonian Enawenê-nawê build monumental fishing dams in order to catch and smoke shoals of fish as they migrate downriver after spawning. Enawenê-nawê dam-fishing is a predatory endeavour involving both an exceptional degree of mastery and an unusual degree of subjection. Once the heavy work of sinking the uprights into the river bed is complete and the traps have been inserted into the dam’s upriver face, the community of fishermen emphasise their physical passivity: they ‘lie down to rest’ spending their time in the encampment at a remove from the site of entrapment. Instead of engineering a physical technology, they embrace a set of mental and social techniques in order to generate the convivial and fertile atmosphere that is ‘desired’ by their humanoid and phallic traps. The interdependence between traps and men enjoins practices akin to those observed by both men and women during post-partum and puberty seclusions such as fasting, sexual abstinence, bodily purification, contemplative craft work, shamanic cure and exceptional culinary mores. The nexus of intentionalities that binds man, fish and trap together, enchains abstinence to fertility, vulnerability to vitality, exerted boundary maintenance to propitious openness, and danger to predatory prowess.


10. Carlos Emanuel Sautchuk (Department of Anthropology, University of Brasilia)

Trap or Trust: technical objects in the Amazon

Gell explores how hunting traps contain internationalities and models of human and animal action. It is precisely this aspect that I wish to discuss via the ethnography of the use of fishing gear in a protected area close to the mouth of the Amazon River. In order to reflect on some aspects of the approach to animism and artefacts in the Amazon, and based on the relational and operative approach of the French anthropology of technique, I examine the political dispositions of the groups involved through the meaning of the technical objects regulated by a conservation agreement. I highlight specifically the refusal of fishermen to use nets instead of harpoons to catch the arapaima gigas or pirarucu fish. In the regime of relations established by the harpoon, this tool is considered part of the fisherman himself, shares his gesture and, in this condition, comprises an amphibious weapon that allows the fisherman’s intention to extend to the bottom of the lake. The harpoon has no intentionality and is not personified, but its actions establish the harpooner and the fish as persons. On the other hand, as an autonomous device – as a trap – the net breaks this economy of actions and persons. It dispenses with the aggressive properties of the harpooner and negates the exercise of the fish’s will, thereby breaking the trust established by throwing the harpoon. We could say that transferring the act of capture in time and space to the net disrupts the economy of relations implanted by the harpoon. The net is understood as a disqualification of the fish and an outrage for the harpooner – precisely because it separates them from the action established by the harpoon throw.


11. Hermione Spriggs (AoOA: Anthropology of Other Anima)

Gobbles Sound OK

For hundreds of years philosophers and artists have lamented their incapacity to adequately replicate ‘nature’, with frustrated attempts at containment and representation only serving to accelerate the increasing fissure between polarized worlds of human and animal. On the other hand hunters and trappers use finely tuned strategies for aesthetic and audio mimesis: decoy calls and foley performances draw a hunter into intimate proximity with his/her prey. ‘Gobbles Sound Ok’ explores the critical difference between these contrasting approaches to discourse with and around the natural world. Via Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Languages, Dijkstra’s theory of image substitution and online hunting instructables, I investigate the production and performance of sonic decoys and hunting lures as multisensory, multispecies ‘artworks’ that utilize alterity to undermine the boundary between human and animal. This paper touches on a variety of examples of decoy production drawn from ethnographic literature, and investigates in more detail the visual aesthetics of avian decoy manufacture in the USA. A further analysis of American “rattling” (a sonic lure for antlered bucks) provides the basis from which to compare decoy construction and use across different sensory modalities and animal umwelts.


Image Credits

1. Emily Elsner. Sparrowhawk

2. CERN. Compact Muon Solenoid 'traps of antimatter'

3. Meredith Root-Bernstein & Natalie Forssman. Deer in Denmark

4. Klint Janulis. A small game deadfall trap colloquially called "The Paiute Deadfall"

5. Stuart A. Marks, 1973. As customary ‘owner of the land’, Zambian Chief Nabwalya, at right with hand on hips, supervises the butcher of a bull cape buffalo. Each of these meat chunks will be assigned individuals to carry and present to village households. This chief and allies developed a Lineage Husbandry resource regime on common land that lasted throughout his tenure (1932-1984)

6. Cover of a sales catalogue of Newhouse Traps, a famous American animal trap manufacturer

7. Nayanika Mathur. Leopard selfie taken by camera trap

8. Hannah Mumby. An elephant and his mahout in Mayanmar

9. Chloe Nahum-Claudel, 2009. Enawenê-nawê fishermen check their traps

10. Carlos Sautchuk. Pirarucu fishing on the lakes in the region of the Amazon River Estuary, Brazil

11. "FIGHTIN’ HORNS™" from the online marketplace