"Marques de boeufs" - cattle ear marks in Madagascar

In the archive collection (A-1154) from Otto Emil Birkeli (1877-1952) we have found some tree leaves illustrating cattle ear marks from western Madagascar. Birkeli served there 1903-1919 as ordained missionary, sent by the Norwegian Missionary Society. Alongside his ministry he also did extensive research of culture and ethnology.

Here are photo reproductions of the contents of one envelope, found in box 64, folder #4.

The front of the envelope. Photo: Gustav Steensland.
The contents of the envelope. Photo: Gustav Steensland.

See attached files for larger resolution, including also two sample pages from Birkeli's notebook "Historie. Studier og notater over sakavslægten[sakavslægter?], 1909". Location: A-1154, box 64, folder #4.

Birkeli published an article about his findings:

"Marques de boeufs et traditions de race : Document sur l'ethnologie de la côte occidentale de Madagascar", in Oslo Ethnografiske Museum Bulletin 2, 1926, Oslo, Norway.

Leoni Bouwer has come to do research partly about the work of Birkeli. Here are some of her impressions:

"In Madagascar, a cow is not just a cow …

I am overwhelmed by what is available on Madagascar in these archives – just regret that I have not yet learnt to read the Norwegian language! Dr Øyvind Dahl says that his father, the late Otto Chr Dahl, learnt Dutch to have access to materials in that language. A number of these missionaries wrote in French, Malagasy and English too.

Further on Emil Birkeli’s work towards his publication on cattle earmarkings – what drew my attention among his detailed documents, was that he kept records of cattle earmarkings which informants had illustrated using leaves. Still now, almost a century later, Malagasy informants in different regions, as among the Bara Zafindravola, have picked leaves when asked to show what their particular earmarks were, tearing the leaves into the shapes of the marked ears. I did not keep these and did not take pictures either, except in my mind. But I did ask one such elder who is somewhat literate to draw on paper the different earmarks of the region I was studying and thought I’d stick a picture of that here: The leaf illustration he had done before was clearer and closer to home than the pen and paper one!! My main interest at the time was not the earmarks but language and identity and how people record things they find important, also what meanings the idea of writing have to them.

Figure 1. Ear-markings, as drawn by Dada M, December 2001 (From: Bouwer, Leoni E. 2003. The viability of official Malagasy in the language ecology of Southern Madagascar with particular reference to the Bara speech community. Thesis. Pretoria: University



I am tremendously impressed with how productive the missionaries have been – and I have only had a glimpse of the volumes of notes and careful, conscientious study and documentation. It is a privilege to have access to these archives. Thank you!"

Close-up of leaves with samles of ear marks on cattle. Photo: Gustav Steensland.
Published: 2008‑06‑20