The marking of animals has been practised in all pastoral systems since time immemorial. Using a series of examples representative of the major pastoral civilisations of the world, the author presents the techniques used (branding and ear incisions, either separately or in combination). In the light of the characteristics common to pastoral societies, the following points are analysed:
a) the manner in which the marks used by these societies have been conserved or modified in the course of vertical (inherited) or lateral changes of ownership
b) the content and meaning of the messages conveyed by the marks
c) the various functions of the marks, namely: collective or individual identification, establishment of rights, protection against theft. In conclusion, the mark of the lineage is seen as symbolic of the founding pact of the pastoral system, uniting a community of humans, a community of animals and a territory.
Traditional livestock marking systems are generally not used for health purposes. Moreover, the characteristics of these traditional systems are not compatible with the requirements of modern traceability. Nevertheless, these systems could be adapted, as is the case for the marking of the reindeer herds of the Lapps in Norway, which has been given legal value and has been made mandatory.