Wild Animals Ain’t So Wild, Domesticating Them Not So Difficult

By: Charles A. Reed

Originally Published in 1986

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Articles on origins of domestication of animals are always written by humans for other humans, usually based in large part on archaeological materials dug by archaeologists and primarily meant to be read by archaeologists. Quite naturally, the picture which emerges is one-sided, stressing the human aspects of the history and relegating the other animals, the ones domesticated, to secondary roles. Here I will present data primarily about the nonhuman animals in the partnership, or those which could have been. Ordinarily, with typical human egotism, we say and write that man domesticated animals. Actually, as we shall see, both the human animals and the nonhuman animals became domesticated. Domestication was necessarily a cooperative, symbiotic process, in each case between two species of animals.

From the time (1955) that I first became interested in the early domestication of animals, particularly mammals, I have often been asked, “How could men catch, tame, and keep the fierce wild ancestors of our domestic animals?” The answer is that those ancestors, as is true of most wild animals, weren’t really `wild’ in the popular sense except when hunted or trapped, and that they would usually choose to flee rather than fight, but of course would fight if forced. The truth is that humans were usually the aggressors, the wild animals the victims. Also true was that many groups of hunters, of different times and areas, developed their own myths of relationships with one kind of animal or another or even concepts that the animals were cooperating in offering themselves for human use. Such myths, associated with rituals of prayers before a hunt and thanksgiving after, placed the animals in special roles in the human culture, all of which was unknown to the animals. Some such human cultural activities may have led in time to the ritual keeping and finally domestication of some kinds of animals (Isaac 1970), but generally another path toward domestication, that of keeping and rearing the young, is considered to have been more probable.

With the rise of agriculture and the gathering of people into towns and then cities, most humans lost their contacts with, and thus firsthand knowledge of, wild animals. Hunting became a sport, often in some arena, for royalty and the nobility, who sought self-importance, as do hunters today, more in the killing of the game than in providing food. Under those conditions, knowledge of the animals in nature decreased as did the sense of kinship, but anthropomorphic concepts increased (Aesop’s fables, Grimm’s fairy tales, and many other writings of classic antiquity and the Medieval period). These misconceptions have been continued to the present in popular literature, hunters’ magazines, and by Hollywood (Three Little Pigs, other similar cartoons, and many horror movies). While the present trend toward wildlife programs on TV is commendable, and recent movies often portray wild animals in a more favorable light, in general our non-domestic mammalian relatives have had a bad press throughout recent centuries; in addition, the writings of explorers, well into the 20th century, made heroes of the authors in successful slaughter of gorillas, elephants, or other nonaggressive animals. This pattern is echoed today in journals published for and read by hunters, each of whom will consider himself a hero if successfully using a high-powered rifle with telescopic sights to shoot an unsuspecting ram across a mountain valley. There are even some who will buy from poachers the hands and feet or heads of gorillas as `trophies.’

By contrast with oft-told Medieval tales and hunters’ misconceptions, animals in nature are only as wild as they need to be to survive in their own way—herbivore, carnivore, or omnivore—and will flee or fight as they must to preserve their lives or, on occasion, those of their young. The different species behave in different ways, as determined by natural selection during their successful evolution. With relation to degrees of potential domestication (birds and mammals, mostly), these animals can be ranked behaviorally into three groups.

Animals Naturally Tame

At one extreme of behavior there are many kinds of animals that even as adults are completely unwild and so nearly unwary that one wonders how they survived, even before humans arrived to harry and/or slaughter them. Among these are manatees, who may not even move aside as one swims among them; sea-otters, from whom one can take the young without defense by the mother; various basking seals, elephant-seals, and sea-lions, among whom (other than the males in breeding season) one can walk unconcerned and whose young, if they’ve lost their mothers, will follow any human, hoping to be fed; various of the porpoises and dolphins, who seem to have no fear of man; and even the great whales. Sea-otters and California sea-lions, at least, also seem on occasion to be eliciting play behavior from humans swimming among them in the ocean.

Human travelers in uninhabited areas, mostly Antarctica and some Pacific islands, have always marveled at and sometimes been charmed by the tameness of the birds there; on land they have no predators and flee no evil because they know none. Any human, thus, could walk up to them and knock them on the head, and indeed many did just that, sometimes for food, sometimes for rendering out the fat, and sometimes just to be killing.

Animals which are already tame, as if still living in the Garden of Eden, would be automatically and immediately domesticable if anyone had ever wanted to enter with them into the social bond of symbiosis whereby each partner is an energy trap for the other (Reed 1977; Reed and Perkins 1989). Such animals, which have only a weak flight reaction or none at all, would include a number of birds and reptiles living on oceanic islands, birds breeding on islands lacking carnivores (with Antarctica to be regarded as a large island), and marine mammals such as sea-otters and many cetaceans. To date, no humans have utilized these opportunities to domesticate these animals, and in our modern technological societies probably no one will ever do so.

Animals Tamed when Young with Adults Breeding under Human Control

Many kinds of birds and mammals are born tame or are easily tamed if caught young, fed, and treated with some degree of kindness. Indeed, the newly hatched young of many kinds of birds will imprint on humans and thus regard the latter as their parents.

Almost all, if not all, domestic animals are in this category of animals tamed when young and remaining, to some degree at least, under human influence when adult, so that humans may control their available mates and thus the genes of their offspring (i.e., artificial selection). Thus the flight or fight reaction can be bred out of them by selective changes in their neural and endocrine systems. The numerous kinds of animals, particularly mammals, which have become domesticant s have been discussed at length in books edited by Higgs (1972, 1975) and Mason (1984), but I wish here to mention wolves as an example of the biologic and social complexities involved.

Wolves have had a bad press (Fig. 1), particularly in Europe and North America, resulting from their predation on domestic livestock after humans reduced the populations of their natural prey. The Medieval peasant or the western American sheepherder, confronted with the carcasses of wolf-killed domestic animals, was livid with rage, and wolves were charged, both locally and in the courts of kings and the halls of Congress, with every possible, purposeful, vile and evil act. The human response was every possible, purposeful, vile and evil act: traps, poisons, guns, packs of dogs, digging out or gassing the young, and shooting from airplanes. Actually, wolf pups reared as a group in Alaskan isolation (Crisler 1973), or a single pup brought up with children and dogs in an urban family (Hellmuth 1974), are wonderfully affectionate, social, playful, cooperative, dynamic, interesting, and of course intelligent fellow citizens (they are more than pets). Further revealing studies on wolves as highly intelligent social animals, ancestral to all dogs, can be found in Banks et al. (1967), and in several books by Michael Fox.

Wolves are mentioned here in some detail to illustrate the basic point that the popular stereotypes widely and deeply held by many modern humans about many animals are grossly erroneous, emerging from our behavior for millennia of meeting wild animals with stones, spears, arrows, swords, clubs, fire, deadf ails, poison, and guns. But all dogs are domesticated wolves, and under conditions of hunger or harshness (including purposeful training), many dogs become fiercely aggressive; there is an overlap in behavior between wolves and dogs, and genetically they remain the same species in spite of bearing different specific names in our Linnaean system of nomenclature. But the Linnacan system is man-made, with human emotions sometimes in charge; biology is more basic.

In my own experience, the young of wild sheep, goats, and gazelles (as also wolves) are born docile, and remain docile if fed and treated well. I believe, from accounts in the literature, that this docility is a near-universal trait among many if not most young mammals and birds, even if expressed to different degrees in different species. The successful keeping of exotic pets is, and for millennia has been, common among many groups of people but has rarely led to domestication because of lack of human interest in supporting the increasing populations for several generations of numerous kinds of animals for which no immediate improvement in economic return can be experienced or visualized. For instance, hunting and killing whales has been easier than capturing, keeping, taming, feeding, and domesticating them. Also, the hunting and killing of the elephant-birds of Madagascar and the moas of New Zealand and of many other kinds of animals was easier than domesticating them. Such patterns of past human behavior are not evidence against the possible domestication of these or many other kinds of animals; primitive economics and human habits, nor biology, have been the final factors.

Animals Tamed as Adults

1. Purposeful taming by humans: Many adult wild mammals and birds can be taken into captivity or induced to remain in a given area by artificial feeding, and become tame; the flight or fight reaction is diminished by experience. This technique is the one which has typically been used to acquire elephants for work, war, or circuses. Many other animals, from mice to cheetahs, can be captured, tamed, kept, fed, and trained to do a variety of tricks or chores. The sport of falconry, the use of cormorants for fishing and of ostriches for riding, for instance, are dependent upon the behavioral malleability of wild-caught birds.

2. Self-taming by adult animals: Actually, alert tameness is the natural state of most vertebrate animals, and of many others as well. If never disturbed, such animals retain this basic tameness, so that we have a variety of wild birds and rats and feral cats and dogs eating peaceably together at an overturned garbage can in an urban alley. At another level, wild Bighorn sheep can become so accustomed to humans that one can feed them by hand while fitting them with radio-collars or eartags (Geist 1971); I once had such an adult male Bighorn at a road intersection in the western United States stick his bead partially through the open car window begging for food like a Yellowstone bear. If his horns had been smaller he would have climbed into the car. Artificial feeding is not necessary, however; in at least one small town, Waterton, Alberta, the mule deer roam the streets, crop the lawns, and take refuge from bad weather under front porches (Geist 1971, and see also his list of other mammals self-habituated to humans and their environments).

A more extreme example of self-taming was that of several old male Cape Buffalo (“The world’s most dangerous game animal,” as it is widely known) of Murchison Falls Park, Uganda, which, finding the cut grass around the rangers’ houses better food than the natural grass, elected to live in the peoples’ yards. Boys rode them and housewives shooed them away from front doors with brooms. No matter; the old buffaloes liked the area and there they stayed, docile as could be.

At the Rattray Game Reserve in South Africa, I have had Cape Hunting Dogs play around and under an open Land Rover in which a group of us were sitting; another time a lady cheetah and her four half-grown kits lay down only 20 feet away from us. She went away for awhile, the kits played rough-and-tumble, and then she returned and led them away, gazing at us unperturbed as she went by our open Rover. Yet another time a grown but young spotted hyena came to our open car with all the behavior of a lost dog looking for its master. “Wild” animals? Only if one accepts as wild the concept of necessary self-defense or the hunting and killing for food natural to carnivores.

The finest examples known to me of the natural tameness of wild populations of many birds and mammals, particularly carnivores, were the experiences of Mark and Delia Owens (1984) in the grasslands of the Kalahari Desert, Botswana. The Owenses lived an austere life among animals which had not known humans, “austere” because they did little hunting and so, for food, had to depend for the most part on importations from the nearest edge of civilization. The animals became so familiar with them that lions and hyenas came into camp and kitchen; sometimes a leopard slept on the branches above their tent, and often a hundred or more hornbills and other birds would be fluttering about their heads at once. They did not purposely lure the animals with food, but neither did they harm or threaten them, nor were they themselves harmed. (I must admit that this latter situation confuses me, as starvation occurred at times among the carnivores, and why should a hungry lioness with starving cubs ignore defenseless bipedal hominoids?)

Wild animals ain’t so wild, as shown again by a wild-caught penned wolverine in Alaska, which, within a few days of capture, was taking food from the hand of Lois Crisler, who purposefully had climbed into the pen with it; when the hand was empty, the wolverine gently, with its incisor teeth, held the lady’s fingertip without breaking the skin. Contrast this gentle behavior with the image typically presented for the wolverine, one of an incarnate fiend of fury. A friend of mine who cleaned cages at the Brookfield Zoo one summer had the same thing to say of wolverines: “friendly little animals” he called them.

Origins of Domestication

Any adult animals, as the Owenses demonstrated, are tolerant of human intruders who offer no threat; human history is full of accounts of odd associations between people and other animals, associations achieved either purposefully by the humans or just happening. In general, non-human animals are more tolerant of harmless humans than humans have been of harmless animals, but rarely have the humans been harmless. Probably most birds and all social mammals, and some others too (wolverines?), could be domesticated if people would make the effort. Eland in southern Africa and musk oxen in northern North America are being domesticated, and European elk ( moose to Americans) were domestic in Sweden once, used particularly in winter by the postal service. Others, equally capable of being domesticated, were not for the simple reason that taming, keeping, and domesticating under prehistoric conditions were undoubtedly energy-wasteful in the initial stages, and once a particular need had been fulfilled by one kind of animal, why duplicate the process with another?

The major factor that had to change to make domestication possible, as I have discussed previously (Reed 1977), was that of human behavior. As long as the successful male hunter was the hero, the human social ideal, there could be no real relationships between humans and other animals other than that of hunter and hunted. Suggestions have been made that late Paleolithic Cro-Magnons herded wild red deer and reindeer for their own purposes, and by so doing gradually acquired such knowledge and skill at managing the deer that domestication would have emerged, but satisfactory data are lacking. By contrast, when we do have firmer evidence of such herding, gentle is not the word for it; the active driving of herd animals (bison, horses, gazelles) into compounds or arroyos or over cliffs is proved instead, and killing and butchering were the accomplished goals. I believe that domestication could never have emerged from active hunting, as death of the quarry was always the intent of the hunter, and such behavior precluded the social cooperation necessary for domestication.

The interesting problem about domestication, as I see it, is how many species of birds and mammals could have become domestic but how few did. With the nonhuman animals, normal biologic evolution toward intraspecific socialization was the basic path toward potential domestication, and for most such species a sufficient degree of socialization had been achieved several millions or tens of millions of years ago. Even some mammals not very social (cats, ferrets) have become domestic.

The key factors in the origins of domestication, thus, were changes in human attitudes and human behavior, i.e., changes in human cultural evolution. As long as humans, particularly the dominant adult males, regarded all other animals as immediate sources of food and tools, then such animals were the hunted and humans the hunters. This long relationship was not one which suggested or allowed for domestication, a state of social cooperation between Homo and other populations. Humans themselves had to change behaviorally, in a sense had to domesticate themselves; symbiotic domestic relationships with other species then followed, seemingly almost automatically, since the other partners of the possible symbiotic relationships had been socially and psychologically pre-adapted for domestication for millions of years. “Wild animals ain’t so wild”; indeed, under some conditions of human peace, many if not most wild animals, as noted before, are quite willing to share their space with humans.

The remainder of this essay is an abstract of several more detailed prior publications.

The Advent of Domestication

We have no good evidence of man’s earliest animal domestication, that of dogs, before ca. 14,000 b.p. (before present), and even that date is thought to be several millennia too early by some scholars (Olsen 1985). This date means not only that modem man (Homo sapiens sapiens) was and is the only population of humans who was and is symbiotically social with another species, but also that more than half of the history of modern man passed before a wolf pup that had been tamed became the ancestor of the earliest dogs. Why did these modem-type humans wait so long? And, if dogs were present 14,000 years ago, why did no other animals become domestic for at least another 3,000 years? We have no certain answers, but can only suggest a correlation between the emergence of domestication and plant agriculture with the waning and then disappearance of the last glacial period, the Würm-Wisconsin. That Ice Age was already waning 14,000 b.p., when the first dogs may have appeared, and was in full retreat by 10,000 h.p., a date which most geologists term the end of the Pleistocene and the beginning of the Holocene (Recent).

Within the following 5,000 years, most of the world’s primary food-plants (with grasses predominating) were being cultivated, and most of the domestic animals were being reared and kept. This period was one of intense cultural evolution, often termed the Neolithic Revolution; during this short time (‘short’ relative to the prior known period of four million years of hominid existence) agriculture began and developed in several centers of Eurasia and the two Americas. The plants being cultivated and the animals kept were, for the most part, different in each of these several areas, but the foundations of civilizations were being established, seemingly independently, in the Near East, northern China, southeastern Asia, Middle America, and South America. The correlations between these events—the major climatic changes of the post-glacial, and the presence of modem humans for the first time during the initial stages of such a post-glacial climatic change—are, I think, noteworthy. Animal domestication was, I hold, only one of the major changes in this world’s history to emerge from the intertwined cultural events that occurred during this most recent of the multiple post-glacial environmental changes that happened during the last million years.

Comments on Some Domesticants

Ruminant: The Camelidae of Asia and South America and the Bovidae of the Old World (cattle, sheep, goats, yaks, water buffalo) furnish us with most of our domestic mammals. Of the numerous deer, only the reindeer are important domnesticants, although many other kinds tame easily and are sometimes found mingling with people in parks. All of the cud-chewers chew their food twice and chew it exceedingly fine; they all have complex multi-chambered stomachs which contain symbiotic bacteria and protozoans which digest cellulose; they can survive therefore on diets on which other animals starve; and they are all social. They are evolutionarily pre-adapted for surviving under the often difficult conditions of early domestication. The bovids additionally can recyle urea from the circulating blood through the wall of the stomach and thus return it to the digestive tract to be reabsorbed in the intestine; in so doing, they salvage the nitrogen for synthesis of protein, allowing them to survive on low-protein diets. In correlation with these several factors, the family Bovidae has contributed more mammals to the list of domesticants than has any other.

Many species of ruminants have not become domesticated, but that is no evidence that they could not be; giraffes have not, for instance, but we have prehistoric rock drawings of giraffes with ropes around their necks and Egyptian drawings of these animals being led by such neck-ropes. Perhaps, as with several other animals, they were tamed at one time, but then found not to be economically useful relative to the labor involved in keeping them. After people have gone to the effort of accommodating their own behavior to the successful keeping of another species which then provided meat, skins, hair, bone, and maybe milk, why do the job all over again except for some special reason? If you have a prehistoric culture with sheep, goats, pigs, and cattle, why domesticate gazelles? Besides, gazelles at first taming remain rather ‘spooky,’ and so are a bother to have around the house.

Pigs and Peccaries: Only one species of pig (Sus scrofa) has become domestic, but I believe that the others (warthogs, giant forest hogs, river hogs, babirusas) could; indeed, the natives of the Celebes often keep and tame young babirusas, and that’s the first step toward domestication. Peccaries, related to pigs but in a different family, are often tamed and doubtless could become domesticants, but seemingly no one has made the required effort of keeping them and selectively breeding them for the several generations necessary to keep them tame.

Pigs and peccaries are pre-adapted to domestication by being social animals that are not vicious unless attacked. They do not have the four-chambered stomach of the ruminants, with its contained micro-organisms, so do not convert cellulose to digestible carbohydrates as do the ruminants, but as omnivores their happy ingestion of a wide variety of plant and animal foods is a key factor to their survival under the difficult conditions imposed by humans on domesticants.

Equids: Horses and donkeys (and their useful hybrid, the mule), zebras, and onagers are not ruminants with four-chambered stomachs, nor are they omnivores, so they have been losing the evolutionary struggle to other, better adapted ungulates, over the last few tens of millions of years. They are superior, however, in combinations of speed, carrying capacity, and pulling power, and horses particularly evoke emotional support among humans capable of supporting them. Equids came late to domestication, as contrasted with those ungulates (goats, sheep, cattle, pigs) used basically for hides, hair, and meat, but their use in war, sports, and agriculture, and of donkeys as beasts of burden, have been key factors in their continuing popularity.

Carnivores: Dogs, the earliest mammalian domesticants insofar as we know, may have been present among some cultures in Eurasia 14,000-12,000 years ago; all dogs, on the basis of present evidence, are derived ultimately from wolves (Canis lupus), but there has been much selective breeding along the way. Generalized dogs have less complex behavior than do wolves, and have shorter muzzles, smaller and more crowded teeth, and relatively smaller brains, but dogs and wolves still interbreed readily and have fertile young; they are therefore the same species.

We have no direct evidence of how this feat of domestication was accomplished, but I suggest that it was via the keeping in camp of wolf pups, naturally tame when young, whose parents had been killed by hunters in that pre-agricultural period. The necessary factors were that the pups were fed and treated amicably enough that they survived and moved with the human group by whom they had been adopted, and that the females at least stayed with the group as adults, became pregnant, and produced their pups in camp. Although dogs are known from Idaho, North America, almost 11,000 h.p., their bones remain rare, both in Eurasia and North America, for several thousands of years. We have no explanation for the scarcity during that period.

Cats are believed to have become domestic primarily by becoming adapted to living in and around rodent-infested granaries in Egypt ca. 2,000-1,800 B.C. People tolerated them, perhaps encouraged them, and sometimes protected them from dogs, sometimes fed them their beguiling young, and so Fells sitvestris libyca became domestic without changing much in behavior or morphology. Also helpful to their survival and continued popularity was the circumstance of cats in Egypt becoming quite quickly classified as sacred animals, and so not to be harmed, nor supposedly exported. That latter law was obviously difficult to enforce, in a nation with much foreign maritime trade, and so domestic cats became widespread in a relatively short period of time.

Other domesticants: These are numerous as to species and sometimes as to numbers, too; the interested reader is referred to Zeuner (1963) and to Mason (1984). The basic lesson to be learned with each of these numerous kinds of animals there discussed is that “wild animals ain’t so wild, domesticating them not so difficult.”

Charles A. Reed is a research associate in vertebrate anatomy at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. He was the first head of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Illinois at Chicago (1967-70) and is now Professor Emeritus in that Department. He has done field archaeology in Oregon. Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Turkey, and most recently (1988) in Sinai. In his work on the Iraq-Jarmo Project of the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago, he made pioneering contributions to the development of modern archaeozoology. In 1988, he was given the Archaeological Institute of America’s Pornerance Award for Scientific Contributions to Archaeology.

Cite This Article

Reed, Charles A.. "Wild Animals Ain’t So Wild, Domesticating Them Not So Difficult." Expedition Magazine 28, no. 2 (August, 1986): -. Accessed February 24, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/wild-animals-aint-so-wild-domesticating-them-not-so-difficult/


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