[Note: This is the twenty-sixth sample from my rough draft of a far from finished new book, Wild, Free, & Happy. I don’t plan on reviewing more books for a while. My blog is home to reviews of 202 books, and you are very welcome to explore them. The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews, if you are interested in specific authors, titles, or subjects.]
What is “domestication?” With regard to animal domestication, there are two different meanings, and those who use the word don’t often reveal which one they mean. James Scott distinguished between “domesticated,” meaning tamed (modified behavior), versus “fully domesticated,” meaning genetically different from their wild ancestors as a result of selective breeding (modified DNA), and dependent on humans for their survival. Elephants in India have been tamed to do work for humans, but they remain genetically wild. Poodles are obviously genetically different from their gray wolf ancestors. The difference between wild humans and civilized ones seems to be far more cultural than genetic.
On the following pages, “domesticated” will refer to animals that have been held in captivity for many generations, selectively bred to encourage specific traits, and genetically different from their wild ancestors — manmade critters that had never existed before. They look and behave differently. Animals that have merely been tamed, like a friendly peanut loving squirrel, are not a matter for concern. But the control and exploitation of domesticated critters has really rocked the ecological boat over the centuries. The enslavement of animals enabled the growth of most civilizations, increased their environmental impacts, and frequently stimulated bloody conflicts.
Why Do It?
As we’ve learned, the success of hominins has been substantially boosted by our success at hunting and feasting on large wild herbivores — animals weighing more than 100 pounds (43 kg). Herbivores did not compete with humans for the same wild foods. They converted the solar energy that was stored in grass into a highly nutritious form that we could digest. This enabled hominins to develop big brains (but not necessarily wise).
As we’ve learned, “the perfection of hunting” eventually moved our ancestors over a line. We began taking some game a bit faster than they could replace their losses. For a very long time, large game remained abundant in many lands, enabling local hominin tribes to live well, and grow in numbers. As long as food was abundant and easy, there wouldn’t be much motivation to contemplate family planning strategies and wise taboos. But growing numbers of mouths needed growing amounts of food in order to remain strong, healthy, and alive.
While large game was abundant for a very long time, the delicious critters were not infinite in number. Big Mama Nature was simply not in the mood to magically accelerate herbivore reproduction in order to keep the tropical primates fat, happy, and annoying. It was long past time for the half-clever primates to learn some important lessons about life. Because they lacked immaculate wisdom, acute foresight, or PhDs in wildlife management, they were forced to learn these lessons the hard way. Big Mama fetched a paddle named scarcity. Smack! Ouch! Stop it! Smack!
As we’ve learned, climate change reconfigured the ecological playing field. The last glacial period spanned from about 80,000 to 12,900 years ago. The peak of this ice age was the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), which spanned from 26,500 to 19,000 years ago. Barry Cunliffe said that at this time, much of Europe was buried under ice sheets up to one mile (1.6 km) thick (as was North America). So much water was held frozen in glaciers that global sea levels were 410 feet (125 m) lower than today. During the frigid LGM, forest country was pushed far to the south. Trees survived along the Mediterranean Sea, the Atlantic coast of Portugal and Spain, and the south shore of the Black Sea.
Following the LGM, a warming trend began, which spanned from 19,000 to 12,900 years ago. Then, the Younger Dryas cold snap chilled things down again for another 1,300 years, until 11,600 years ago. Then began the warm climate period that we still enjoy today, which enabled the possibility of large scale agriculture, civilization, skyrocketing population, and the fantastic craziness of modernity. This warm era has lasted an unusually long time. Normally, we’d be overdue for a shift back to cold. Instead, we’re sliding sideways at high speed into a much hotter era, and it seems likely to blindside life as we know it. Clive Finlayson warns that the end of farming is just one climate change away.
The warm era that we’ve been living in for the last 11,600 years led to a sequence of big changes. Glaciers shifted into retreat mode, and a tundra ecosystem eventually emerged on the newly exposed soil. A bit later, steppe grasslands appeared, displacing some tundra. Still later, increasing warmth enabled the expansion of forests. As forests migrated northward, they began displacing the open tundra and grasslands that provided optimal habitat for the herds of large herbivores that our ancestors so deeply loved. So, hunters had to devote more attention to forest critters, which were less abundant: elk, aurochs, red deer, roe deer, wild pigs, and small animals.
For centuries, the human diaspora enjoyed some freedom to roam and expand. There were still frontiers, beyond which humans had never before set foot. Eventually, uninhabited ecosystems became more and more scarce, and red neon No Vacancy lights became common. Continued expansion ceased being free and easy. The intrepid pioneers kept smacking into <bleeping> limits, which got very annoying (and sometimes bloody).
As we’ve learned, the increasing scarcity of large herbivores required that the menus at the diner had to be rewritten. Expanding forest cover inspired folks to relocate to wetlands, or to the shorelines of seas, lakes, and streams. A number of foods that used to be second class became regular mainstays — birds, small game, fish, shellfish, plant foods. They had been second class because they were far more labor intensive than hunting large game. Tedious hard work sucks. Second class stuff had also provided a life insurance safety net, a reserve of food set aside for droughts, famine times, and so on.
Mark Nathan Cohen, Diana Muir, Craig Dilworth, James Scott, and others noted that there was a clear pattern in the archaeological record at many locations. The older evidence indicated a diet in which large herbivores were core. Above the old layers, evidence revealed the shift to labor intensive second class foods. Above that, evidence of herding and horticulture begins to appear — food production that was even more labor intensive. These shifts were motivated by a gradual process of growing scarcity.
Scott pointed out that our hungry ancestors were not merely domesticating plants and animals, they were also domesticating ecosystems to promote this new and laborious experiment in weird living. Forests were being swept aside, and replaced by open cropland and pasture. Wild animals that might harm crops or livestock were no longer welcome to exist in these new domesticated ecosystems.
Long ago, overspecialization contributed to the extinction of the saber-tooth cats, as hominin hunters competed more and more for their primary prey. Our ancestors avoided a similar fate. They were omnivores, so they could consume a huge variety of stuff that wasn’t meat. Because they had fire, and knew how to cook, they had far more food options than species that were restricted to a raw food diet. At the same time, successful efforts at eliminating man-eating predators sharply reduced the vital assistance they had provided for discouraging population growth.
Scott summed up the pluses and minuses of animal domestication. Both a deer and a steer provided meat, bones, hides, and tendons, but the deer required zero human assistance to grow from doe to adult. The steer could require corrals, winter feed and shelter, herd dogs, salt licks, and a source of water. As long as deer and other game was plentiful, labor intensive herding and farming would have been moronic.
On the plus side, enslaved female livestock could be milked. Milk could be made into cheese, yogurt, and butter, and stored for later. Herders have milked cattle, zebu, water buffalo, yak, goat, sheep, reindeer, dromedary, camels, horse, and ass. Dairy foods provide vitamin D, an essential nutrient. In winter months, folks living in snow country often could not acquire sufficient vitamin D via exposure to direct sunlight, so dairy foods could provide a beneficial supplement.
All infants can digest lactose, the sugar in milk. Before animal domestication, kids would normally become lactose intolerant a few years down the road. They could no longer digest milk. Lactose intolerant people are able to digest cheese, yogurt, and butter. In cultures with a tradition of dairy consumption, evolution eventually modified the gene pool for lactose tolerance in adults. This shift was not universal in all humans. In cultures where milk is not consumed, most folks become lactose intolerant after infancy.
Poultry and waterfowl produced meat and eggs. Folks rode on the backs of horses, donkeys, yaks, reindeer, and camels. Mounted cavalry radically redefined the rules for warfare and raiding. Beasts of burden were used to pull plows, carts, and sleds, and to haul loads of cargo on their backs. Animal manure could be used for fertilizer or burned as fuel. Hairy critters, especially sheep, provided fibers that could be spun and woven into many useful products. An animal can give up its hide just once, but a sheep can provide wool every year.
Herders could also tap some nutritious blood from living animals from time to time. Up to 80 percent of a wild human’s diet was plant based food, but animal products provided nutrients that were beneficial for a strenuous outdoor way of life. I have found no evidence of wild cultures that were vegetarian.
From Aurochs to Cattle
On many fine days in years past, I have taken walks in grasslands where cattle were grazing. I always felt safe, because the animals were not the slightest bit anxious or aggressive. I walked, they grazed, all was good. Let’s take a peek at the cattle family tree.
Aurochs were the wild ancestors of today’s herd of 1.3 billion domesticated cattle. They were huge, strong, and fierce — the opposite of the passive cud-chewing manure makers of today. In regions having ideal conditions, bulls could grow up to 6 feet (180 cm) tall at the shoulder, and weigh up to 3,300 pounds (1,500 kg). Their horns were much longer than cattle, and pointed forward, aggressively.
Some believe that the species originally emerged in India between 1.5 and 2 million years ago. They survived in a world along with similarly large, strong, and fierce predators. Eventually their range spanned from England to China. Aurochs’ preferred habitat was dense ancient forests with lakes, rivers, bogs, and fens. They didn’t hang out in frigid tundra regions with woolly mammoths and horses.
In 51 B.C., Caesar wrote that aurochs were animals “a little smaller than elephants, having the appearance, color, and shape of bulls. They are very strong and swift, and attack every man and beast they catch sight of. The natives sedulously trap them in pits and kill them. Young men engage in the sport, hardening their muscles by the exercise; and those who kill the largest head of game exhibit the horns as a trophy, and thereby earn high honor. These animals, even when caught young, cannot be domesticated and tamed.”
Charles the Great, also known as Charlemagne (A.D. 747 – 814), once had a painful encounter while on a hunting trip. When an aurochs appeared in the forest, his hunting buddies fled in terror. Charlemagne was less intelligent. He rode up to one, drew his sword, and pissed off the monster, who gored his leg. From that day forward, the humbled king walked with a limp.
The famous explorer Marco Polo (1254 – 1324) also described them. “There are wild cattle in that country as big as elephants, splendid creatures, covered everywhere but on the back with shaggy hair a good four palms long. They are partly black, partly white, and really wonderfully fine creatures.”
Anton Schneeberger (1530 – 1581) was a Swiss botanist and doctor based in Poland. He wrote that aurochs had no fear of humans, and did not flee from their approach. When they were teased or hunted, they got very hot-tempered and dangerous, sometimes hurling idiots high into the air.
Cis van Vuure wrote the book on aurochs. He thought that domestication began about 9,000 years ago, in the Middle East and Pakistan. Over time, the mighty aurochs was reduced to countless variations of dimwitted cattle, fine-tuned for specific climates and uses (meat, hides, milk, draft).
As agriculture expanded, Europe’s ancient forests and wetlands shrank. Grain farmers detested aurochs molesting their crops, and herders resented them dining on prime forage. Aurochs stood in the path of progress. The last aurochs died in 1627, in the Jaktoróv forest, in Warsaw province of Poland.
It’s hard to imagine such notoriously fierce animals being forced into slavery. Alasdair Wilkins wrote about recent DNA research on cattle. The ancestors of every domesticated cow in the world trace back to a tiny herd in the Middle East, a herd as small as 80 animals. The process of domestication may have taken a thousand years, and it was likely done by sedentary people. It would have been impossible for nomadic herders to confine huge powerful animals with a tremendous love of wildness and freedom.
Nobody ever hitched a wagon or plow to an aurochs. Nobody put a saddle on one. Nobody milked them, and made aurochs cheese. They were wild, free, strong, and extremely dangerous. And so, they no longer belonged in the heavily managed manmade societies we were creating. Today, thanks to centuries of selective breeding, we can now dine on hamburgers made from the bovine equivalent of a dimwitted yappy poodle.
The Unlucky Losers
The vast majority of living plant and animal species have luckily remained wild and free. Jared Diamond wrote a lot about domestication. Of the world’s 148 species of large land-dwelling herbivores and omnivores, only 14 had been domesticated prior to the twentieth century. Nine of the 14 only had regional significance, but five species soared to become multinational superstars — the cow, sheep, pig, goat, and horse. All five were domesticated in Eurasia, before 4000 B.C.
Most of the unlucky 14 were native to Eurasia. In the Americas, only the llama and alpaca were domesticated, and they lived in small herds. People didn’t drink their milk. They never spread to cultures beyond the Andes, so the Indian civilizations of Central and North America did not have pack animals beyond dogs. In North and South America, the heavy toll of megafauna extinctions may have eliminated a number of potential domesticates. In Australia, zero large animals were enslaved. In Africa, no large mammals were domesticated south of the Sahara — in this region only the turkey-like guinea fowl was domesticated.
Diamond wrote that the large herbivores most vulnerable to enslavement were species that were easy to feed, rapid growing, disease resistant, and could be bred in captivity. They did not panic in confinement, nor were they dangerously violent. These unlucky species were herd animals that had follow-the-leader dominance hierarchies.
James Scott wrote that over the passage of generations, selective breeding produces slaves that are more passive, less alert, less intelligent, and more dependent on human care. They reach reproductive age sooner, preserve some juvenile aspects, and produce more offspring. The brains of domesticated sheep are 24 percent smaller than their wild ancestors, and pig brains are one third smaller. Because they were dullards, Paul Shepard referred to domesticated livestock as “goofies.”
Domesticated animals are born in captivity, and many never experience wildness and freedom during their entire lives. One perk of their enslavement is that their lives are, in some ways, luxurious. They are provided with food, water, and salt licks. Many are provided with shelter from the hot sun, and frigid weather. They enjoy an unnatural level of personal security because predator eradication programs ensure they will usually be safe from deadly attacks, month after month, until their luck runs out, and their masters send them for a visit to the butcher. Enjoying such an easy life, they don’t need energy guzzling big brains. (As previously noted, human brains have shrunk about 10 percent in the last 20,000 years.)