Home Dating asia Hitting the books: domestication spawned our fuzzy best friends

Hitting the books: domestication spawned our fuzzy best friends

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Almost 40,000 years ago, mankind had its best idea yet: to transform the supreme predator of the time into a sociable and loyal ally. Although the first humans largely passed through the first thousands of years of the process, the results were nothing short of revolutionary. The practice of domestication underlies our modern world, without which we would not have dogs, cats, farm animals, or even farms for that matter. In his latest book, Our oldest companions: the story of the first dogs, Anthropologist and member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Pat Shipman, explores the early days of domestication and how making dogs out of wolves fundamentally changed the course of human history.

Harvard University Press

From NOS OLDEST COMPANIONS: THE STORY OF THE FIRST DOGS by PAT SHIPMAN, published by The Belknap Press, Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2021 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used with permission. All rights reserved.


To answer the question of whether the first dog evolved in Asia or Europe, we need to go back and create a good working definition of domestication.

The term “domestication” has a very specific meaning. The term is derived from the Latin for “to remain” or “house”: domus. In its broadest sense, domestication is the process of making an animal or plant suitable or likely to live in the domus, to be a member of the family and to live intimately with it.

Even in this general sense, the precise meaning of domestication is elusive. Are plants domesticated? Some of them are certainly described as domesticated, as requiring deliberate care and cultivation, and sometimes fertilization, by humans and, conversely, as having been genetically modified by human selection to have traits considered desirable. I am not talking about the relatively recent process of genetic modification in plants; these modified products, such as soybeans, are colloquially known as GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Breeding has been carried out for millennia by hunters, gatherers, gatherers, gardeners, farmers and ranchers of various species by old-fashioned means, not in the laboratory. If you want, for example, violets with white stripes, what do you do? You try to feed the seeds of those that have white stripes and remove the ones that don’t, until you still get stripes (if you ever do).

One can understand the general principle of selecting or choosing the most desirable plants – those which give the most food under particular conditions, for example – but the practice of selection is somewhat paradoxical. The individual plants that produce rich fruits, seeds, or tubers are the ones you would most like to eat – and these are the very ones you need to save for the next planting season. What is the most practical strategy? Why did people start saving the best seeds? It’s a tricky riddle. As the late Brian Hesse wisely observed in his studies of early domestication, people who lack food, or even starve, do not save food for next season or next year. They are just trying to live until next week.

The habit of saving seeds for another day must have originated in relatively good times, when food was plentiful enough to save for the distant future. This implies that the motivation for domestication is not to ensure a stable food supply, as undertaking the initial process of domestication only makes sense if you already have enough food. The domestication of plants appears to be aimed at improving plant species in the long term. But you really don’t care if the plant is happy to see you or if it is playing nicely with the kids.

What is more, strictly speaking, domesticated plants – crops – do not exactly live with humans or in the home. In fact, because some of them, like nuts and fruits, grow on trees and most need sunlight, they couldn’t live indoors. Domesticated plants certainly do not participate actively in family life, although their needs and location may shape the seasonal and daily cycle of activities and the location of colonies. They don’t join the family. There is a strange sort of distant intimacy between crops and those who harvest or cultivate them.

The more you think about the domestication of plants, the more blurred the concept of “domesticating” them becomes. Early farmers or gardeners did not know enough about the mechanisms of reproduction or genetic makeup to know how to get a particular plant to fertilize another particular plant and produce larger bulbs, or juicier fruit, or buds. non-explosive seeds (which are easier to harvest) or tubers richer in carbohydrates. Domestication of plants was not about learning which individual plants were the most friendly or the least aggressive towards people. And yet, over time, wisdom has accumulated, sometimes accompanied by luck, and humans have discovered how to modify the genetics of certain plants to promote a more desirable outcome. This discovery is often referred to as a Neolithic revolution or the dawn of agriculture. It is generally believed to have occurred around 11,000 years ago. Agriculture as an organized system of food growing has transformed at least some of the people who traditionally hunted, gathered and gathered for their daily food – mobile people living off the land – and turned them into more sedentary farmers, tied to the fields, to villages and dwellings.

The Neolithic Revolution was not a win-win proposition to begin with. Several studies have shown that early farmers experienced a deterioration in their general health because they often had monotonous diets based on very few basic resources. Having a narrower range of staple foods meant that these people were more vulnerable to normal weather variations, such as too much or too little rain, or too hot or too cold, or a growing season that was too short; and of course there were plant diseases, which spread easily when an entire field is planted with one species. Cultivation of crops has also caused humans to live in more permanent settlements, which has exacerbated problems with sanitation, water supply, and disease among human crowds.

Although agriculture has supported more people living in higher densities than hunting and foraging, it has also created the perfect conditions for the spread of contagious diseases and pests and for recurring episodes of famine in the regions. bad years. And then there was the war. Among nomadic peoples who seek food and hunt, conflicts are often resolved by one group moving away from the other. But clearing and fencing fields, planting and tending crops, and building storage facilities take a lot of work, so people start defending territories – or plundering other people’s territories when times are tough and their own crops fail. . Surplus food, like seeds for next year or vegetables stored for the winter, could be stolen during a raid. Giving up a cleared or planted field and a food store is an expensive proposition, much riskier than simply moving your hunt to another area when game is scarce or your brother-in-law gets annoying.

As far as we know today, the domestication of plants began about 11,000 years ago with fig trees, starch, flax and peas in the Near East. Around the same time, foxtail millet was domesticated in Asia. How do we know all this? We know this because of the plant remains preserved in special conditions. Seeds can and sometimes have been saved.

Many edible plants also contain starch grains and phytoliths, microscopic structures of silica that are much more resistant to rot than leaves or stems. If they are found, they can also be used to identify plants that have been used in the past; techniques like radiocarbon dating can tell us when this happened.

Historically, it has often been assumed that plants were domesticated earlier than animals, but modern science shows this idea to be unmistakably wrong. There is no logical reason why this should be true. The attributes and needs of domesticated crops are very different from those of hunted or gathered foods; knowing how to raise wheat doesn’t tell you much about how to care for pigs. Like fields, particularly rich hunting grounds could be invaded by others and deserved to be defended. But many hunter-gatherers or gatherers were nomadic and lived in low density out of necessity. Staying too long in an area depleted the local prey population. While farmers can store crops for the future, hunters cannot store meat for long in temperate or tropical climates, although extreme cold works well to keep meat frozen. Over time, crops are more vulnerable to theft than carcasses.

The domestication of animals involves other problems. Domestic animals are not normally hunted; indeed, they are not always confined and can be free. Still, pets can be moved to a new area much more easily than a planted field, a grain store, or a pile of tubers, which simply won’t stand up to walk to a new location. These animals can even carry household items as they are moved. Moving pets is a very different proposition from moving plant food.

So why do we use the same word, domestication, to describe both plant and animal species, and a single word, domestication, to describe the process by which an organism becomes domesticated? I think this is a big mistake that was based on outdated ideas and wrong assumptions. I don’t think it’s a single process. I contend that the domestication of plants and animals is radically different because the nature of the wild species from which domestication might begin is also radically different. In addition to having the inherent genetic variability that makes some individuals exhibit more desirable traits, animals must also cooperate to some extent if they are to be domesticated. Animals choose domestication if it is to be successful. Plants don’t. Like animals, plants must have enough genetic variability to be exploited by humans during domestication, but plants do not decide whether or not to grow for humans. The animals must decide whether or not to cooperate.

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