Archive for the ‘domestication’ Category

st croix

Of late, I’ve been perusing various sites and Youtube channels that focus on sustainable agriculture or, rather, agriculture that can work with significant reductions in fossil fuels.  Now, I should note that I am a skeptic, and I don’t think that any one solution is the actual solution to the problem. But there are people working on it.

Among the ones I’ve been following is a Missouri grass-fed beef farmer named Greg Judy, who runs cattle, sheep, and swine using intensive mob grazing techniques, which require the use of mobile live wires.  He uses very little worming on his stock, so he has had to reinvent some of the domestication selection pressures on his stock.

For example, when he started running his worm-resistant sheep, he had a simple selection criteria.  If it jumped the live wire, he shot it. Within just a few generations, he had put enough selection pressure on his flock that he had sheep that could be contained with just a single strand of electric wire.

Just that simple idea set my mind on the process of domestication. In its initial stages, all those thousands of years ago, the process probably wasn’t any more elegantly simple than Judy’s shooting the fence jumpers.

When the idea of truly scientific selective breeding came to the fore in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, we were able to accelerate innovation in our various domestic strains. We bred animals that could gain weight rapidly on grain, that were docile enough to be crowded into feedlots, and that could be more easily transported via rail or by truck.

But now, the climate is warming, and the constant burning of fossil fuels is to blame. You can disagree with me on this, but most of the world’s leaders in politics and business agree with me.  Not enough do, of course, but enough do that we’re going to see policies put into effect that will make burning fossil fuels untenable.

This shift will mean that producers of meat will be forced to develop ways of running and finishing stock that will be based more upon grass forage than upon bringing in processed feeds, and this process will mean that we will have to change our selection criteria for livestock once again.

It may mean that the fence jumpers get shot. It will also mean that animals that cannot gain weight or give birth and nurse young on grass will be bred.

This constant adaptation of domestic animals to our societies’ various needs means that domestication has always been an ongoing process. We weed out the undesirable traits. We cull a little wild in the strain there, or we try to breed it back in over here.

Societies change. Climates change. Ecosystems change. Economies change.  Our understanding of biology is that populations of organisms change, too, and domestic animals undergo similar processes to the wild ones. It’s just that the human factors are the bigger driving force with these animals.

So we never just domesticate a species, and it’s done. In reality, we domesticate and select and select and select some more.



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loose skinned arctic fox

The animal above is a super-sized blue phase arctic fox that is of a type being bred in Finland. The exposed haw is actually the result of being bred for super loose skin, a trait that those in the dog welfare community know very well. “Typy” shar pei and Neapolitan mastiffs are well-known sufferers from loose skin problems, but even a in breed that isn’t as exaggerated, like Clumber spaniels, this loose skin can lead to all sorts of eye infections.

This is a full-body shot of the Neapolitan arctic fox:

wrinkled fox

Why are arctic foxes being bred with such loose skin?

Well, that loose skin actually makes for a larger pelt and a larger pelt goes for higher price.  In nature, arctic foxes are quite small, much smaller than Boreal red fox subspecies, but the arctic fox in its winter fur is a much more valuable animal.

Both red and arctic foxes breed well in captivity, and they have been farmed extensively for their pelts. Captive red foxes come in many colors now, but the naturally-occurring silver phase was once the staple of fox pelt market. The arctic fox, especially its blue phase, is also quite valuable, but the smaller pelts mean they cannot compete with the silver phase reds.

These Finnish breeders have begun to produce large blue arctic foxes, some of which weigh 20 kg, and have very loose skin in order to make a much more profitable strain of arctic fox.

This development has several moral and ethical questions, as well as being something that those of us curious about dog domestication and evolution might find intriguing.

I should note that I am not anti-fur. I come from a long line of fur trappers, including my own paternal grandfather who used to trap red foxes to fund his union activities. He knew more about red foxes than anyone I’ve ever personally known, and he had a great appreciation for the species.

For some, the fact that these animals are being bred for fur is going to be the biggest ethical problem, but for me, it is the exaggeration in conformation that causes me greater worry.  When these animals are killed for their fur, it is done humanely. Finland is a leader in the humane treatment of animals, and killing fur-bearers on farms in a cruel fashion would not be allowed.  The standard practice is for the animal to be rendered unconscious, then electrocuted. (I don’t want to get into a long, drawn-out debate about these, because there are places where this practice isn’t followed. Finland isn’t one of them. )

But these foxes spent their entire lives with loose eyelids and a bulky conformation that puts an exorbitant amount of stress on their joints, and this truly is a welfare issue.

I see this as the main welfare issue of domestic dogs in the West. We’ve bred domestic dogs with such exaggerated conformation that we’re ultimately harming them, and the funny thing is these animal welfare sites that post shocking animal cruelty videos and images also generate web traffic with videos of cute little bulldogs and pugs with such shortened muzzles that they cannot breathe or cool themselves properly.

I find these loose-skinned arctic foxes appalling, in every way I find an extreme shar pei appalling.

And here I can agree with the animal rights activist. This is wrong.

But at the same time, my curious, scientific mind is intrigued. Fur farmed foxes are sort of parallel dog domestications.  Much has been written about the Belyaev fur farm experiments and what they might say about how dogs were domesticated, but the truth is virtually every fur farm breeding program for the various red and arctic fox phases is an experiment that could reveal some secrets about dog domestication.

It is amazing that we can selectively breed arctic foxes to reach the size of coyotes, and it is even more amazing that we can select for the loose skin in arctic foxes that we actively breed for in certain purebred dogs.

It would be interesting to get full-genome comparisons on these “monster foxes” and more typical arctic foxes.  Maybe the genetics are similar between these foxes and the super-sized and loose skinned domestic dog breeds we have produced.

If we are going to breed animals for agricultural purposes, we are going to have to do it humanely. I am certain the Finnish breeders of these foxes believe they have done a great agricultural improvement in much the same way their intellectual forebears in England in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries bred massive swine and beef cattle that could barely walk on their own hooves.

So yes, we have an ethical issue with these foxes, just as we have an ethical issue with the continued breeding of dogs with exessive loose skin and exposed haws.




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Honey bees

I saw tons of these today, but these are the only photos that turned out any good.






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The following foxes have nothing to do with Dmitri Belyaev Siberian fox farm experiment:

Pearl foxes. Marked like border collies but not selected for tameness.

Irish marked marble fox, full body view.

Marbled fox. Almost entirely white.

Another marbled fox. These foxes are sometimes sold to rubes as arctic foxes. They are nothing more than red foxes with unusual coat colors. Arctic foxes are white only in winter. These foxes are always predominantly white.

These phases not result from their ancestors being systematically selected for flight distance or decreased aggression towards humans.

They resulted simply from unusual sports that popped up in farm fox breeding operations, and then the owners began to select for these color varieties. They normally aren’t uniform enough to make good pelts, but they often sold to roadside zoos.

These colors probably popped up as a consequence of being bred in captivity.  Belyaev suggested that his team was actually selecting for for genes that affect neurotransmitters that also affect melanin production.  So in this hypothesis, the selection for “tameness” increased the likelihood of producing spots.  But captivity produces a series of selection pressures on wild species that might be connected to selecting for both neurotransmitters and spots. It’s not tameness as defined by this experiment that affects morphology. It  is simply being bred in captivity that produced the spots.

Again, we actually don’t know the exact genetic basis behind the spotting, but we do know that these are phases that have been selected for in captivity.

Mark Derr in How the Dog Became the Dog points out that the control population of foxes in the Belyaev experiment also produced these spotted forms.  It was not the selection for tameness or docility that produced the spots.

The truth is we just don’t know why they are spotted.  The neurotransmitter-melanin hypothesis is worth exploring.

However, wild animals have been born with spots.

As I mentioned earlier, the leopard complex in horses existed when horses were wild animals. There were “Appaloosa” horses 25,000 years ago. People were hunting horses in those days. They weren’t selecting them to be tame at all.

There are also piebald white-tailed deer.  They are rare, but they are just as wild as the ones without spots.

It is possible that spotting is less of a problem for large ungulates in the wild than it would be for predatory mammals, even among those– such as wolves and foxes– that don’t use their coloration as camouflage.  Animals with lots of spots would have a hard time hunting for whatever reason, and nature would strongly select against these colors.

However  it may be that spotting is of no consequence with certain species of ungulate.

Of course, there is research that shows that most ungulates are uniform in color because predators tend to select those that are aberrant. That’s why you don’t often see white gnus or dalmatian-spotted gazelles.

The truth is we simply don’t know why some animals develop spotted pelts.

We have many hypotheses.

But the truth is likely quite complex.

And artificial selection is too often ignored as an agency.

The fox farm experiment likes to make a lot of hay out of the coat color changes in the domesticated foxes, but it doesn’t answer why marbled and pearl foxes turned up in populations that were never selected for tameness in this fashion.

We are simply not served well by such reductionism.




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Our mystery animal is a Turkish hamster (Mesocricetus brandti).

It is very closely related to the golden or Syrian hamster (Mesocricetus auratus). If someone presented this animal to me, I would have a hard time distinguishing it from a paler than normal wild-type golden hamster. However, most wild-type golden hamsters are quite richly gold in color.

Wild-type golden or Syrian hamster. Note the rich gold coloring.

Domestic golden hamsters come in several phases.  One really common phase is cinnamon, which is the wild-type coloration without any black hair mixed in. This phase also lacks the black pigment on the ears and on the skin and eyes of the wild-type golden and the Turkish hamster. However, one could mistake this phase for a Turkish hamster.

However, it gets more tricky when one is confronted with a golden hamster that is paler gold than a normal wild-type golden hamster.

I would have a hard time telling a Turkish hamster from some of these paler gold wild-type hamsters.

Now, the hamsters themselves don’t really have this problem.

In the wild they don’t share the exact same range.  Turkish hamsters are  relatively widespread through from Anatolia through Transcaucasia into Iran.

Golden hamsters, which are often called Syrian hamsters, are found only in northern Syria and a small portion of adjacent Turkey.

These two animals very strongly resemble one another, and they are fairly close relatives.

However, they do not interbreed.

Let me rephrase that.

In captive situations, the two species have bred, but no offspring have been produced.

Both species have been kept as laboratory animals, but only the golden hamster has been docile enough to be placed on the pet market.

The Turkish species is known for being quite prone to biting, and like the golden hamster, it is solitary.

Now, one should keep in mind that golden hamsters are not known for being particular docile animals. As a child, I kept many golden hamsters, and I can attest to how fractious they can be at times. The show and pet strains of hamster that are relatively common in the United Kingdom that are known for their docility were not available on the North American pet market at the time. So I essentially had wild hamsters for pets.

If Turkish hamsters are more likely to bite than “wild” golden hamsters, it’s probably a good thing that they aren’t available on the pet market.

It’s really quite a shame, for Turkish hamsters have a greater genetic base than golden hamsters. Because they are more widespread, there are more populations to select from. All golden hamsters on the pet market descend from a single litter that was collected near Aleppo in 1930. In Europe, there is a colony of golden hamsters that are more genetically diverse than this population.   This other colony was captured in Syria during two expeditions in the late 90’s. It’s not easy to get into Syria these days, so it’s not likely that any new golden hamster lines will be brought into the domestic population in the West.

But they have not contributed any genetic material to the pet market.

It’s kind of a shame that Turkish hamsters are so difficult to tame– and cannot interbreed with goldens.  The Turkish species would have a much more stable gene pool, and in theory, it could have provided some genetic material to the domestic Mesocricetus lines. The Algerian hedgehog and the four-toed hedgehog have been crossbred in captivity to produce the domestic African pygmy hedgehog, and something similar could have been done with Turkish and golden hamsters– if  only they were interfertile.

In this way, the two species of Mesocricetus hamsters are like the white-footed mouse and the deer mouse.  These two species of New World mouse are very similar, and I personally can tell them apart.  But they cannot interbreed, even though they are superificially similar and belong to the same genus.

If only Turkish hamsters were nicer.


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This image comes from Musk-ox, Bison, Sheep and Goat (1904) by Caspar Whitney, George Bird Grinnell, and Owen Wister. It shows how dogs were used to bay up muskoxen, allowing the hunter to kill them with shots from a rifle or the hurling of a spear or harpoon. The text explains how dogs were used:

Among the Indians that live south and west of the Barren Grounds (no Indian lives in the Barren Grounds), the method of hunting the musk-ox is practically the same, and, as I have shown in the early part of this paper, it is because the Indians lack high hunting skill and because their dogs are neither trained nor courageous that bigger kills are not made. White hunters and trained dogs could practically wipe out every herd of musk-oxen they encountered; for while it is true that musk-oxen give you a long run once you have sighted them, yet when you get up to them, when the dogs have brought them to bay, it is almost like shooting cattle in a corral. There is always a long run. I think I never had less than three miles, and in the first hunt which I have described, I must have run nine or ten. But, as I say, when you get up to them it is easy, for they will stand to the dogs so long as the dogs bay them. And all this running would be unnecessary if the Indians exercised more hunting skill and judgment.

Although the prairie form of the country is not altogether the best for stalking, yet one could stalk comparatively near a herd before turning the dogs loose. The Indians never do this, and, in addition, the dogs set up a yelping and a howling the moment they catch sight of the quarry. This, of course, starts off the musk-oxen, which invariably choose the roughest part of the country, no doubt feeling, and rightly, too, that their pursuers will have the more difficult time following. Indian dogs are not always to be relied upon, for they have a disposition to hunt in a group, and your entire bunch of dogs is apt to stop and hold only three or four stragglers of the herd while the remainder of the musk-oxen escape. Sometimes when they stop practically the entire herd, the dogs are very likely, before you come up to them, to shift, leaving their original position and gradually drawing together; perhaps, the whole pack of dogs finally holding only half a dozen, while the rest of the musk-oxen have run on. Musk-oxen, when stopped, invariably form a circle with their sterns in and their heads out; it matters not whether the herd is thirty or half a dozen, their action is the same. If there are only two, they stand stern to stern, facing out. I have seen a single musk-ox back up against a rock. Apparently they feel safe only when they get their sterns up against something.

Hunting musk-oxen on the Arctic Coast or the Arctic islands after the manner of the polar expeditions, is a much simpler proposition. There the hunters are always comparatively near their base of supplies, and, from all accounts, the musk-oxen are more numerous than they are in the interior. According to Frederick Schwatka, the Innuits hunt musk-oxen with great skill. They hitch their dogs to the sledge differently from the method of the Indians to the south. The southern Indians hitch their four dogs in tandem between two common traces, one on each side; while each Eskimo dog has his own single trace, which is hitched independently to the sledge. When the Innuits sight the musk-oxen, each hunter takes the dogs of his sledge, and holding their traces in his hand, starts after the game. The wisdom of this method is twofold: in the first place it immeasurably aids the running hunter, for the four or five straining dogs practically pull him along; indeed, Schwatka says that when these Innuits come to a hill they squat and slide down, throwing themselves at full length upon the snow of the ascending bank, up which the excited dogs drag them without any effort on the part of the hunter. I should like to add here that if such a plan were pursued in the Barren Grounds over the rocky ridges, the remains of the hunter would not be interested in musk-ox hunting by the time the top of a ridge was reached. Seriously, the chief value of hunting in this style is that the hunter controls his four to six dogs, the usual number of the Eskimo sledge. When they have caught up with the musk-ox herd, he then looses them and he is there to begin action. The Eskimo dogs are very superior in breed to those used by the Indians farther south, and are trained as well to run mute (pg.56-61).

The dogs in the image are “Eskimo dogs,” which  we more correctly call “Inuit dogs” or “qimmiq” in Canada.  However, these particular dogs are from Cape Morris Jesup, which is the northernmost point in Greenland. Robert E. Peary documented these dogs on his 1900 expedition, which first documented this particular cape.  The dogs were baying the muskoxen within a quarter mile of the northenmost terminus of the cape, which he thought was the most northern point of land in the world. Coffee Club Island, which lies just 23 miles east of Cape Morris Jesup is actually the land that holds this distinction– but only by only a little less than half a mile. The dogs on Greenland are usually referred to as Greenland dogs today, but they are very similar to the dogs in the Canadian arctic, which should be thought of as a landrace.

This image isn’t the best, but Peary did document dogs baying and “rounding up” muskoxen in Canada’s Northwest Territories in The North Pole: Its Discovery in 1909.

His description of the hunting the muskoxen with dogs goes as follows:

When we saw the significant black dots in the distance, we headed for them. There were five close together, and another a little way off. When we got within less than a mile, two of the dogs were loosed. They were wild with excitement, for they also had seen the black dots and knew what they meant; and as soon as the traces were unfastened they were off—straight as the flight of a homing bee.

We followed, at our leisure, knowing that when we arrived the herd would be rounded up, ready for our rifles. A single musk-ox, when he sees the dogs, will make for the nearest cliff and get his back against it; but a herd of them will round up in the middle of a plain with tails together and heads toward the enemy. Then the bull leader of the herd will take his place outside the round-up, and charge the dogs. When the leader is shot, another takes his place, and so on.

A few minutes later I stood again, as I had stood on previous expeditions, with that bunch of shaggy black forms, gleaming eyes and pointed horns before me—only this time it did not mean life or death.

Yet, as I raised my rifle, again I felt clutching at my heart that terrible sensation of life hanging on the accuracy of my aim; again in my bones I felt that gnawing hunger of the past; that aching lust for red, warm, dripping meat—the feeling that the wolf has when he pulls down his quarry. He who has ever been really hungry, either in the Arctic or elsewhere, will understand this feeling. Sometimes the memory of it rushes over me in unexpected places. I have felt it after a hearty dinner, in the streets of a great city, when a lean-faced beggar has held out his hand for alms.

I pulled the trigger, and the bull leader of the herd fell on his haunches. The bullet had found the vulnerable spot under the fore shoulder, where one should always shoot a musk-ox. To aim at the head is a waste of ammunition.

As the bull went down, out from the herd came a cow, and a second shot accounted for her. The others, a second cow and two yearlings, were the work of a few moments; then I left Ooblooyah and Koolatoonah to skin and cut them up, while Egingwah and I started for the single animal, a couple of miles away.

As the dogs approached this fellow, he launched up the hill and disappeared over a nearby crest. The light surface snow along the path he had taken was brushed away by the long, matted hair of his sides and belly, which hung down to the ground.

The dogs had disappeared after the musk-ox, but Egingwah and myself were guided by their wild barking. Our quarry had taken refuge among the huge rocks in the bottom of a stream-bed, where his rear and both sides were protected, and there he stood at bay with the yelping dogs before him.

One shot was enough; and leaving Egingwah to skin and cut up the animal, I started to walk back to the other two men, as it had been decided to camp at the place where they were cutting up the five musk-oxen. But as I emerged from the mouth of the cañon, I saw up the valley still another of the big, black shaggy forms. Quickly I retraced my steps, and gathering in two of the dogs, secured this fellow as easily as the others.

This last specimen was, however, of peculiar interest, as the white hair of the legs, just above the hoofs, was dashed with a bright red—a marking which I had never before seen in any of these arctic animals.

Taking the dogs with me and leaving the musk-ox, I went on to the place selected for a camp. Ooblooyah and Koolatoonah were just finishing cutting up the fifth musk-ox, and were immediately sent off with a sledge and team of dogs, to help Egingwah with the two big bulls.

When they were gone, I set up the tent myself and began to prepare the tea for our supper. As soon as the voices of the Eskimos were audible in the distance, I put on the musk-ox steaks to broil and in a few minutes we were enjoying the reward of our labor. Surely this was living on the fat of the land indeed, deer steak the second night, bear steak last night, to-night the luscious meat of the musk-ox!(pg. 151-154).

The notion that dogs and likely the early habituated wolves that became dogs were not used in hunting is an idea that has always perplexed me. I have shown with this post and the one on dingoes hunting tree kangaroos in Queensland that hunter-gatherers were more than willing to use dogs to get the meat they needed for sustenance. In neither case were these dogs improved European breeds. In Queensland, they were dingoes that were born in the wild, and in the case of these North American arctic spitz dogs, they occasionally had recent wolf ancestry– a fact that has largely been denied by people like Raymond Coppinger but has always been pointed out in the oral history of the people of the region and those who documented them. It is true that when modern wolves that have been bred in captivity are used as sled dogs, they often fail miserably, because they were too emotionally reactive with each other to be trusted on a sled line. That’s probably because they all derive from heavily persecuted populations of wolves. The original wolves in the high arctic were not persecuted at all, and allowing the dogs to mate with these wolves would have been something that would have happened, though probably not on a large scale.

The people who promote this hypothesis that hunting-gathering man had no use for hunting dogs often have not looked at any of the history or ethnography on actual hunter-gatherers.

It seems to me weird that hunting with dogs would exist with hunter-gatherers in both Queensland and the North American arctic, and because we know that the dog is the product of paleolithic man, not neolithic or early agricultural man, it seems to me that using dogs or early socialized wolves as hunting animals would have been their primary purpose. Paleolithic man in Eurasia was hunting prey very similar to the muskox– and often quite a bit larger. Using the dogs or tamed wolves to bay up a large prey species like this would have made perfect sense.

The fact that modern wolves are poor candidates for hunting companions reflects two aspects that have never been fully examined in the literature. One of these that centuries of persecution– even the most remote parts of the arctic– have fundamentally changed what wolves are. Wolves are pretty hard for the layperson to socialize, but it seems to me that if wolves were tamed tens of thousands of years ago, they had to have been much easier to tame than they are now.

It also leaves out something else that isn’t widely discussed but is an important topic in Mark Derr’s upcoming book, How the Dog Became the Dog, which will be out next month. Humans assume that wolves must be managed using all these harsh compulsory methods, because we assume that because wolves are often quite aggressive with each other in captivity that we must manage them this way.  I saw a wolf expert of some note on a nature program a few months ago who was analyzing that the reason why a woman was killed by her captive wolf and wolf hybrids was because she wasn’t biting them and standing over them to show them who is boss. Never mind that this woman kept them in a very small kennel run and had more than ten individuals in this enclosure, which would have put all sorts of stresses on the animals.

Dog trainers have largely assumed that the best way to train dogs is using a lot of force and intimidation, especially with “primitive” breeds.  The early wolf behavior studies stated that their societies were packs controlled by rigid hierarchies, which were led by an alpha male, who ruled with an iron fist. When these same trainers began to train wolves, they discovered that wolves usually responded poorly to these methods, and it was decided that wolves were impossible to train. It has only been recently when more positive reinforcement– based methods, which have started to have a very strong following among dog trainers, have been applied to wolves, that it was discovered that wolves were perfectly trainable, though not exactly like super-biddable Western dog breeds.

To train a wolf, one would have had to have gained its trust and respect. For a wolf to trust a human, a human would have had to have been gentle with it.  Any habituated wolves that would have shown aggression towards people would have been let go or killed, but those that were curious and interested in learning form people, like Adolph Murie’s Wags, would have been the ideal animals to train for the hunt.

Derr also points out that we moderns tend to think of dogs and wolves as clearly defined entities, but for much of our history, the line between dog and wolf has always been fuzzy.  Wolves that became dogs bred in the camps or very near them, but as was often the case, they often dispersed into the wild wolf population. Through capturing cubs and habituating adult wolves that were dispersing from their natal packs, new wild blood would also be brought in, and through wild wolves engaging in the Casanova strategy for reproduction, even more wild blood would be brought in.

Even in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in North America’s Great Plains, wolves and dogs were exchanging genes in this fashion.  Alexander Henry, a fur trader with the Northwest Company who was working along the Red River of the North in what is now North Dakota around the year 1800, would describe how female wolves would do anything to mate with his dogs:

We had a bitch in heat; she was very troublesome, and the dogs made a terrible noise on her account day and night. I drove them all to the plains; a band of wolves got scent of the bitch, and a furious battle ensued, in which one of our dogs was torn to pieces. This often happens at this season, when the wolves are copulating and our dogs get among them. The female wolves prefer our dogs to their own species, and daily come near the fort to entice the dogs. They often succeed, and if the dogs ever return, they are in a miserable condition, lean and covered with sores. Some of my men have amused themselves by watching their motions in the act of copulating; rushing upon them with an ax or club, when the dog, apprehending no danger, would remain quiet, and the wolf, unable to run off, could be dispatched.

The idea that dog and wolf have always had such clear distinction really taints our understanding of their evolutionary history.

The notion that we can make inferences about how man related to wolves using the way modern man relates to modern wolves is also in error. Evolution and selection pressures on wolves did not end when dogs came onto the scene. Man selected dogs to be even more cooperative and helpful, while Eurasian man put selection pressures on the wolf population to be more reactive and fearful. He also developed ways of relating to canines that might make it more difficult for man ever to domesticate wolves again. He also created the urban environment, which might be difficult for a wolf to adapt to, and domesticated other species, which might be hard for a wolf to ignore. Dogs have adapted to both of these developments.

But in areas where neither of these things exist, the difference between a dog and a dingo and a wolf and a dog would remain nebulous. That was the case with the Greenland dogs and with the hunting dingoes, and it was the case with hunter-gatherer man.

We are somewhat imprisoned by our prejudices and through our own paradigms with which our academics operate.

When we look at things from a more broadly-based, interdisciplinary perspective, certain truths become more clear.

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From the BBC:

Saudi officials say archaeologists have begun excavating a site that suggests horses were domesticated 9,000 years ago in the Arabian Peninsula.

The vice-president of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities said the discovery at al-Maqar challenged the theory it first took place 5,500 years ago in Central Asia.

Ali al-Ghabban said it also changed what was known about the evolution of culture in the late Neolithic period.

A number of artefacts were also found.

They included arrowheads, scrapers, grain grinders, tools for spinning and weaving, and other tools that showed the inhabitants were skilled at handicrafts.

Mr Ghabban said carbon-14 tests on the artefacts, as well as DNA tests on human remains also found there, dated them to about 7,000 BC.

“This discovery will change our knowledge concerning the domestication of horses and the evolution of culture in the late Neolithic period,” he told a news conference in Jeddah, according to the Reuters news agency.

“The al-Maqar civilisation is a very advanced civilization of the Neolithic period. This site shows us clearly, the roots of the domestication of horses 9,000 years ago,” he added.

Although humans came into contact with horses about 50,000 years ago, they were originally herded for meat, skins, and possibly for milk.

The first undisputed evidence for their domestication dates back to 2,000 BC, when horses were buried with chariots. By 1,000 BC, domestication had spread through Europe, Asia and North Africa.

However, researchers have found evidence suggesting that the animals were used by the Botai culture in northern Kazakhstan 5,500 years ago.

I don’t know about these findings, but it may be that horses were domesticated at different times.  And it just happens that the modern domestic horse is mostly derived from ancient horses that were domesticated in Central Asia. Some mitochondrial DNA studies have suggested multiple and diverse origins for domestic horses. So this is certainly a possibility.

It is possible that these horses were herded in the way that different arctic peoples have herded reindeer. They existed in a kind of semi-domestication.

One of the real problems in studying horse domestication is that the wild horse from which all domestic horses is derived, the tarpan, is extinct. We do have some remains in museums that we might be able to use, but we don’t really have a good idea about the genetics of ancient horses. We do know that the modern domestic horse and the Przewalski’s horses are very close relatives, and despite a chromosome difference, they are fully interfertile.This horse, the tarpan, and the domestic horse are all derived from a single species of horse that lived throughout Eurasia and North America during the Pleistocene.  The so-called wild horses of the West are the same species as one of the horses that lived in North America during the Pleistocene– but we still cannot say that horses are native wildlife. People try. I know.

We do know that Pleistocene hunter-gatherers in Eurasia ate a lot of horse meat.

It would make sense that this species would have been domesticated earlier than we expected, but it wasn’t domesticated as a draft animal or as something to ride.

Mare’s milk and horse flesh would be reason enough to try to herd these animals.



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From THE ENCYCLOPÆDIA BRITANNICA  11th Edition (1911).

Shorthorn bull

Hereford bull

Devon bull

South Devon bull

English longhorn bull

Red-polled bull

Welsh bull

Sussex bull

More to come.

But you knew I was full of bull anyway.


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From Hunter-Trader-Trapper (1902):

I am very much interested in the domestication and cultivation of the’ opossum and skunk, especially the latter. Mankind is rapidly pre-empting the inhabited territory of the world and the domain of wild animals have rapidly become extinct and many more are rapidly disappearing from the face of the earth. Hunters and trappers are penetrating the wildest and most forbidding parts of the earth in quest of furs, while farmers and boys all over the country are robbing the skunk and opossum of their furry coats that “our fair lady” may have warm neckwear. Very few people have any idea of the immense amount of this “second hand” clothing there is worn thruout the world. It is my opinion that furs in the future will rapidly become scarcer and therefore higher. Carnivorous animals have a natural antipathy for man and can rarely be domesticated. The skunk and opossum are carnivorous to a certain extent but will eat a great variety of foods. The opossum is a great vegetarian and will eat all kinds of fruit. The skunk is a dear lover of sweet corn, sweet potatoes, bread, melons, etc. The fact is these animals are easily kept and are also easily tamed, especially the skunk. The skunk is as easily cared for as the ferret, and there is a ready market lor his fur, while to sell the ferret you must advertise for a buyer. The skunk is one of the three animals of the world that furnishes a naturally black fur. The black house-cat and the black bear are the other two [LOL, Great naturalist there!]. This is one secret of the great value set on the fur of the black skunk. I do not think the cultivation of skunks will ever be overdone. I would very much like to read the experience of others who have tried or who are trying the project of raising these animals. I made my third shipment of furs for this season Feb. 7, 1903. It consisted of 15 skunk, 15 muskrat, 17 opossum, 3 mink and 2 house-cats. My check for above was a beautiful little piece of paper worth $31.45. This puts me near the $100 mark for this year. I have on hand about $15 worth of furs since I shipped. I expect to make about two more shipments this year.

Lee S. Dick

I’d like to know where he got the info on black fur. Um, in case you didn’t know, it’s bit wrong.

But apparently at one time, there was a great market for cat fur!

I don’t know what became of this domestication attempt. I know that striped skunks can breed in captivity, and they come in several fur farm color morphs. Some states that allow pet skunks require that one be of one of these morphs, just so that the authorities know for certain that any pet skunk is captive-bred.

I don’t think opossums have ever been propagated in this fashion. I’ve never heard of an opossum fur farm– probably because the fur itself never was all that valuable.

My guess is Mr. Dick’s venture didn’t go very far. Even if skunks are easy to breed in captivity, they have to be descented, which is a cost that exists across an entire breeding operation. I know that ferrets normally are, but I don’t think descented ferrets necessarily had to make up the bulk of the early domesticated population. With striped skunks, one would have to descent them. It’s just too much of a hazard to deal with an animal that squirt nastiness into your eyes every time it gets a little miffed.


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Corn (Maize) Domestication



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