Science & Technology

Humans May Have Been the First Domesticated Animals

One of the things that makes humans so special is the fact that we've befriended a bunch of other animals and gotten them to work together with us. It's true of dogs, cats, horses, and even cows (it hasn't always worked out great for the animals in question). But there's a pretty sizeable contingent of scientists who say that we show all the same signs of being domesticated as those animals do — so who exactly domesticated us?

Taming the Wild Man

Some animals are domesticated, and some aren't. Have you ever wondered why wolves turned into dogs, but (most) foxes were never tamed? It's not exactly clear why, for example, zebras are almost impossible to tame while horses are one of the most successful domesticated animals in history (although there are some pretty compelling explanations). What's really interesting is that many mammals seem to take on certain characteristics as they grow more domesticated. There are traits like docility and comfort around humans, which only make sense. But then there are things like smaller teeth, a shorter face, floppier ears, and neoteny — the tendency to remain in a juvenile state much longer than their wild relatives. Charles Darwin noticed the suite of characteristics as well, and he called it "domestication syndrome."

What's interesting is that we ourselves exhibit a lot of those exact qualities. Just take a look at a chimpanzee's face. They've definitely got us beat on the big-toothed front. We also exhibit neoteny. Humans take a long time to grow up compared to most other mammals, but even more than that, once we've grown up, we tend to look more babyish than our furry friends. We've got much bigger heads relative to our bodies compared to other animals, and we've got a lot less hair, too. Both of those traits are associated with youth.

Who's the Master?

So if humans exhibit many of the traits of a domesticated species, including not only the physical traits but also a tendency to be more sociable and docile, we've got to wonder: Who did the domesticating? The obvious answer is we domesticated ourselves. Maybe domestication was the key to living peaceably in large communities, and as we grew more neotenous, docile, and tolerant of each other, we became better able to work together. That's backed up by comparisons between the skulls of Homo sapiens and those of Neanderthals, who had longer faces and bigger jaws.

There's another theory, however, that suggests that human domestication wasn't entirely self-imposed. No, we aren't the pets of some intergalactic master. Our domesticators are entities that we tend to think of as being some of the tamest, most docile living things on the planet: plants. Specifically, wheat. Wheat is a grass that originated in the Middle East, and it takes a lot of work to grow. Before we started growing wheat, we were doing just fine as hunter-gatherers. But by offering a delicious, nutritious, and easy-to-store food source, wheat convinced us to clear the heavy rocks from fields for it to spread itself out, to spend our days under the hot sun pulling up weeds that might compete with it for nutrients, and develop techniques like irrigation and fertilizer to make sure it could thrive. It's a pretty convincing case — and it's got us seeing the gluten-free movement in a whole new light.

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You'll find an extended version of the wheat-domesticated-us theory in Yuval Noah Harari's "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind" (free with your trial membership to Audible). We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas January 4, 2019

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