The domestication horizon

23 April 2014
Archaeology

A press release by the University of Washington has been taken up at www.geneticarchaeology.com/research/More_questions_than_answers_as_myste… … where the issue of domestication of plants and animals is raised, something that is normally thought to have happened early in the Holocene. However, this may be something of a misnomer as human activity in the Pleistocene is not easily found – and can be buried deep under sediments and encountered accidentally. Hence, in some ways, early human activity is like looking through clouded glass in comparison to the Holocene. Stephen Mithen's book, After the Ice, a Phoenix paperback; 2003 is one of the best places to start with this subject, jam packed with information. The mysterious part in the link above is why were only a dozen or so plants domesticated (out of a choice of 200,000) or why only five of 148 species of big wild mammals were domesticated. Was it an accidental process – rather than a preconceived ambition. At SIS it has been speculated that maize, for example, in the wake of catastrophe, threw up a mutant on the wild form that had bigger kernels (and was saved and replanted and eventually spread to neighbouring communities etc). SIS has also speculated that grains were domesticated as they were the quickest plants to grow in the wake of landscape fires – and these may have been enormous affairs if fire rained out of the sky (as some myth alleges). SIS has also speculated on the origin of cattle in religio-myth, the avatar of the gods (as in the constellation of Taurus). The ram also manifested itself as a god but sheep, and their young, were objects of sacrifice in the ancient world (and kept for that purpose). The domestication of elephants in India may have something to do with the concept of the elephant as a god – and pigs that fly can easily be projected as another avatar of the gods. Beligerent aspects of such animals were bred out of them – even Billy Goat Gruff. I know somebody who had a fox for a pet and I was with an archaeological group at a farm a couple of weeks ago where ten or twenty sheep followed us around the farmyard and the adjoining fields and the daughter had a lamb as a pet that behaved like a small dog. It is clear that a variety of animals could have been domesticated – but no new species have been domesticated in modern times. The researchers are perplexed by the 'mystery' – but they don't embrace catastrophic events in the past.

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