The husbandry of plants and animals came with the beginnings of agriculture and was a key factor in human development. This dates back d from the Neolithic period to the present day with the exception of dogs that preceded the breeding of other species and settlement by several millennia. By the end of the Paleolithic period, about 12,000 years BC, prehistoric man had domesticated wolves.
This domestication preceded that of other animals by thousands of years. Canis lupus appeared about 2 million years BC. In Europe, 700,000-year-old wolves' bones have been found on human sites. At that time, wolf and man shared the same territory. In the Ukraine, on a 20,000-year-old site, the discovery of a large quantity of wolves' bones suggests that the fur was used for making clothing.
It is unclear why men sought to tame wolves. Perhaps they observed wolf hunting techniques? Perhaps men took in cubs that became orphans? Wolves became an aid for hunting. Over time, our ancestors made a selection from the domesticated ones. Wolves eventually lost some of their savage traits and became more dogs.
The process of domestication, dissemination of species and livestock techniques spread over long periods and are far from being fully realised.
After the domestication of dogs, further domestication took place in the Middle East, especially in the region known as the Fertile Crescent. East Asia, the Mediterranean and South America came afterwards. Other than very recently Australia or Southern Africa, some parts of the world have never experienced any local species domestication. Animal domestication is a crucial step in the evolution of man. With domestication, animals provided civilization a chance to evolve.
There are two categories of "failure". Some animals have returned to be the wild because man has given up trying to tame them, believing it to be useless or a waste of time.
The ostrich is a good example of such an attempt at domestication. Between the mid 19th century and World War II, people tried to tame ostriches in order to harness and ride them. Nowadays, many farms in Australia use ostriches as a tourist attraction.
Several domestications were tried and abandoned for lack of interest:
• African elephants by the Belgians in the Congo
• Elks that were ridden in Sweden until the 17th century
• Zebras as mounts, musk oxen for their wool
A second form of failure is when domesticated animals escape back into the wild which creates many problems. An Australian example is the horse. The Brumby, is a descendant of domesticated horses dating back to the time of English settlers which have bred in the wild. They are a menace to vegetation.
In 1508, Guinea fowl, brought from Guinea to the Antilles islands by Genoese sailors escaped and quickly became a disaster for the environment.
The coypu, imported from America for its fur, also created problems. During the Second World War, European breeders released them from their cages confronted by the advancing German troops. Coypus are perfectly adapted to wetlands. They have destroyed many ecosystems, including the one of the Poitou-Charentes region (Western France) and the one of the Camargue (South of Arles, by the Mediterranean Sea – France)
In the fourth millennium BC, Sumerians tamed cheetahs. Cheetahs were later found in Egypt, China, India and Persia. Cheetahs were trained for hunting because of their docility and exceptional speed. Just like falcons, trainers blinded cheetahs with a hood, and released them just when the preys approached.
The Romans raised doe for milking. They also used grass snakes and civets to get rid of rodents.
In 732, Charles Martel, a Frankish military and political leader, who repelled the Moors in Poitiers, discovered civets among the spoils taken from the defeated soldiers. During the reign of Francis I (François Ier), they became court animals. Later, cats replaced the civet as pets. The ancient Egyptians were the champions of unusual domestications: oryx, hyena, pelican, crocodile…
In the Inland Sea of Japan, fishermen used the octopus as an aid to recover sunken cargoes of Chinese porcelain. Fishermen harnessed an octopus and pulled it down on the end of a rope. The octopus attached itself to the vases, using its suckers. Pulling the rope was sufficient to bring everything back up to the surface.
Ferrets are effective for hunting rabbits. Around the first century AD, Roman Strabo mentions the use of domesticated ferrets in his stories.
In Asia, fishermen realized they could take advantage of the skills of otters. For centuries, otters have been trained for fishing. Particularly in Bangladesh, fishermen fasten otters to the end of a rope and wait for the otters to bring back fish.
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