Book Review: The First Steps of Animal Domestication: New Archaeological Approaches

Animal Domestication

Identifying the origins of domestication is a perennial topic among archaeologists and zooarchaeologists. Darwin even discussed it in The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication. As he discussed each domestic animal, he also tried to track down their wild progenators (one of these days I’m going to have to compare what Darwin thought with current thinking on the subject to see how accurate he was). In the past, key indicators of domestication included, size reduction, demographic profiles, and differential representation of skeletal elements (do we have the enitire skeleton or just easily transportable parts of the skeleton).


The First Steps of Animal Domestication: New Archaeological Approaches originated in sessions at the 9th meeting of the International Council of Archaeozoology held in Durham, England in 2002. The book is divided into four parts, plus the usual introduction, so this review will be divided into four parts.
Priniciples and Concepts
This section has three entries. The first, by Benjamin Arbuckle, surveys the experimental animal domestication literature. For example, the Russian geneticist Belyaev studied the effects of domestication on the fox. In particular, he was interested in the effects of selection for docile behavior. Other animals used in domestication studies include, rats and other rodents, mink, turkeys, ducks and fish. Several interesting results stand out as being the results of domestication, ranging from a decrease in brain mass, reduction of the size of the bones in the ear, reduction in the snout (mainly in dogs and pigs) and changes in reproduction (increased fertillity, larger litter size, earlier maturity, reduced seasonality of reproduction). Typically, it takes anywhere from 30-100 generations for changes due to domestication to appear.
Probably the most interesting contribution in this section is that of Werner Muller on the domestication of the wolf. Werner argues, quite convincingly I think, that the wolf was the first animal species to be domesticated. Based on knowledge gained while domesticating the wolf (Muller argues that wolves were easier to domesticate than other animal species, humans were then able to domesticate other species).
The final contribution in this section is, arguably, the most important in the book. Richard Redding argues that a simple A-B schem from wild animal to domesticated animal are misleading and uninformative. Redding argues, correctly I think, that many different “experiments” in animal domestication took place – not all of which succeeded. Phrased differently, he is arguing that animal domestication was a multilineal process rather than a unilineal process. He also argues that assessing domestication based on the use of one variable. Instead:

…we must use all the variables (species abundance, age profiles, sex ratios, body part distribution, hypoplasia, etc.) that we can establish values for, for each taxon from a site to understand how the inhabitants of that site are using the taxon…


New Techniques and Their Application

This section contains three entries focussing on new techniques to study animal domestication. The first concerns the use of ancient DNA to understand the origin and diffusion of domestic species. The study identified three goat lineages in Europe, Northern Iran and Eastern Asia. The other two contributions concern various mathmatical techniques for analyzing metric and non metric traits. One disappointment in this section was the lack of discussion of stable isotopes (but a latter contribution mentions this) or chemical archaeology (identifying the chemical signatures of animal waste in soils, for example).
Animal Domestication in West Asia
This section contains four contributions that demonstrate how zooarchaeologists (or archaeozoologists as they are frequently called in this volume) put the above ideas into practice. Haber, Dayan and Getzo’s contribution, for example, looks at pig domestication at Hogoshrim in Israel. The authors examine kill-off patterns and various morphometric characters across a time span of about 1,000 years. In line with reddings article, they mention that there is a difference between a strict definition of domestication (which implies reproductive isolation of the animals from their wild ancestors) and and a looser definition which implies cultural control over the animals with no reproductive isolation. They go on to say that:

Different species are expected to go through the stages of the process [of domestication – afarensis] differently … and different stages of the process are expected to appear differently in the record.

Cultural control is an interesting concept to me. One of the things one would expect to see, as domesticated animals become more tightly bound to humans, is an impact on iconography. The contribution by Peters, von den Driesch and Helmer briefly touches on the iconography issue in talking about representations of foxes and cattle in the Tigris-Euphrates basin.

Animal Domestication in Eastern Asia

This section has two contributions dealing with pig domestication in Japan. The first uses mtDNA and stable isotope analysis to try and separate wild pigs from ancient boars in the archaeological record in Japan and Okinawa. The second contribution, by Yamazaki et el, illustrates the problems with single variable analysis mentioned by Redding. One of the indicators for domestication has always been a reduction in size. In Japan, though, this size reduction is confounded due to Bergman’s rule (in Hokkaido for example) and island dwarfing (in the Izu Islands). Also, on some of the islands wild boar were introduced and allowed to run free till needed – which illustrates perfectly what Redding and Haber pointed out. The path to animal domestication has many routes.
Overall, I found the book to be a fascinating and worthy addition to the literature. Each contribution was well written and authoritative (one small quibble, the book could have used better proofreading, there were a lot of typos). It would be an excellent addition to any archaeologists library. It would also be great as a supplemental textbook for classes on animal domestication. One of the book’s strengths is the discussion of conceptual issues surrounding domestication and the way people use animals…

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5 Responses

  1. Do the folks who study domestication also look at “feralization” of escaped domestic animals, such as cats and camels in Australia, or goats on various islands?

  2. What about modern day domestication efforts. Such as with the arctic fox in Russia, or the plains zebra in Africa? For that matter, what about “pre-domesticated” animals. Those species that exhibit what could be called domesticated behaviors such as capuchins, squirrel monkeys, and tasmanian devils. (You wouldn’t believe how puppy like southern white rhinos can get when they bond with a keeper.)

  3. Lab Lemming – feral pigs were mentioned in the last contribution to the book, I would have thought it would have been mentioned in Arbuckle’s. I do recall seeing some studies of feral dogs and cats, but don’t know if anything has been done with camels…
    Alan – the book focussed on the Tigris-Euphrates and Japan so we mainly heard about cattle, sheep, goats and pigs (lamas did get mentined briefly). Pre-domesticated is like saying pre-adapted, if you ask me. In the case of the wolf, we took advantage of traits that have a certain survival value in the wild, to domestcate them. The fact that those same traits also made it easy to domesticate them doesn’t mean they were pre-adapted or pre-domesticated – it’s more like Gould’s concept of exaption. At any rate it would be interesting to see studies of some of the animals you mentioned.

  4. The arctic foxes have been mentioned in the news, and I saw a bit on the zebras somewhere I can’t find anymore. Of course, I might be thinking of the silver fox of Russia instead.
    The other animals are cases of observation on my part. Each is known to bond with caretakers in captive situations. The southern white rhino population at the San Diego Wild Animal Park will approach truckloads of tourists (a special program) and solicit food and attention from people. It’s not a matter of tolerating petting, they actively encourage it.
    BTW, thanks for providing the proper term for what’s involved here. You might say that one prerequisite for domestication is that specimens of a species will express a desire to associate with humans on an ongoing basis. though I expect there would be little call for pet tasmanian devils.

  5. The Muller article touches on that a little. In wolves, there is a brief period, lasting from birth to 8 weeks, where social bonds are formed. During this period flight responses are weak and gradually strengthen. It’s kind of like imprinting in birds. In domestic dogs the socialization period is longer and the flight responses weaker. Muller argues that we were getting the wolf pups, by whatever means, during the socialization period. I would expect, though I haven’t researched the issue, that you would see the same kind of thing in herd animals (well any animal really).
    As far as the zoo animals go, I’ve always had the impression that Steve Irwin’s crocs were doing the same thing you mention in connection with the rhino’s. It always looked to me like they had become somewhat habituated to his presence and knew they were going to get food.

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