Animal Domestication – A Very Brief History

Mankind has been keeping different animal species as pets for a long time.  Today, you can go to your local pet shop and choose from a huge variety of animals to keep in your care.  You can also go online and choose a pet from an even wider selection of animals.  From in-store to online, it’s never been easier to find an animal to keep as a pet.  It wasn’t always this easy.  The animals that we keep as pets weren’t always pet material – that is to say, they weren’t domesticated yet.

What is domestication?  According to the Wikipedia page on domestication, it’s “a sustained multi-generational, mutualistic relationship in which one organism assumes a significant degree of influence over the reproduction and care of another organism in order to secure a more predictable supply of a resource of interest, and through which the partner organism gains advantage over individuals that remain outside this relationship, thereby benefiting and often increasing the fitness of both the domesticator and the target domesticate.”  In simpler terms, it means selectively breeding a plant or animal over a long period of time, in order to benefit from that animal.  That could mean breeding the cows that produce the most milk.  Or it could mean breeding the friendliest wolves over a long period of time to produce the best pet dogs.

Humans have been domesticating animals for a long time, for the purposes of sustenance and companionship.  Mankind has developed unique and intricate relationships with many different animal species.  Domesticating cows, sheep, and chickens gave us access to dairy, eggs, and meat.  Domestication of animals like oxen gave us access to labor for farm activities such as plowing fields.  Domesticating plants and animals has played a huge part in the growth and development of human civilization.

Aside from the domestication of plants and animals for agricultural purposes, humans have also domesticated animals to keep as pets.  This process began a long time ago.  We don’t know exactly when it began, but the oldest fossils from domesticated dogs come from 14,000 years ago.  There is evidence that domestication began much earlier, maybe even up to 100,000 years ago.  All dogs are decedents of wolves.  A lot can happen in a few thousand years.  The relationship between humans and wolves runs deep.  Domestication probably didn’t begin with the idea of creating something to cuddle with.  The relationship likely developed with hunting in mind.  Humans and wolves form a great hunting team, and thus a mutually beneficial relationship was formed.

Cats were likely the next animals to be domesticated.  Estimates puts the domestication of at over 9,000 years ago.  In ancient Egypt, cats were loved and revered.  They were valuable and practical and found favor in Egypt by killing pests such as snakes, mice, and rats.  Cats are often very independent animals, even today.  They aren’t easily trained like dogs are.  Part of the reasoning for this can be attributed to how wild cats and wolves live.  Wolves operate in a strict hierarchy system and with humans they fit into a low part of our hierarchy and are more apt to taking orders and being trained.  Wild cats that domesticated cats come from on the other hand are not pack animals and do not fit into a hierarchy.  They don’t typically take orders.

This is meant to be a very brief history on a vast and fascinating subject.  There is a lot of information freely available online for those interested in learning more.

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