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by William H. Benson

July 21, 2011

     It is summer. We know it is so because we see the things we associate with summer: a slice of watermelon, strawberries, corn on the cob, a grilled hamburger, perhaps a fried chicken leg or pork ribs marinated in barbeque sauce. In a few weeks, we will be eating peaches and garden-fresh tomatoes and going to the county fair. A backyard barbeque and a rodeo means that the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of summer are stuck on sensory overload.

     Much of what we eat throughout the summer we owe to certain of our forbears, those exceedingly intelligent individuals, who—through trial and error—learned that that if they would domesticate certain plants and animals, the result would be an infinitely tastier and more dependable food supply.

     Domestication of plants and animals is not something we, the people of this age, normally think about; it is just something we inherited, as if it is our right since we are human beings, and yet in the history of humanity, it was not always a given.

     The dog was the first animal that human beings domesticated, about 15,000 years ago and was achieved simultaneously in both Asia and North America. Jared Diamond in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel, wrote, “Wolves were domesticated in Eurasia and North America to become our dogs and were used as hunting companions, sentinels, pets, and in some cultures food.”

     Because of human supervision over the breeding of wolves, the dog evolved into its own species with its own unique characteristics, especially dramatic variation in hair form, color, and physical size. Dogs are definitely not wolves: in the wild, a female wolf will reproduce only once a year and in the same season, but a domesticated dog can breed multiple times each year, in any season.

     Human beings next domesticated sheep and goats, about 11,000 years ago and then pigs, which are true omnivores, animals capable of eating both animal and plant food.

     Then about 10,000 years ago cows and cats were domesticated. The plant-eating cow ensured humans a steady supply of milk and meat. As for cats, in the March 2011 issue of National Geographic, a writer speculated that “Wild cats were the only animals believed to have domesticated themselves, attracted at first by rodent prey found around early agricultural settlements in the Middle East, beginning almost 10,000 years ago.”

     Other members of the cat family were no so eager to be tamed. Despite repeated attempts over the centuries, the cheetah was never domesticated. Jared Diamond wrote, “Prized by ancient Egyptians and Assyrians and modern Indians as hunting animals infinitely superior to dogs,” the cheetah, once in captivity and locked in a cage, will not breed.

     Next domesticated, about 8,000 years ago, was the chicken, a species derived from the red jungle fowl of India and Nepal. Scientists have discovered that the chicken has a mutation at a gene called the TSHR, which they speculate “played some role in domestication.” It might explain why chickens will breed in captivity and more frequently than the red jungle fowl does in the wild.

     In the South American Andes, about 6,000 years ago, both the llama and the alpaca, different breeds of the same species, were domesticated. A llama though has difficulty carrying the weight of a grown man, a fact that held back the progress of those Native American civilizations when contrasted with those of Eurasia.

     Roughly at the same time, but in the Middle East, in the steppes north of the Black Sea, the horse was domesticated, and because it could carry a grown man, it accelerated civilization’s progress. Above all else, the horse transformed warfare. When the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro and his soldiers rode their horses into the Inca town of Cajamarca, the people gaped in astonishment, as if these men were from another planet.

     Jared Diamond wrote, “The shock of a horse’s charge, its maneuverability, the speed of attack that it permitted, and the raised and protected fighting platform that it provided left foot soldiers nearly helpless in the open.”

     But a close cousin of the horse, the zebra, refuses domestication. These animals will not be rode nor roped, and when they bite, they will not let go. Their nasty disposition prevents taming.

     Diamond argues that to become a successful candidate for domestication, an animal must exhibit a series of qualities, and if any one of them are missing, it will not happen. “Of the world’s 148 big terrestrial herbivorous mammals, only 14 have ever been domesticated: sheep, goat, pig, cow, llama, horse, both types of camels, water buffalo, donkey, yak, reindeer, bali cattle, and mithen.”

     Domestication has added much that is good to human existence, and somehow in that work of domesticating plants and animals, human beings have further domesticated themselves.

     Enjoy your summer days! Eat well, pet your dog or cat, and go to the rodeo.