Diamond on Domestication

Saturday, December 8th, 2012

Jared Diamond, in discussing animal domestication, claims that the local availability of species with the right qualities for domestication was key, Gregory Cochran notes, rather than anything special about the biology or culture of the humans living there:

In some cases that may be true: there aren’t many large mammals left in Australia, and they’re all marsupials anyway. Stupid marsupials. He claims that since Africans and Amerindians were happy to adopt Eurasian domesticated animals when they became available, it must be that that suitable local animals just didn’t exist. But that’s a non sequitur: making use of an already-domesticated species is not at all the same thing as the original act of domestication. That’s like equating using a cell phone with inventing one. He also says that people have had only mixed success in recent domestication attempts — but the big problem there is that a newly domesticated species doesn’t just have to be good, it has to be better than already-existing domestic animals.

Indian elephants, although not truly domesticated, are routinely tamed and used for work in Southern Asia. The locals in Sub-Saharan Africa seem never to have done this with African elephants — but it is possible. The Belgians, in the Congo, hired Indian mahouts to tame African elephants, with success. It’s still done in the Congo, on a very limited scale, and elephants have recently been tamed in other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, such as the Okavango delta. Elephants have long generations, which makes true domestication difficult, but people have made domestication attempts with eland, African buffalo, and oryx. They’re all tameable, and eland have actually been domesticated to some extent. If a species is tameable, economically useful upon taming, and has a reasonable reproductive schedule, domestication is possible: selection for even a few generations can change their behavior enough to make dealing with them a lot easier.

As for the Americas — have you ever had a deer eating out of your hand? Bison seem too wild and scary to have ever been domesticated, but then I’m sure you would have said the same thing about the aurochs, the wild ancestor of cattle.

In fact, in my mind the real question is not why various peoples didn’t domesticate animals that we know were domesticable, but rather how anyone ever managed to domesticate the aurochs. At least twice. Imagine a longhorn on roids: they were big and aggressive, favorites in the Roman arena.

Speaking of deer eating out of your hand:

I remember some biology grad students telling the tale of some other students’ field research, where they snared birds to later tag them — only to find them being eaten by deer.

Deer don’t dislike meat; they’re just terrible hunters.


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    On some of the islands off Scotland, sheep eat the wings off sea gulls, apparently for the calcium.

  2. Isegoria says:

    So, how do the sheep manage to catch and eat the gulls?

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