Image credit: Rachel Kowalski
Image credit: Rachel Kowalski

The history of domestication: a rabbit’s tale

Wild rabbits are widely thought to have been first tamed in 600 A.D. by French monks, when they were prized as food as a ‘meat substitute’ during Lent. But, according to Oxford University research, that isn’t true.

Domestication, which is often defined as ‘the process of taming an animal and keeping it as a pet or on a farm, and the cultivation of a plant for food’, can be dated using historical and archaeological records. Recent technological developments have also enabled genetic testing methods. However, rather than verifying the origins of rabbit domestication, each technique gives a different timeframe for events, throwing up more questions than answers for scientists. 

In research published in Trends in Ecology & Evolution, scientists from the Oxford University Department of Archaeology test dating methods to challenge whether our relationship and affection for fluffy bunnies dates back to any single event, or, if it is instead better explained as a continuum that has evolved over time. Despite being one of the most recently domesticated animals, the team found that none of the techniques agreed on the timing of the domestication of the rabbit, and each method presented its own issues.

Dr Greger Larson, lead-author and Director of the Palaeogenomics & Bio-Archaeology Research Network at Oxford, explains: ‘The historical evidence credits the Romans with the earliest written records of rabbits and as being the first to use hutches. The archaeological evidence shows that rabbits were hunted during the Palaeolithic in the Iberian Peninsula and southwest France. By the Middle Ages rabbits were considered a high-status food and regularly transported across Europe, although it took more than 2,000 years for differences between wild and domestic rabbits to be visible in their bones. Lastly, attempts to date the timing of rabbit domestication using genetic methods were clouded by uncertainty in the mutation rate.’

In short, ‘there is no single date when rabbits became domesticated, and any story that is predicated on an event is unlikely to be accurate,’ says Evan Irving-Pease, first author and researcher at Oxford’s Department of Archaeology.

Taking these differences and inaccuracies into account the team instead believe that the domestication of rabbits for both food and cute, furry companions, was more of a cumulative effect. One that has been strengthened by a series of social trends, beginning with hunting rabbits during the Palaeolithic, to keeping them in Roman and medieval warren variations, moving them from place to place around Europe and eventually breeding them as domestic pets.

Until now, the 600 A.D. version of events was widely considered as fact by many in the science community, including the authors themselves. Dr Larson added: ‘I had cited it, colleagues of mine had cited it, it’s all over Wikipedia and the web, but it turns out that the modern story is a complete house of cards’.

He suggests that instead of focusing on, or looking for any single event to explain the phenomenon, scientists need to go back to the drawing board and re-evaluate domestication as a collective story. Dr Larson said: ‘The origins of many of our domestic animals make for great bed-time stories, but these myths need to be questioned so that we can really figure out how we got so close to so many pets and livestock’. His next project will re-examine the domestication of other plants and animals that our society relies upon, and will challenge whether humans intentionally set animal domestication in motion, or if it was more a natural consequence of something else.

Of why our knowledge of domestication has taken so long to take shape, Dr Larson suggests that the delay has a lot to do with how we tell stories, ‘What was really interesting to me was why nobody has really thought about it or been critical about it. We really have trouble appreciating slow, continuous change over long periods of time, even though that’s how most change happens. Our narrative structures work much better if you have a eureka moment.’

In conclusion he cautions: ‘We have been slightly arrogant, we know a hell of a lot less about the origins of the things that matter most to us than we think we do.’