Social Sciences and Humanities

Shaping nature

Researcher at the CONICET explains how animals and plants began to be domesticated.

Gatos domésticos

The animals and plants that are part of everyday life are the result of a domestication process that in some way changed the history of mankind. Scientists study when and why the process began.

Hugo D. Yacobaccio, CONICET principal researcher at the Archaeology Institute of the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters of the University of Buenos Aires (UBA), and Bibiana Vila, principal researcher of the Council at the Department of Social Sciences of the National University of Luján] wrote Domesticación: Moldeando la Naturaleza [Domestication: Shaping Nature]. This book deals with the process that shows that modern domestic animals are not the consequence of some type of mutation that took them out of the wild kingdom and turned them friendly and affectionate, they are the result of a long co-evolution adventure with the people they are dependent on, who at the same time are dependent on these animals.

Through this process, living beings (animals or plants) modify their genetic structure due to adaptation to the environment created by the human being. From an anthropological point of view, Yacobaccio states “domestication is considered a landmark in the history of humanity and its impact is comparable to the human control of fire or the invention of the wheel. Furthermore, this process has influenced different civilizations because it provided food, transport, work and shelter.”

The first domesticated animal was the dog (Canis familiaris) which came from the Eurasian wolf (Canis lupus lupus) fifteen thousand years ago. At that time, human beings were hunter-gatherers and the social groups they formed moved constantly within the same geographical area. One hypothesis about the domestication of wolves indicates that these approached human spaces because these animals wanted to eat the leftovers. So, with the help of the non-aggressive human behaviour, they changed their nature until they became the dogs we know today.

In the book, the researchers described an interesting fact: during the Upper-Palaeolithic – period in which the wolf was domesticated – groups of hunter-gatherers in Europe and Asia captured animals that were beyond the wolves’ capacity of hunting, such as a mammoth, which provided enough meat for both.

Yacobaccio indicates that in the case of the cats, they descended from the African wildcat (Felis Silvestris Lybica), and it is thought to have been domesticated for the first time around 7500 years ago. The oldest remains of cats were found in Cyprus. These animals were used as partners, pets, and they also helped to control plagues of rat and mice; and sometimes, they were mummified by the Egyptians and placed in luxurious chambers in the pyramids. Besides, these people used to have and worship three feline goddesses

“Cats are becoming the most popular domestic animals in the western world because their company is valued and they are good for rodent control in rural areas”, the researcher explains. On the other hand, the book says that there is no evidence that suggests that this activity was planned by human beings so it is believed that the African cat colonized the modified environment that people offered with their homes and villages.


Plants are also domesticated

As in the case of animals, plants domestication has different stages. Some of these processes are related to a combination of different species to obtain the best of several types of them.

“Since plants do not walk, escape, bite or kick, it seems that their domestication has been based on knowledge of the plant life cycle and a selection for nutrient accumulation in edible parts: leaves, stems, tubers, fruits”, Yacobaccio comments.

Each of the states by which plants are protected and harvested imply a greater management that means an increasing energy investment in the protection, cultivation and finally domestication. This process takes place when plant reproduction has been substantially altered through sustained human intervention because they became dependent on the assistance of men to survive. “For this reason, the word agriculture should be used only for domestic plant cultivation, whereas there can be cultivation or growth of wild plants”, the scientists affirms.

This process helped substancially the first societies to settle and think about builing cities since they did not need to move for the food, they could start to cultivate them wherever they wanted”. Although this seems to be simple, it took years of evolution, learning, and eductation”, the researcher concludes.

  • By Jimena Naser:
  • About the research
  • Hugo D. Yacobaccio. CONICET principal researcher. UBA.
  • Bibiana Vila. CONICET principal researcher. UNLU.