Chris Maser

Since the first living cell or cells came into being, nothing living has ever again been alone on planet Earth because life has kept life company. Although this statement is true in the abstract sense on the physical plane, it is not true in the psychological realm. Yet somewhere in the everlasting twilight of the past, a child may have noticed a mouse sharing the family cave, and put food out for it. When the mouse responded, the child put more out. The mouse then began to "expect" to find food in a certain place each evening, and the child delighted in the mouse's eating the food. Over time, a bond of trust was established, a friendship developed, the idea of a pet came into being, and a psychological relationship was born that forevermore connected humanity and nature in a relationship based on caring and sharing. The taming of the first animal became a thread in the ever-expanding story of humanity, a thread that everlastingly changed how humanity treated the animals with which it shared the planet, as well as the planet itself.

Even today wild animals are becoming domesticated with increasing frequency when they live in our midst. One example is the endangered Key deer, a subspecies of the white-tailed deer, which lives in the Florida Keys, where they are given food and water by the residents; the results are an increase in the size of the groups of deer dependent on the handout of food and water and a decrease in the distance they are willing to travel from the security of the handouts. This illegal feeding has caused changes in the density, group size, and distribution of Key deer in a manner that is indicative of domestication.

Because fresh water and food are the primary selective pressures for Key deer in the wild, illegal feeding and watering may cause genetic changes to occur in the future, which could render the domesticated Key deer unfit to survive without human intervention. For those who value wildness in wildlife, domestication of wild species presents a serious psychological and ecological problem.1 Yet, in the mists of time, just such a circumstance may have led to the purposeful domestication of animals, other than pets. Domestication is generally regarded as a complex process employed to tame a wild species, and is confined to a restricted area and culture.2

Consider, for example, dogs were domesticated as long as 15,000 years ago, and became a valued part of a human family group because a tamed dog could sound an alarm when danger was near, as well as help in the hunt for meat.3 In return, the dog was fed a portion of the capture. But once an individual, family, or group of people could domesticate sheep and goats and raise them as a hedge against starvation, the dog's role began to change. Now, instead of being hunters, dogs were trained to protect the growing flocks.

Compared to dogs, however, domestication of such food animals as sheep, goats, pigs, and horses are relatively late arrivals in the human relationship. Wild horses were widely distributed throughout the Eurasian grassland steppe during the Upper Paleolithic (the latter part of the Old Stone Age, 35,000 to 10,000 years ago), but disappeared from the fossil record in many regions about 10,000 years ago. The remains of horses became increasingly frequent at archaeological sites is southern Ukraine and Kazakhstan about 6000 years ago.4

Domestication of horses dates back to about 3500 B.C.E. in the Eneolithic Botai Culture of Kazakhstan in Central Asia, 1,000 years earlier than previously thought. The Eneolithic Period is the transitional period between the Neolithic Period (New Stone Age) and the Bronze Age, during which the earliest metallic (copper) artifacts appeared among stone artifacts; hence, it is also known as the Copper Age, 2500-2000 BC.

The Botai culture is named for the settlement of Botai in northern Kazakhstan, which is just west of China and south of Russia. Although the Botai people were known to be associated with horses, the discovery of pottery that contained mare's milk and anatomical parts is evidence that horses were bred and used as a source of milk and meat after their domestication.5In fact, the use of milk in the human diet is direct evidence of the domestication of once-wild animals.6

Of course, one might argue that a group of nomadic hunter-gatherers had less impact on the land they used than did a group of nomadic herders of domesticated animals, such as sheep, goats, cattle, camels, or reindeer, because the animals, being an extension of the people, had a direct impact on the land beyond that caused by the people themselves. In addition, the nomadic herders were less at the mercy of Nature than the hunter-gatherers—and thus more sedentary—because they had tamed animals, through which there developed a domestic economy that encompassed secondary products, such as clothing and shelter in the form of skins, as well as implements in the form of antlers, horns, and bones from the animals slaughtered for food.

With the advent of domesticating and herding animals, however, came the necessity of continually finding enough pasture on which to graze one's herd. The more people in a given vicinity who had flocks of sheep or herds of goats, and later herds of cattle or horses or both, the more inevitable it became that competition for grazing lands would find its way into culture. Such competition would be accentuated, of course, if the people viewed their animals as their wealth and thus purposefully increased their flocks or herds to numbers beyond those necessary for mere human survival.

Here, the Botai culture presents an example of a semi-sedentary settlement that was structured around herding horses and thus was no longer compatible with hunting mobile wild herds. Moreover, the hides used to produce leather straps were more abundant than projectile points and other hunting equipment. However, age structures within horse herds at Botai clearly indicate a husbanded rather than hunted population. In addition, the fact that milking horses existed in a region seemingly devoid of domestic ruminants and remote from the locus of ruminant domestication in the "Fertile Crescent" indicates that strategies of exploiting animals for their milk was not necessarily contingent on the adoption of the conventional "agricultural package."7 (The Fertile Crescent is a crescent-shaped valley stretching from just south of modern-day Jerusalem, northward along the Mediterranean coast to present-day Syria, eastward through present-day Iraq, and then southward along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to the Persian Gulf.) The extensive and unparalleled retention of ancestral matrilines in the horse suggests that widespread use occurred primarily through the transfer of techniques for capturing, taming, and rearing wild-caught animals.8

Domestication of the horse is associated with the spread of Indo-European languages and culture. It also brought horsepower to communication, transportation, farming, and warfare.9 "For the first time the Eurasian steppes, formerly a hostile ecological barrier to humans, became a corridor of communication across Eurasia linking China to Europe and the Near East. Riding also forever changed warfare. Boundaries were changed, new trading partners were acquired, new alliances became possible, and resources that had been beyond reach became reachable," observed anthropologist David W. Anthony of Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York.10

There were times, however, when early people caused prehistoric mammals to become extinct, as happened in Australia between 50,000 and 45,000 years ago, 25,000 years before the last ice age began. Archaeological data indicate that people arrive in northern and western Australia about 50,000 years ago. Five thousand years later, approximately 90 percent of the continent's mammals larger than a present-day house cat were extinct, including several species of kangaroos and wombats, as well as marsupials that fulfilled the ecological functions elsewhere performed by lions, hyenas, hippos, and tapirs. However, during the 450,000 years prior to the arrival of humans, the number and diversity of mammalian fossils uncovered in Australian caves decreased only during local droughts and rebounded when the droughts ended.11


The domestication of such animals as oxen, water buffalo, horses, camels, and eventually the Asian elephant, created a human-animal relationship out of which was born the ability to use animals for work. But an ox by itself could not do much, other than carry things on its back, and was, therefore, good primarily for food, hide for clothing and leather goods, horns for holding things and for the making of utensils, sinew for thread, and bones for various implements. Something was missing.

In addition to mammals, the red jungle fowl became the domestic chicken, the Indian blue peafowl (the national bird of India), the North American wild turkey (ancestor to the domestic turkey), ducks, and geese were tamed and drafted into household service.

Let's suppose that someone, seeing the strength of his ox, began toying with the notion of placing a vine or piece of hide around its neck and attaching the opposite end to an object, say a large piece of wood, to see whether the ox would pull it. New technology was suddenly available, and with it a lesson from the hunter-gatherer cultures began to fade—other-centered cooperation for the good of the whole. With time, people discovered that leather rope and then two ropes, one down either side of an ox, made pulling large objects even easier.

If one ox could pull something, someone wondered, could two oxen pulling together drag something even bigger? The answer, of course, is yes, but it's difficult to make two independent oxen pull in unison. Then someone wondered whether two oxen could be made to pull in unison in order to move a heavy object. After much experimentation, a crude ox yoke was invented, which revolutionized the possibilities of putting oxen to work. For a time, the focus was on perfecting the design and craftsmanship of the yoke.

Then someone began to wonder if a still-better way could be found to move heavy objects with an ox or even a team of oxen, and the wheel was born. Again, after much experimentation, the first crude wheel was engineered. Consequently, a mechanism then had to be invented to hook wheels together so they would work in unison. Again, someone had to figure out how to hitch the ox yoke to the wheels so that something could be pulled. If two wheels worked well, would four wheels not work better? It was only a matter of time before the first cart was invented. And somewhere in time the advent of farming gave impetus to the development of the ox-drawn plow (although horses and water buffalo were also used), another technological implement that revolutionized humanity's impact of the face of the Earth.

But oxen are slow compared with a horse. If a yoke could be invented to harness the energy of oxen, could not a similar device be invented to harness the energy of a horse, giving the owner of both oxen and horses a greater array of options for work and thus more potential wealth and power? With this in mind, and after much experimentation, the first, crude horse collar was produced, tested, improved, tested, improved, tested, improved, and so on.

Each of these inventions became the means by which the owner of the technology was relieved of manual labor and ostensibly freed from the potential dangers of life. In other words, technology, by its very conception, was continually designed to make life easier by making unnecessary as much manual labor as possible, while simultaneously making life as safe and predictable as possible. For example, it would be much easier to ensure a continual supply of wood for the fire if, rather than having to carry it in small bundles by hand, one could haul home a large portion of a fallen tree from afar with a team of oxen or horses, an Asian elephant, or sticks loaded on a camel's back and thus increase the effectiveness and efficiency with which one could exploit the environment. Using animals this way in turn allowed people to embrace a more sedentary lifestyle, but with an increasingly greater influence on the environment in both space and time.12

At the same time that domestication of animals, herding, and agriculture became established as a way of life, dualism of the haves versus the have-nots began creeping into the human psyche. It took the advent of agriculture, however, to ensure that the seed of needing more and more land and water for increasing human populations germinated and grew in the human mind, to eventually become one of the deepest and most protracted causes of conflict worldwide. At length, horses, camels, oxen, and elephants were drafted into myriad wars not of their making or choosing, where they suffered and died nonetheless, as humans created new conflicts or struggled to settle old scores.

Here, the challenge is that, once the world is divided into us-versus-them, people perceive the necessity of acting in narrow self-interest and self-defense, which today translates into our-national-interest versus everyone-else's-interest. But, within the sea of millennial conflicts, there are islands of love—the legacy of that first bond of trust between a human and non-human—in the form of pets, such as dogs, cats (descendents of African wildcats), hamsters, guinea pigs or cavy (from the Andes of South America), and rabbits (from Europe). In addition to mammals, African grey parrots, Australian budgies (aka parakeets), common Asian myna birds, and Australian zebra finches are also kept as pets, as well as various species of fish. Some people have painted turtles, box turtles, leopard frogs, or tiger salamanders as pets, whereas others keep such snakes as emerald boas, reticulated pythons, scarlet king snakes, and even Indian cobras. Other reptilian pets include green anoles (a small, arboreal lizard), green iguanas, and alligators. Those interested in insects might have praying mantis or Madagascar hissing cockroaches. The list of pets is a long as your imagination—and so are the islands of love through which life serves life in the most profound relationship on Earth.


  1. The previous two paragraphs are based on:  M. Nils Peterson, Roel R. Lopez, Edward J. Laurent, and others. Wildlife Loss through Domestication:  The Case of Endangered Key Deer. Conservation Biology, 19 (2005):939-944.

  2. (1) Carles Vilà, Jennifer A. Leonard, Anders Götherström, and others. Widespread Origins of Domestic Horse Lineages. Science, 291 (2001):474-477 and (2) M. S. Copley, R. Berstan, S. N. Dudd, and others. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 100 (2003):1524-1529.

  3. (1) Randolph E. Schmid. Horses First Domesticated 5,000 Years Ago. Associated Press, Washington, D.C., March 6, 2009 and (2) Alan K. Outram, Natalie A. Stear, Robin Bendrey, and others. The Earliest Horse Harnessing and Milking. Science, 323 (2009):1332-1335.

  4. Carles Vilà, Jennifer A. Leonard, Anders Götherström, and others. Widespread Origins of Domestic Horse Lineages. Science, 291 (2001):474-477

  5. Alan K. Outram, Natalie A. Stear, Robin Bendrey, and others. The Earliest Horse Harnessing and Milking. Science, 323 (2009):1332-1335.

  6. (1) Stephanie N. Dudd, Richard P. Evershed. Direct Demonstration of Milk as an Element of Archaeological Economies. Science, 282, (1998):1478-1481; (2) Richard P. Evershed, Stephanie N. Dudd, M.S. Copley, and others. Chemistry of Archaeological Animal Fats. Accounts Of Chemical Research, 35 (2002): 660-668; and (3) Richard P. Evershed, Sebastian Payne, Andrew G. Sherratt, and others. Earliest Date For Milk Use in the Near East and Southeastern Europe Linked to Cattle Herding. Nature, 455 (2008):528-531.

  7. Alan K. Outram, Natalie A. Stear, Robin Bendrey, and others. The Earliest Horse Harnessing and Milking. Science, 323 (2009):1332-1335.

  8. (1) Marsha A. Levine. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 18 (1999):29-78; (2) Thomas Jansen, Peter Forster, Marsha A. Levine, and others. Mitochondrial DNA and the origins of the domestic horse. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 99 (2002):10905-10910; (3) Cristina Lu�s, Cristiane Bastos-Silveira, E. Gus Cothran, and Maria do Mar Oom. Iberian Origins of New World Horse Breeds. Journal of Heredity, 97 (2006):107-113; and (4) Allison N. Lau, Lei Peng, Hiroki Goto, and others. Horse Domestication and Conservation Genetics of Przewalski's Horse Inferred from Sex Chromosomal and Autosomal Sequences. Molecular Biology and Evolution, 26 (2009):199-208.

  9. (1) D. W. Anthony. The "Kurgan Culture," Indo-European Origins, and the Domestication of the Horse: a Reconsideration, Current Anthropology, 27 (1986):291-304; (2) Jared M. Diamond. The earliest horsemen. Nature, 350 (1991):275-276; and (3) Alan K. Outram, Natalie A. Stear, Robin Bendrey, and others. The Earliest Horse Harnessing and Milking. Science, 323 (2009):1332-1335.

  10. Randolph E. Schmid. Horses First Domesticated 5,000 Years Ago. Associated Press, Washington, D.C., March 6, 2009.

  11. (1) Gavin J. Prideaux, Richard G. Roberts, Dirk Megirian, and others. Mammalian Responses to Pleistocene Climate Change in Southeastern Australia. Geology, 35 (2007):33-36 and (2) Sid Perkins. Going Under Down Under. Science News, 171 (2007):38.

  12. The foregoing discussion of domesticating animals is based on:  Chris Maser. The Perpetual Consequences of Fear and Violence: Rethinking the Future. Maisonneuve Press, Washington, DC. 2004. 373 pp.

©chris maser 2009. All rights reserved.

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